To help #BreakTheBias this year during Women’s History Month, we’re raising awareness of some incredible causes like The Global Fund for Women and The Girls Network. We are also inviting inspiring women to talk about topics that need more attention.
This interview features Solenne Thomas, Solutions Engineer at RingCentral.
Can you describe what it was like to work your way up to your position and what has been driving you in your career?
I didn’t know much about solutions or sales engineering when I left university. I started in a customer support role at a company called WCN. After that, I went to IBM and finally moved onto Box. During my time at Box, I encountered solution and sales engineering. The team was so lovely to work with and always full of good advice. While talking to them about their jobs in engineering, I quickly understood that this was actually what I wanted to do. But it turned out there weren’t really any junior solution engineer roles at that time, and there weren’t really any women in these sorts of roles.
So I went to the solutions engineering director, and I said that I want to be part of their team. He explained everything about a solution engineer role and asked me to think about it and come back to him. I thought about it for a while but was nervous about the transition during that time. A couple of years afterwards, I had that same discussion with my manager again, and I told them I wanted to move into engineering. He was hugely encouraging and told me to go for it.
It was a long journey where I had to be very tenacious and not give up. But I also really valued someone mentoring me through it all. The advice I would pass on here is to be proactive and ask people for their feedback and points of view no matter what stage of your career.
I went to the director of that team, and he set me up with a mentor that I shadowed. I worked closely with my mentor. He let me listen to his meetings and ask questions. After a few months, there was an opening for a role. But unfortunately, it wasn’t an opening for the sales engineering role they had been pushing me for. I made it to the last round of interviews, but unfortunately, I didn’t make it through to the last round of interviews, mainly because the other candidate had more experience.
A year or so later, I applied for a new role in the sales engineering team. I went to the person I felt could give me some advice on what I needed to do to succeed in this role. He was one of the people I found hardest to deal with, so I thought it would be a good challenge for me to approach him. I asked for his advice. He told me that there are no reasons that I would not deserve my place at the table as a solutions engineer. I only needed to project confidence and believe I deserved that place.
The second piece of advice he gave me was to practise presenting to a couple of people. So, when I got my brief, I put my presentation and demo together and asked people for advice. That helped me as I had guidance and feedback from a few different people.
I went for the initial interview, and the hiring manager asked me to present again as they wanted to test my ability to respond on the spot. Once I presented the second time, they almost immediately offered me the role.
To this day, I am so grateful to both the director that set me on this path and provided me with a mentor, and the mentor that shared so much of their time and advice with me.
What advice would you pass on to other women to help them push past stereotypes and reach their full potential?
Often, I have conversations with women who tell me they’d love to be a solution or sales engineer. My first reaction is always, “that’s great, why not just do it?!” But the answers I always get from that are full of self-doubt.
They either think they don’t have enough experience or are not technical enough. I always challenge them by saying that I didn’t have that type of experience either on paper. As women, we have to try to remove self-doubt from the conversations we have. Reach out to the person doing the role you want to do. No matter their reaction, the only thing you can do is keep trying and trying and trying and trying.
How can men become better allies?
If you are a man, and you have someone reaching out to you about advice on a role they want to do, I guess the first question you may want to ask is, “What do you like about it? And the second is, “Why not apply?” There are a few things you can do to support women (and any gender) in this situation. Propose for them to shadow your meetings and offer to mentor them.
I’d also say never to doubt people’s abilities based on their appearances or backgrounds. I think it’s very easy for all of us to have some unconscious bias. Never assume someone’s ability or how far they can go. Make yourself available and give as much advice as you possibly can.
Try to understand their world. If you’re dealing with somebody, and that person keeps doubting themselves, maybe for you, it’s kind of frustrating because you’re seeing the potential in a person. But it may be good to understand why that self-doubt exists and then try to help them overcome it.
Are there any specific topics related to gender parity that you feel should be given more visibility in the overall conversation?
We must think of ways to bring more women into STEM and IT roles. We could try and do some more volunteering with children to help them understand that there aren’t barriers to these sectors. I think this will help the next generation of women into these roles. The other thing is mentorship. It needs to be more active and ongoing across the organisation, and it needs to be done in a way that supports working mothers especially. Some mentoring initiatives go into the evening, and that’s not practical for parents.
Originally published Mar 11, 2022