Interviews with leading tech women about their careers and lessons learned

EP 02

Karen Catlin



Karen Catlin is no stranger to criticism – her own criticism. This former Adobe VP of Engineering turned advocate for tech women spent 25 years building software products, before she decided to take a career pivot to teach others how to become leaders in this competitive industry. In Episode 2 of The DevelopHer Show, Lauren talks to Karen about the reality that is imposter syndrome, and the tools that tech women can use to share their accomplishments without suffering the likability penalty.

Embrace Public Speaking

It will unlock opportunities and open doors for future career opportunities, while making others aware of your experience. Public speaking is like a multi-vitamin for your career; it can be used as a tool to share your expertise, and to talk about the work you’re doing in a genuine, educational way.

Turn Off Your Imposter Syndrome Soundtrack

Turn off your imposter syndrome soundtrack by acknowledging that imposter syndrome exists and setting goals to help you overcome it, and your inner critic. These two handicaps are experienced by women in tech at all levels, even those in senior positions, but there are steps you can take to put them behind you.

Figure Out the Business Impact While Working on a Project

Figure out the business impact while working on a project, and you will do a better job. Instead of doing the work and connecting the dots later, determine what components will lead to success in the beginning. What is the ‘why’? What is the real pain? The answers to these questions will enable you to accomplish real goals, rather than simply getting the job done. When you have to talk about what you did, you’ll have concrete facts to share rather than a simple description of the task.

Don’t Shy Away from Highlighting Yourself

Don’t shy away from highlighting yourself, for how else will others know what you are capable of? You will not be noticed if you simply keep your head down and do good work. Good work is not enough. Use the business impact to your advantage, by presenting the facts and metrics that go hand-in-hand with your work. You’ll be sharing your accomplishments without seeming as though you are bragging too much.

Episode 2 – The DevelopHer Show


[Background music]

Hi, I’m Lauren Hasson, and this is The DevelopHer Show, a career development podcast for tech women by tech women.

My guest today is Karen Catlin, a top advocate for tech women, and former VP of Engineering in the office of the CTO at Adobe. In this episode. Karen and I are going to talk about her own career journey and how she learned to embrace public speaking as a powerful tool to help unlock opportunities and open doors in her career. We’ll also get into how to talk about your work and accomplishments without feeling like you’re bragging, and how to overcome your inner critic when it comes to talking about what you do.

Start of the Interview

Lauren: Welcome to The DevelopHer Show. Today I’m very excited to have my friend Karen Catlin here with us, who in her first career spent 25 years building software products. She first started off as a software engineer and over time served as vice president at not one, but two public software companies. Now, she is an advocate for women in the tech industry and coaches both women to be stronger leaders, and men to be better allies for women. I personally got to know Karen through her work, that she’s very passionate about, in bringing more diversity to speaker lineups at tech industry events. She was teaching a public speaking course that I took called Confident Communicator, and she’s also co-author of Present: A Techie’s Guide To Public Speaking. Karen, welcome.

Karen: So great to be here, Lauren. Thanks for having me on the podcast.

Lauren: It is so fantastic to have you here. When I reached out to you I was just crossing my fingers hoping you’d agree, and I know that our listeners are looking forward to the open and candid conversation that we’re having about top women like you, your careers, your lessons learned and how you got to where you are today. So, with that, I know I gave the intro for you but help us read between the lines in your career, or give us your own take on how you got to where you are today.

Karen: Yes. As you mentioned, I spent 25 years in my first career building software products. I love making software, it’s a great field, and it certainly scratched a number of itches for me and I really enjoyed that. But towards the end of that 25-year career, I started realizing that, ‘hey, wait a second, there used to be a lot more women in tech. Where did they all go?’ There’s been a decline in the number of female computer scientists since I got my degree back in the mid-80s, there’s been a decline in the number of women getting their computer science degrees, and there’s been a decline overall in the number of women in the field of technology.

So, I started while I was still at Adobe Systems. I started our women’s group, I started mentoring a lot of women, I sponsored different things like a speaker series for women and a book club for women; I was doing a lot of different things to help women feel that they could grow their career at Adobe and be successful there, in addition to my work as a vice president. I absolutely loved doing that to the point that about five years ago, I decided to do a pivot in my career and start the second one.

The second career is as an advocate for women who are working in the tech industry. That means I do a lot of coaching on general leadership skills, which isn’t just for executives, but for anyone to be successful. I do a lot of public speaking to share my story and inspire women to grow their careers in tech. I also coach a few men on how to be better allies for women and other under-represented people. So, I saw this decline and wanted to get it back to how it used to be, which is the reason why I got started doing this.

Lauren: I was looking at the numbers and saw that it used to be that women were the majority of majors in computer science back in the 70s and 80s. And then I believe that percentage, don’t quote me on this, is now in the low teens.

Karen: Yes. My research is a little bit different but it definitely shows that same decline, Lauren. I found that in 1985 there was a peak across the United States; 37 percent of the computer science degrees awarded went to women. It’s changed since then. It’s dropped, as you said, to the teens. It’s in Computer Science and Information Science. Those types of disciplines. It dropped to a low of about 17 percent but it’s starting to creep back up. It’s really great to see, but it’s not at 37 percent yet, and it certainly isn’t at maybe 50, which would be absolutely awesome for this field – if we could get our graduates to be 50 percent women, 50 percent men.

Lauren: Absolutely, that is certainly a great goal to strive for, and I think you and I are both working towards that same goal of getting more women into tech and then keeping them in tech.

Karen: Exactly.

Lauren: We got to know each other through you and your mission to get more tech women into public speaking. But, let’s flip the tables. In your career, you started as a software engineer and grew into leadership roles at Adobe. Did public speaking always come naturally for you? How did you get into public speaking?

Karen: No, I am not a natural at public speaking. I wasn’t born a public speaker or anything like that and I definitely feel I had to learn how to do it. When I was in my first career, building software products, I certainly had to do some public speaking. I had to present my work at team meetings, and as I moved to the executive level I had to do public speaking in terms of running my all-hands, and speaking at some industry events and things like that. So, I did some public speaking along the way. But, oh my gosh, I don’t think I was very good at it. I did not enjoy it and I definitely got that stage fright that most people get. I pretty much looked for excuses why I couldn’t accept speaking opportunities or why I wasn’t the right person to give certain presentations and that someone else should give it. If I could get out of it, I would. And that all changed in one day.

There was an exact day that I decided I had to embrace public speaking. On that day, I was getting advice from a mentor about how to go about building a business of being an advocate for women in tech, and what that should look like. At one point she said to me, “Hey Karen, do you do much public speaking?” I got super nervous when she asked that question, and inside my head the soundtrack started; the soundtrack of ‘No, Karen, you don’t do public speaking. No, Karen, you’re not good at public speaking. No. You’re not going to do more. No, no, no, no.’ It was like an imposter syndrome soundtrack saying that I was not a public speaker.

I kept all those thoughts inside my head and started thinking about why she asked me that question. I realized that the reason was because public speaking could be the key to unlocking this new business. It could be the way that I could share my perspective about being a woman in tech myself, as well as attracting clients from my coaching business when it comes right down to it. I realized that I probably needed to start doing more public speaking. So instead of answering her question with the ‘no, no, no, no,’ soundtrack that was going on in my head, I simply said ‘you know, I need to do more of it.”

That was probably a little over four years ago now. I set a goal for myself at that time to speak in public once a month. I just knew I had to set a goal. I needed to have more exposure to it and to almost have it be like shock therapy, to just get through it. I set this goal and started telling everyone I knew that I wanted to speak in public once a month, what topics I wanted to speak about, and to let me know if they heard of anything.

That led to a lot of opportunities; I started speaking at meet-ups and on panels and so forth and, I’m pretty proud to say that since that time where I set that goal to speak in public once a month, I’ve pretty much hit it. In fact, I think my busiest was six or seven times. I’ve even given a TedEx talk. So, all of that has happened and as a result, I now love public speaking, which I can’t believe I’m saying. I’m kind of a geek on public speaking now. I love talking about it and it’s been amazing for what I’m trying to do now. I love helping other people learn the craft. And as you know, I co-authored a book on it, Present: A Techie’s Guide to Public Speaking.

Lauren: There are so many awesome nuggets in there. Number one, here you are, V.P. level and your inner critic and imposter syndrome comes to the surface and says no. It’s almost like it doesn’t care what level you are in your career, it’s still there.

But you also did something that was really critical; you overcame that inner critic and imposter syndrome by acknowledging that it exists, and then moved on. You set a small goal and you just consistently hit those goals and then told people about it. You pulled yourself through the public speaking which set you up for success in your career, but you also overcame that imposter syndrome and that inner critic all at the same time. I think that that’s so powerful for our listeners to hear – that it’s not that you’re one or two years in or that you are mid-level in your career. This happens at every level of the career, right?

Karen: Yes, yes.

Lauren: When you and I were talking through the course, you said that you recommend public speaking to women who are growing and advancing their careers as a multi-vitamin for their career. You talk about how you work with women to develop their leadership skills through public speaking.

Karen: Yes, it’s one important aspect. It’s a tool in the toolbox when it comes right down to it, or a multi-vitamin. It’s something that helps unlock opportunities, it opens doors. When we speak in public, we’re able to share our expertise and we’re able to talk about the work that we’re doing, whatever it is, or our background or a cause we care about. We’re able to talk about it in a way that is very genuine and educational almost. We’re teaching other people about what we’ve already learned. And because of that approach, other people take notice and they might see us as having expertise or experience that they might not have known we had otherwise.

It’s basically elevating and becoming more visible, and highlighting your experience and background so that other people know what doors they can open for you that they might not otherwise know. They might not know the real you or what you’re capable of and what you’ve been working on. That’s the bottom line there. It opens up doors that you might not even know exist, but they will open because you have spoken in public and you’ve increased your visibility.

Lauren: I cannot agree more because I’ve seen that in my own career, where I went out and I agreed to a speaking engagement. First it was just showing up on a panel. The next thing you know it’s judging, next thing is a lightning talk, next thing you know it’s a keynote. I would show up every time and right before I would think, ‘what was I thinking? Were you nuts?’ But I agreed to it, prepared for it and then I didn’t think about it. It builds over time and the traction and the visibility I got because of it has been the single biggest influencer in my career. You are absolutely right.

Karen: I am so glad to hear that you’ve had that experience too.

Lauren: The other part of it is that it’s not just overcoming your inner critic, but it also gets you noticed. One of the other things that you and I have talked about is owning your accomplishments and that’s the other side of speaking that’s not always public, but how to talk about yourself in those one-on-one meetings. It’s in those group meetings. Can you share a little more about how you work with women on getting noticed, and how it’s not enough to just do good work?

Karen: Yes. I want to build on what you just said. It’s not just about keeping your head down and doing good work. You have to make sure people know what you were working on and what you were doing, even if that’s not through public speaking. I do work with my clients on making sure that they can talk about their work in terms of the impact it has on the business. And it’s not always clear. If you think about writing your resume, which I know you have a lot of experience in Lauren, but writing your resume or even your self-appraisal that you have to submit to your manager… we are often very comfortable saying ‘here’s the project I worked on. Here’s my contribution to that project.’ We can talk about the work we’ve done very easily. Less easily is talking about the impact on the business, which is really important.

Let me give you an example of this. Let’s imagine that you had an intern who was working for you on this podcast, and you asked them to go find 10 people who can be guests on the show this summer while they’re interning for you. The intern might ask a few questions, but then they’ll go out and find a bunch of people for you to have on your podcast. Now, what you really want that intern to do is ask, ‘what does success look like? Is it really that you want to have exactly 10 guests?’ or, ‘why do you really want to have 10 guests? What’s the impact of having 10 guests on your show?’ You might respond with, ‘I think 10 guests every month is the right number for me to double my followers, my viewers on my podcast,’ or some other goal that you might have.

But, you probably have a business goal in mind and the intern doesn’t even know what that is. If they ask, then you can connect the dots and they might be able to find better guests for you, who are going to help you achieve that business goal. That’s what I mean about the business impact; asking those questions of, ‘what does success look like? What’s going to be different about the business when I do this project, when I deliver this work?’ If you ask that question, you might be able to do your job better. But you can also then talk about your work after the fact, not only in terms of getting 10 guests for this podcast, but how you helped double the number of viewers on that podcast every month during the summer, via having the right guest come on board.

So, you can talk about your work in a different way, which will help you land that next job and so forth. I’m a big believer in trying to identify the business impact while you’re working on a project and not having to go back and unravel it, trying to remember exactly what impact something will have on the business. Does that answer your questions?

Lauren: Yes! You strike on two hot, hot topics for me, which are 1) how do you really add value to an organization, and 2) how do you talk about yourself? Those are two really difficult things for women, especially talking about themselves. When I talk about how to negotiate, how to add value, and how to deliver on that, I always say to ask diagnostic questions to get at the ‘why’ or, the real pain. You get hired because there’s a pain in the business. You don’t get hired to do tasks – the tasks are there because there’s a business need, and if you can ask the questions to understand why you’re doing something, then you’re going to get at the real motivation. This then translates into when you have to talk about what you did. You don’t say, ‘I lined up 10 guests,’ you say, ‘I lined up the industry experts who share the stories that needed to be told that built an audience.’ That’s the difference. One is just something that may get you noticed, and one will get you hired for your next gig.

Karen: I love it. Yes. I also think that it is easier to be very factual and brag using the facts, rather than brag using some other adjectives. For women, we are not expected to be too braggy. And in fact, we suffer a likability penalty if we brag too much or talk about how awesome we are too much. But at the same time, we have to talk about how awesome we are so that we get ahead and get noticed, right? It’s this double-bind of being damned if we do brag, and damned if we don’t, if we are too modest and we don’t talk about our work. I believe that when you start talking more about the business impact, the facts, the metrics, you’re not bragging as much.

Let’s say that you are in sales and you might on one hand say, ‘I was responsible for landing these amazing clients that helped grow the business.’ But if you could say, ‘Because of my sales efforts, I doubled the revenue for this product line in a year,’ it’s very factual. You’re not saying, ‘I’m the best ever,’ just, ‘this is the impact of the work I have,’ and I think it’s a very appropriate, genuine and powerful way for women to talk about their work.

Lauren: And it makes for fantastic copy on LinkedIn and on your resume because the resume writer in me is going, ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’ Qualify and quantify and answer the questions. And that makes it so powerful. Now, how about for people who don’t quite have those facts there, how do they bring other voices into the conversation to share about their work?

Karen: This is something I will coach women on when they are prepping for interviews – exactly what you just said, ‘bring other people’s voices into the conversation.’ If an interviewer asks you to explain why you’re a good software engineer, you could say, ‘I’m a good software engineer because I know these different technologies, and this is what I’ve done, blah blah blah.’ Or, you could say, ‘Let me tell you what my manager said about me in my last review…’ That’s bringing someone else’s voice into the conversation. Have that person almost brag on your behalf even though they’re not even in the room. You just quote them and refer to them. And it’s a very genuine way to do that.

Lauren: It never gets easy, but it does get easier with time. That’s what my own experience says. I read my latest resume and said to myself, ‘I almost don’t recognize that person because I feel like there’s a disconnect between the person I feel and the person on paper.’ In the end I say, ‘yeah, that is factual. I did do all those things,” but there’s this emotional disconnect. And I know you had a similar story in writing your own bio. It was just so powerful that I have to close with you sharing that, because Karen, you were in the office of the CTO at Adobe, which is a huge accomplishment, and yet when you sat down to write your bio… what happened?

Karen: Yes, I didn’t want to own that for whatever reason. I struggle. I could definitely say I was a Vice President in the CTO’s office at Adobe, I did that. And I definitely talked about how I used to be a former tech executive and now I’m doing this. It was just very factual and a little bit boring even. So, I now say that ‘after spending 25 years building software products, I am now an advocate for women in tech.’ That whole phrase of ‘after spending 25 years building software products’ is something that took me years to get to.

I finally got to it after listening to a podcast of a venture capital firm interviewing mostly young men, very brash young men in their portfolio companies. After hearing just one or two of these men talk about themselves and weave in lines like, ‘well, after spending five years here in Silicon Valley, let me tell you what I’ve learned,’ I found myself thinking, ‘oh, you have hardly even been around the block and look at you Mr. Expert!’ So, I told myself I could certainly own this too, and say, ‘after spending 25 years building software products, this is what I’m doing now.’

And I must admit the imposter syndrome again. When I first came up with that and was thinking about whether I could do it, I started wondering if it made me sound too old. I looked at it from all these different angles. And I remember asking Poornima, our good friend and my co-author, what she thought of it and whether it made me sound old, and she said “No! I love it.” And so, she gave me the reinforcement I needed, and now that’s what it is, that’s my byline.

Lauren: When I read it, I don’t even question it one bit because I know you, and I know how qualified and accomplished you are. It doesn’t even cross my mind that you would have ever put any thought into that. And I think it’s so powerful for other women to hear, that even at this level, even when you’re embarking on your second career, you’re still facing these things.

So, Karen, this was fantastic. We touched on so many great things: imposter syndrome, public speaking, how to talk about yourself, and a little bit of resume writing, which strikes close to home for me. And I know you’ve got your book out there. People can go to my website, subscribe, and get the DevelopHer Rolodex, and it’s on my Rolodex. It is one of my top-recommended reading books. In fact, you shouldn’t read it. You should study it. What else are you up to, Karen?

Karen: I am doing a lot of coaching, which I love. I love helping women who are working in tech. And I have some speaking coming up too. I will be at the Grace Hopper Celebration in Orlando, Florida in early October 2017, and Poornima and I will be co-teaching two workshops on negotiation skills, and can’t wait to get there. So, if any of your listeners are going to be at Grace Hopper, please have them stop by our workshops to say hello and tell us that they heard me speak on your podcast, and I would just love to meet them if that works out.

Lauren: Fantastic. Karen and Poornima, who will be on a later episode of ours, are a must-see at Grace Hopper. They are there almost every year teaching on a hot topic, so please go check it out and go get the book Present: The Techie’s Guide To Public Speaking. Karen, thank you so much for joining me today.

Karen: Lauren, it was my pleasure. Thank you for having me.


Thank you, everyone, for joining us today. Make sure to subscribe to our mailing list to receive updates on new episodes and other fun goodies, and until the next episode make today better than good.

“Don’t shy away from highlighting yourself – how else will others know what you’re capable of? Good work is not enough!”
Karen Catlin

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