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Not all superheroes are men! Katarina Engblom urges women to seek leadership roles in technology

Katarina Engblom, Director for Partners at Microsoft Oy, has grabbed the reins and advanced to responsible leadership roles in the ICT field. She has been spurred by a genuine enthusiasm for technology, perseverance, continuous learning, and a good mentor.
Katarina Engblom

Having studied at Helsinki University of Technology, Katarina Engblom has had a long career working in technology companies, including Ericsson, Elisa, Meridea Financial Software, Tieto, Avanade, and Telia. In the past two years she has been working in management positions at Microsoft, with which Aalto University has engaged in research collaboration for years.

‘At heart I am an engineer and a manager who is inspired by technology and people’, says Engblom, Director for Partners at Microsoft Oy.

Although Engblom was the best in her class at mathematics and physics, a female teacher at the lower secondary stage of her school felt that an advanced course in mathematics in upper secondary school would not be a good choice for a girl. This was in the late 1980s. Engblom did not listen to the teacher.

‘People need to have courage and to believe in themselves. There was no study counselling at the upper secondary stage, and there were no Masters of Science in my inner circle. I followed the spark of my own interests. After studying for a year at the University of Helsinki I understood that instead of working on mathematical theories, I wanted to apply my knowledge. HUT, here I come!’

Engblom found herself in the right place when her studies at the HUT Department of Electrical and Communications Engineering took off.

‘I loved studying and I also served as a student counsellor. Even now I remember my time in Otaniemi with great emotion. It is what gave me a foundation of solid technical skills, which has been amazingly useful in my work.’

The diligence of a nice school girl is not enough

Engblom, who has long served as a business director, is a firm believer in lifelong learning. Genuine interest in technology keeps her abreast of developments in the field. Her career began as a technical specialist.

‘I wanted to develop, and I thought that I might be a good manager. In addition to my skills and knowledge in the ICT field, I needed experience in sales and management. I talked my way into sales, and I took to the work like a duck does to water. I moved into management tasks and became a sales director.’

In her career Engblom has set clear goals for herself and has worked to achieve those goals.

‘Diligence alone is not enough if you want to be promoted to a management position. You can't just be a nice schoolgirl who does her tasks well while waiting for someone take notice and draw attention to you. It's not going to happen! People need to take matters into their own hands.’

Microsoft has made extensive global commitments to promote diversity and equality at all levels of the organisation, and the share of women in leading positions has grown within the company with each successive year. In Engblom's own organisation the proportion of men and women is almost 50/50. In Finland Microsoft has clear goals for the implementation of equality among personnel, and the organisation seeks to promote the status of women in the technology field through actions and cooperation campaigns, and by making the field more attractive to women of all ages.

‘I want to encourage women to believe in themselves and to advance into demanding management positions in the technology field. I have always wanted to be involved in changing things. We need good role models.’

‘When my 15-year-old daughter was given an assignment at school to write about superheroes, she chose Princess Leia. Not all superheroes are men!’

And what about the assumption that women in the masculine field of technology tend to engage in intense competition against each other?

‘It's not true. It is my experience that women are very helpful and supportive of each other.’

Career and family - not an impossible equation

Engblom has two children. Her husband is an entrepreneur and both jobs require much travel. It is not easy to reconcile everything, but it is not impossible.

‘Things need to be prioritised. If you want to make a career, you cannot also be a housewife who smells like freshly baked bread all the time. When the choice is made, there is a price for everything. There is no point in constantly nursing a guilty conscience.’

Sharing housework and child care with her husband has been a basic principle.  When the children were in day care, her husband was responsible for their mornings and making sure that the rain gear was packed before they left. A shared calendar system has been very helpful. Also contributing to the effort were the children's grandparents, who have encouraged both Engblom and her husband to establish careers for themselves.

‘Help was needed especially in the year when I spent weekdays in Moscow or St. Petersburg. When the children were small my time was in short supply, and free time was spent almost exclusively with the family. Now that the children are in their teens, I am coming up with all kinds of hobbies for myself.’

Like working at a candy factory

Engblom does not try to conceal her enthusiasm for technology and her own work.

‘Working for a leading software company is like working at a candy factory. In addition to my day job, I serve on the boards of Sarlin, a technology company, and the IoT-Forge Foundation. I have followed the development of IoT since my student days and now I get to help Finnish companies in productising technology around it. I am just boiling over with excitement!’

Engblom does not need to think twice when the topic of discussion turns to the significance of education in the technology field. As an Aalto alumna she wants to encourage young people to consider studying technology.

‘Technology is infiltrating all fields. Technical education is a magnificent base for jobs of the future. It is guaranteed to be beneficial in any number of tasks on the labour market.’

Employment prospects are also great. The technical field has a chronic shortage of labour, and skills and knowledge are well paid. The manager helps achieve success As a supervisor, Engblom's most important task is to establish distinct goals and to help people achieve success.

‘A factory boss management style based on the power to issue orders is obsolete. Managers today cannot know all the answers. Instead, it is important to make sure that everyone understands the shared goal and how to get there.’

Alongside her work Engblom has studied management extensively, which is something she did not learn much at HUT.

‘Management skills should absolutely be part of the education for a Master of Science degree. Development nowadays has been truly fast, and matters come from many sources. Managers also need to know how to manage themselves and their own energy, to avoid burnout and to feel the joy of achievement from their work.’

Mentoring to help career advancement

Engblom feels that the networks of different kinds at work are super-important. They provide wider understanding, ideas, points of view, and support.  

‘I am worried that women often do not prioritise networking because of a lack of time. Just sitting at one's own workplace developing at one's own job leads to an excessively narrow world view. There are plenty of networks and it is possible to create them oneself. We need to find time for them!’

The most pivotal moment of Engblom’s career came when she got Marjo Miettinen as her mentor. ‘It has been wonderful to spar with a person who has more experience than myself, and who has perspective on matters. Official mentoring with Marjo is over now, but we became friends. Now I mentor women in technology careers myself.’

Text: Marjukka Puolakka

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