Article by Natalie Wieser
“Why Is She Doing That?”
That was the question my husband got from his best friends when he told them that I enrolled in a Digital Product Management master’s program. And sometimes, in the middle of the night, when I am doing some assignment or am trying to squeeze in more tasks in my busy life as a mother of two (work and my master studies) instead of sleeping, I ask myself exactly the same question.
But that was what I expected when I started to do a masters at 40 years old and with more than 15 years of work experience. Did I have to do a master’s program? Probably not. I have gained a lot of experience as a business manager / business consultant in different roles and I also have a very high level of income.
Before I tell you the reason why I decided to start this master course, I want to say that I strongly believe that we set ourselves many boundaries that prevent us from doing things we deeply feel are right for us. I grew up in-between two very diverse cultures: my mother is from Japan and my father from Austria. I spent some years in Japan as a child and after that I grew up in Germany. For me it was normal that some rules or boundaries that exist in one culture could be completely different in another culture.
As an adult, I strongly believe in having more possibilities and ways how to live our lives than we sometimes allow ourselves to see. And another belief that strongly accompanies me is that talent will always shine at some point or other. Even if it is currently not the case, the right time will come.
Do not let anyone stop you from following your dreams. Without walking in your shoes, nobody will understand what you really need or want and nobody will have to live with the consequences of doing or not doing something, just you. Be true to yourself and also ask yourself the important, albeit sometimes uncomfortable questions, that help you find what’s right for you.
There’s a Reason Why
It all started after the birth of my first son. I was working for a consulting company at that time, travelling internationally and working long hours was my normal life. I expected that six months after my son’s birth I would be able to at least partially go back to my old life. But my child was very clingy and couldn’t stay away from his mom very long. Well, to be honest I couldn’t stay away from him either.
So, I decided to quit my job as a consultant and instead listened to my mother who gave me the advice to do “something simple”. I found a job as a business controller at a company that was just a fifteen minute-drive away. I thought that this job was just perfect for a mother: I could work part-time and there was no need for travelling or overtime. But already after the first month, I realized that I was definitely not suited to be a controller. Just creating some analysis or reports without having the influence to really change something? That was not satisfying for me at all.
But when I wanted to quit that job, I realized I was pregnant again and decided to stay until the baby was born. This was probably the most difficult time for me at work. The tasks were not difficult or challenging at all, that was not the problem. Let me be brutally honest about what made it such a difficult time: I was feeling trapped in a life as a mother who didn’t want to neglect her kids and therefore had to give up her career.
Talking about experiences, worries and challenges with other women who have gone through the same thing can be very beneficial. Seek out networks or even a mentor who can provide guidance to help you find the right path for yourself and to help you see your options.
After my daughter was born, I started to deeply reflect on myself and my future. I started to meditate in the morning and to write a journal. And I read a book called “Finding your element” by Ken Robinson. Great book, but actually finding my element was very difficult for me. My son somehow loved to play with this book and any time I wanted to continue reading, I couldn’t find where I had left off and had to start this book countless times from the beginning. My husband used to joke that some people never find their element as they never manage to finish the book. And I have to admit, I still don’t feel like I have really found my element.
Looking through my journal that I was writing at the time, I can understand the journey that I was going through a little bit better. I reflected a lot about my values and my strengths, positive experiences from my past, as well as negative ones and I started to imagine what my future life could look like.
Each Journey Starts with… a Realization
My most successful times, I realized, were when working on transformation projects. I was once in an assessment center where they told me that my biggest strength lies in change management. Indeed, I am very good at finding creative solutions and in convincing people of new ways of doing things and accepting new realities. I always try to search for smarter ways to do things.
Throughout my entire career, I was always involved in digital transformation projects. Creation and introduction of new tools, implementation of new systems, adaptation of existing systems… these were actually the projects that I loved most and where I always got excellent feedback. And I have to say that the digital world fascinated me. I am fascinated by new business models that are disrupting existing businesses and by new possibilities that technological innovation creates.
Another thing that I am very interested in are new ways of working, i.e. in self-organized teams. For most of my work experience, I was in very traditional organization that were very hierarchical and male-dominated. As a woman in this environment, I always experienced some form or other of discrimination. The most painful moment I had was probably at my previous company. I was enrolled in a career development program at that time and was a female aspirant for a leading role in the same organization.
I was working very hard and climbing up the career ladder. But during a Christmas dinner, I was asked by a top-manager if I wanted to move to China. I told him that I got newly married and I needed to align such decisions with my husband. He then told me, that once children were born, careers normally end for women as travelling or working long hours will not be possible any longer.
Needless to say, I somehow never got the motivation back to be engaged in that company after this incident.
But all these experiences helped shape my vision for my future:
In such an environment, there would be new ways of working that enable flexible, remote and part-time working and where you would still be allowed to take over responsibilities. I feel that in the future we will see many changes for sure, but for now, we have to be patient for change to happen.
Digitization will take a key role in this, of that I’m very sure. Currently I have some ideas what it might look like, but I am still searching for like-minded people and organizations to explore how this could be realized.
Looking at how the pandemic has changed expectations of employees about remote and flexible working options, companies need to adapt their working models. Flexible working hours and part-time jobs are also crucial requirements if a company wants to enable parents to work and take care of their children. And accommodating parent’s needs is a great way to increase diversity in a company and attract talent. Check out our post about WST’s collaboration with the program “Bring Women Back to Work”.
Back to School
Bringing my vision and my interests in the digital world together, I realized that there were still so many things that I didn’t know.
While I used to collaborate with software developers, I never really understood what they were doing or which impact all my good ideas would have on an IT system. I only realized that developers sometimes had a hard time implementing what I thought were “minor changes”. I had some basic understanding of IT, but I wanted to learn more, to have a broader understanding of the technology behind it and to be able to work better with developers, as I had the feeling that I was somehow missing the big picture.
So, I made a list of topics that I always wanted to learn, but never had the time to deep-dive into, topics like cloud computing, software architecture, differences between software languages and frameworks, agile methodologies, Blockchain or even how to build products offering a great user experience, and I started to research options of where I could learn that. There were many possibilities world-wide: many universities and schools are by now offering online courses as a consequence of the pandemic.
For me it was important to be able to do the learning at times when my children are cared for, which is always during the day. But many master courses are in the evening or on weekends, the main time that I spend with my children.
Thinking outside (country) boundaries, I finally found a master course called Digital Product Management offered by the Barcelona Technology School together with the Barcelona Technical University. This master covered almost all points on my interest list and it is being held during the day. This full-time master is offered as a hybrid, meaning some students are onsite in the classroom and some students are attending online. Of course, I decided to go for the online version as that gives me more flexibility and saves time.
I talked to my boss, who supported my decision and let me reduce my workload to just 25%. But even 25% is a lot if you are doing a full-time master while caring for two little kids, all at the same time. My days are fully packed with things to do and I currently sleep very. But still, being able to follow my vision and doing this master is energizing me so much that it is really worth doing it and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to learn.
Following My Own Path
Compared to my Business Administration studies that I did in my early 20s, I experience everything completely differently. The main difference is probably that everything I learn now, I am constantly trying to analyze how I can use this information to pursue my vision. And of course, with all the experience that I have by now, I can understand the big picture much better than I did almost 20 years ago.
I am also much more focused on what is really important. That has shifted quite a bit, as I remember that for example, when I was studying in my young age, grades were very important for me. I even sometimes re-did exams (even if I passed them!) just because I was not satisfied with the current grade. That is just one thing I would not do today as grades are not as important for me anymore. What really counts is how I can apply all the information that I can get during this master.
If It Makes You Happy...
Well, by now you must know that I would be the first to advocate change – not just regarding working models and prejudices we are still stuck in today – but rather change that is awaiting within you. If so far you have not dug deep enough or not dared to put those dreams into action, I hope I can inspire you to do so. Always ask yourself if at the end of your life you would regret doing or not doing something. Yes, change is scary, but it is also good, especially if you end up living your life just as you dared imagining it.
So dig deep, find solutions to start on your journey and follow through. Take it from me: it’s worth it!
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in any direction you choose.
You're on your own, and you know what you know.
And you are the person, who'll decide where to go.