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On The Road To CTA: Trailblazer Emily Mccowan

Her mum is a software engineer and she was on a computer from infancy. Now she’s on the journey to becoming a Certified Technical Architect (CTA). Here’s how Emily McCowan, Salesforce Architect at Deloitte Digital, Salesforce MVP, Ladies be Architects ambassador, Brisbane Women in Tech Founder and Down Under Dreaming (BNE) Co-Founder, navigated through the challenge of being a woman in tech.

Like mother, like daughter

I like to think tech is in my DNA. My mum is a software engineer. She completed a Masters in Computer Science while she was raising me and my siblings. Growing up in a family where mum was the person you went to for tech problems meant I assumed from a young age that tech was a very natural thing for women to do – it was totally normal. Mum was always programming cool games and tasks for us to play and learn, and I was on a computer from a very young age. It wasn’t until I entered the tech workforce that I discovered women were a minority.Emily Mccowan Childhood

My first office job was at mum’s work as a help desk analyst, assisting students and staff at a polytech with basic tech support. I was surrounded by guys who were a lot older than me and sometimes didn’t give me, an 18-year-old woman, much respect. It could be quite demoralising. 

I went for as much training as I could to improve my skills and mum was a fantastic role model and resource for me too. She knew what it was like to have to prove herself and earn  the respect of her colleagues.

If I could tell my younger self one thing

“Don’t be scared. Believe in yourself. You think you’re going to screw up and make mistakes – but mistakes are just lessons on the way to getting even better.” 

I was considering doing computer science at university until someone told me I probably shouldn’t choose tech, that I wouldn’t enjoy it. And even though I knew I wanted to study tech, I listened to this person and chose business management instead. 

As much as it’s hard to regret the decisions that have led you on an interesting journey and into a field you’re happy with, I do sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d ignored that advice and stuck with what I wanted from the beginning.

These days I can walk into a room of tech guys and feel totally confident in my abilities and my right to be there. Because deep down, I never really thought I didn’t have a place in tech. It was other people who thought that. And they were wrong.

A new world of opportunities

Fresh out of university I applied for a role at Flight Centre in New Zealand. The job title was something like ‘database analyst’ and they didn’t refer to Salesforce at all in the interview. I got the job, showed up for my first day and was given a Salesforce system admin login. 

Then a salesperson came up and said “Hi, good to meet you. Can you please build me a report in Salesforce?” I had no clue what they were talking about! Suddenly I was a Salesforce admin and it opened up a world of opportunities for me. 

Sure there were mistakes along the way, plus a new bunch of jargon I had to learn. But you figure it out. You speak up when you don’t understand and ask for help when you need it. If someone points out an error, correct it, learn the lesson and move on. All those mini (and sometimes not so mini) mistakes really are part of learning. It’s useful to keep them in perspective.

That was a good mindset to have when I was put in charge of a project a few years later. I was the project manager, the architect, the developer and the trainer. It was a major challenge but incredibly satisfying to be across an entire project and know that the buck stopped with me. It was really cool to go from “What’s Salesforce?!” to running an entire project on a Salesforce platform.

The architect mindset

I’d heard about the job of solutions architect in Salesforce about six years ago and was really intrigued. Problem solving, designing, innovating? That sounded awesome. But it also sounded like something I thought I’d never be good enough to do. So I just kept on doing what I was doing for a while.

Then I worked with an architect called Andy Burgess who really inspired me. 

“You’re already there,” he told me. “You’ve got the architect mindset, you could already do this.” 

Around that time, Salesforce was changing its process for architect certifications and putting together a really interesting pathway for getting there. At the same time, I’d been reading Gemma Blezard, Founder of Ladies be Architects, blogging about her journey. All that culminated in me deciding not to be afraid, to really go for it.

Emily Mccowan Presenting

Having the certifications has definitely given me a professional boost. It can still be a bit daunting to walk into a room and show people you know what you’re doing. There are so many people around the world doing Salesforce stuff so having the certifications gives me the credentials to back myself and that gives clients more confidence too.

The hands-on experience that comes with doing real project implementations as an architect is so valuable. There’s a difference between knowing something theoretically, and actually sitting down and doing it. All that knowledge gets fully baked-in when you really apply it.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned in my journey to becoming a certified architect is that there is no such thing as a perfect solution. You’re really just looking for the least bad solution. Real world requirements are complicated and messy. There are risk constraints and budgets to work within, and system limitations. It’s a matter of finding the best possible fit. 

Meeting the challenge

This might sound weird, given how long I’ve been a ‘woman in tech’, but I used to find it really difficult to articulate the challenges associated with being a woman in this industry. By listening to women who were more experienced and confident, I was able to learn the language I needed to address those issues and I started to back myself more. 

Now I co-lead the Women in Tech group in Brisbane and that’s got me involved in the community right across Australia and NZ. I was invited to speak at Dreamforce and ended up being an MVP last year. And I’m an ambassador for Ladies Be Architects, an organisation really close to my heart. All that came from being inspired by women who have gone before me.

It’s no secret that women are a minority in this industry. I’m pakeha, but I know that women of colour are an even greater minority. When you are the only person who looks like you in a room, and the only person who sounds like you in the room, it can be daunting. Experience shows me that people often overlook what women have to say, until they’ve been able to prove themselves.

But now I feel equipped to have the challenging conversations and hopefully change a few minds along the way.

Fave five

  1. Trail: Can I pick a Trailmix? Architect Journey: Identity and Access Management is kicking my butt and I love it!
  2. Event: Sydney World Tour – everyone is there.
  3. Advice: Steven Herod told me that when it comes to architecture, “you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. Who knew Harvey Dent had such great advice about architecture – even the most perfect solution will need to be changed eventually, and it’s better to be aware of that at the beginning.
  4. Job: I already have it! Unless there’s a job where I can just lie in bed with my cats all day and have people bring me food.
  5. Trailblazing hero: my mum.

Catch more #AwesomeAdmins and Trailblazers live from Dreamforce on Salesforce LIVE and follow along on social as we bring you all the ANZ highlights live from San Francisco. 

Salesforce Architects are big-picture thinkers and in-depth problem solvers. If problem solving, designing and innovating sound awesome to you, too, join Emily on the journey to CTA. Find out more on Trailhead.

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Emily McCowan

Emily McCowan is Salesforce Architect at Deloitte Digital. Follow her on Twitter at @heyemilyhay

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