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A story of one lady's journey in tech

• 08.03.20 •

Tiina Lappalainen • Global Head of Data & IT

Happy international womens day!

My name is Tiina, I am the global head of data & IT for futurice. There are still relatively few women as technology leaders, so I wanted to share my career journey and some learnings I picked up along the way...

For as long as I can remember, I wanted nothing but to be a fighter pilot.

The dream ended with the doctors telling me my eyesight isn’t up to flying professionally, be it fighters or commercial jets. After the verdict, I was lost and directionless, so I chose to go to high school for its generality, which I barely completed with awful grades due to zero motivation. After all, what was the point of anything, my dream would never come reality, I was totally lost.

I really thought my studying times would be over, but by chance I stumbled to a new university degree programme that had 2 topics I was actually interested in: logistics (planes!) and information technology (BBS & games!). So I ended up studying industrial engineering and found my calling for improving the world.

Lesson learnt #1: If in doubt about the next move, choose any direction, just don’t stay put and do nothing. Moving to somewhere opens doors, staying still closes them.

During the uni I worked at the airport for the first half of my studies, but for the second half, I decided to give IT work a go. I was hired as an IT consultant for a global company and after graduation I was appointed their national IT manager. I loved the never-ending string of global projects, and the possibility to learn something new every day. Life was good, but I wanted something more.

I was in my mid 20’s, and my spouse and I had a choice to make: to start a family and move to the suburbs, have the 1.8 children, buy a house, 2 Volvos, and get a golden retriever, or do something completely else. We chose the latter, left everything behind, and moved to Melbourne, Australia. It was all so very exciting, but at the same time, it was extremely hard. We had to start everything from the beginning, but it was one of the best decisions I’ve done in my life.

My career really took off in Australia. I got myself a great boss, a true leader and a mentor who really opened a whole new world to me. He coached me to be C-level ready for which I am forever grateful. After few years I was headhunted as a Head of IT for a retail company, and I found that what my mentor had taught me was true: my own wings can carry me through practically any situation.

I was now in my 30’s and realized I had achieved everything I was aiming for, career-wise. That prompted us to reflect on our priorities, and decided it was now the right time for family. After our first child was born in Melbourne, we decided that if we ever wanted to have another date night, it was time to move back to Finland. So once again, we packed our bags and faced the unknown.

Lesson learnt #2: Risks are opportunities masked in fear. Remember, you can always change your mind. If you are unsure whether you are being guided by your hopes (good!) or by your fears (bad!), think if you are running towards something, or running away from something.

Having climbed on the career ladder abroad, I found it impossible to continue my career at same level in Finland. I had to re-invent myself and jumped on a digital advertising startup as their CIO and COO. What followed was 5 years of intense ups and downs and a steep learning curve. I also understood the importance of culture and why in my previous roles I could never hire the kind of personalities that I worked with on a startup environment. Unfortunately, I couldn't secure livelihood solely on it, so I joined an ICT outsourcing provider as their COO, and in late 2019 I started as the Global head of Data and IT at Futurice.

The few months here at Futurice has been some of the most fulfilling in my life. I have understood that it IS possible to scale up the best parts of startup culture, and with the resources of a larger company, build on top of that even further. All it really needs are the right values and the courage from the management and owners to follow through. I am still right at the start of my journey here, but I can already see that in this kind of environment, my best abilities are being enhanced, and my impact can therefore be even bigger than I originally thought. I don’t necessarily know exactly how my plans come to together and what I get to deliver in a years time, but in an environment like this I can allow myself to dream big, so in any case, it will be something AWESOME!

Lesson learnt #3: Don’t settle. Know what good looks like, and keep on looking for that until you find it, or you find something you can turn into it yourself.

I am myself very proud of my career and my achievements in technology. I have grown from a complete novice to a very technically capable Systems Administrator, to project manager leading complex programs, to an executive and a leader with global corporate impact. When I reflect on my journey, I find a few key topics that I believe have been key for my success:

1. The path to your goals will reveal itself during the journey. On my very first day of IT work I was tasked to unbox a Compaq Proliant server, install Server OS and MS Exchange on it, and make it a domain controller as part of global network. I had never seen a server before and had no idea that this was actually a very complex task even for an experienced professional. This has become somewhat of an underpinning theme on my career; been thrown “to the deep end” and me learning to swim -eventually. I have had the opportunity to plan and execute global projects where I have had no idea how to deliver the outcomes. The key learning here is that I have understood that best things are hard to reach, and that the road there is never fully visible at start. You should still take the first step - the path to your goals will reveal itself during your journey if you just believe in it, and work hard to get there.

2. There are no successful “self-made” people. All success is the result of a group of people working together and supporting each other’s efforts. It may be you in the spotlight and leading, but you are there and being supported by your family, friends, mentors, superiors past and present, all the teachers, clients, partners, your teams and your colleagues. Whether you realize it yourself or not, your achievements are not just yours, and your success will always rely on other people. So treat any person who has any impact in your life well, they are a part of what made you and deserve your utmost respect and the best you have to give.

3. Raise your hand. This skill is deceptively easy in theory, but in reality, one of the hardest, and arguably the most important skill you will ever gain. People cannot read minds. If you think you will get that open position or promotion or the interesting project just because you want and deserve it too, think again. Most likely, the person making the selection has no idea you would be interested in it, and if you don’t raise your hands, it will probably go to someone else. But if you do, good things can happen. This skill requires confidence and the readiness to put yourself under scrutiny, so work on those first.

4. Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re probably right. No one can see into the future, and experience does not give you knowledge of something you encounter for the first time. I have come to accept that I am not alone in feeling that I have no clue how to do something when facing new situations (daily!). Even the most experienced MD’s and corporate board members are totally clueless what to do, or how to fix things when seeing them the first time. That’s normal. What the very senior people understand is, that action to any direction is better than no direction at all. So, they choose the first move based on their experience, and yes, their gut feeling. They also understand that if the first chosen direction turns out to be bad, they can and will change direction. Remember this. If you think you can’t do it, you’re right. If you think you can, even when you don’t know how, try one thing, and if that doesn’t work, try another. That’s the only way to get experience. And you will probably find that you were right.

5. No matter your gender, your view is unique and it’s your greatest asset. Every person is an individual, everyone has a slightly different view of the world. Because of this, you are the only person who can bring your view to the discussion. Do not hide or shy your view away because of some external attribute like being born female, or an internal one like being an introvert personality. Every single discussion, every single decision, every single outcome is better when it is done by a diverse group of individuals.

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