Rakshan Syed, a senior digital program manager and agile coach, has worked at Caterpillar for almost 20 years. From day one, Syed has experienced a supportive, open environment at Caterpillar. During her interview, she wore a hijab—something friends warned might count against her. But Syed stayed true to herself, landed the job, and continues to be involved in the company’s celebration of diversity.
Still, as a woman working in technology, Syed has had her fair share of workplace struggles. We asked her what resources and personal strategies help her overcome bias and grow her confidence. Then, we heard a bit about how she built her career in IT despite studying law in college, and she shared her advice for women pursuing careers in any traditionally male-dominated industry.
Tell us about your job. What are your main priorities at work?
I lead a team that is working on a high visibility project with direct impact to bottom line. We are migrating from a 20+ year old legacy application to a state-of-the-art cloud solution. This new solution is the bread and butter for our network of Cat dealers who service machines around the world.
I believe people are the number one success factor on any team, and to get great results, you must provide an environment where team members feel respected, appreciated and enabled to do the best job possible. My main priority is to keep my team aligned to our business priorities and engaged so they can deliver world-class solutions.
What were you doing previously/what has your career path looked like?
I’ve had an interesting career. I have a Bachelor's of Law (LLB) and Master's in Management Information Systems. I started my career as an analyst, and then a web development intern before coming to Cat. My career at Cat has seen a complete evolution of technology. I have been lucky to work on teams that focus on the latest and greatest technologies, be it engineering applications working with CAD/CAM and PLM tools or e-commerce delivering online solutions.
Caterpillar hired me as a college graduate in 2000 as an entry-level code developer. I love technology and working with people, so I didn't want to be a typical developer who hides behind the desk. I evolved my career by taking advantage of opportunities to grow my technical knowledge and people skills. I've done it all: support, development, vendor and contract management, deployments, team and project leadership, and now digital program management and agile coaching. My real passion is influencing people and making them be successful in digital technology space. My conviction and confidence to lead brings a lot of value to the team.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in being a woman in tech?
I have a strong personality. I am a vocal person and don’t shy away from speaking my mind. When I first started my career, I was not aware that women being vocal or strong could be perceived negatively — especially in technology.
I soon realized that women need to work twice as hard as men to get visibility and trust in their expertise. Perseverance is the key. If you stay firm and confident in your abilities and prove with your work that you walk the talk, then credibility is built.
How has Caterpillar been particularly supportive and helped you overcome this challenge? How is the sense of support you’ve felt reflective of your Caterpillar’s overall culture/policies?
Caterpillar has been very supportive over the years. I have had some great managers who saw my strengths and provided feedback on my weaknesses. I’ve also had training opportunities on work culture biases and other leadership concepts.
I have seen a lot of momentum on diversity at Cat in last 20 years, and I feel like there have been a lot of champions for women leadership. There are a lot more women leaders at the table now than when I first started.
What initially drew you to Caterpillar? And what’s one of the most amazing things about your workplace that you didn’t learn until working there?
I was hired as a college grad out of my master’s in management information systems. When I was given an offer, the first thing that drew me to Cat was their acceptance of my diversity. I was only the women (I believe) who wore a hijab for my interview. I was told by many that “Cat is so traditional. They will never offer you a job if you go to the interview with your identity the way it is.” So, when I was offered the job after hearing that, I knew it was a place I would be accepted.
Caterpillar was a very male-dominated community 20 years ago, but that was a driver for me to accept the job. They honored my diversity and they didn’t judge me. Instead, they celebrated what I brought to the table.
One thing I didn’t learn until I worked here was how Cat was a leader in technology research and development. We didn’t use the word digital back then, but we have always been digital in so many ways.
What’s your #1 piece of for women who are pursuing careers in tech, or in other industries that tend to be dominated by men?
Believe in yourself and be confident. If you believe in yourself and have confidence in your abilities, you can make others to believe in you, too.
Also, education is the key. If we want more women to be at the table and to break the glass ceiling, we have to invest in educating ourselves formally and informally.