Photo courtesy of Jess Salzbrun
As a woman carving out a career in tech, knowing the best path forward can feel nebulous, especially when choosing the type of company you want to join. Do you go the popular startup route, where opportunity abounds but the path to advancement is less-than clear? Or do you instead take a job in a more traditional corporate environment, where growth options are established but often beleaguered by red tape and processes?
For Jess Salzbrun, today a Director of Digital Product Management at General Electric Aviation, she’s tried a little of everything. From working at tech startups, to founding her own company, to ultimately landing at a historic corporation, Salzbrun has been part of a variety of cultures — and believes the one she’s found at GE constitutes the ideal blend.
“I love that GE is both a century-old company rich with history and an agile organization striving for the leading edge,” Salzbrun said. “I was admittedly nervous rejoining the corporate workforce after years at startups, but for as large and old as GE is, we maintain an appropriately casual atmosphere... around here, everyone works hard to achieve a common goal, whatever the path to get there may look like.”
Recently, she shared with Fairygodboss exactly how GE empowers her to push the envelope, as well as the most memorable piece of career advice she’s ever received (hint: it involves lipstick).
How long have you been in your current role, and what were you doing previously?
I’ve been in my current role for eight months. I joined GE following a three-year stint with tech startups. Prior to that, I spent seven years working in retail analytics and technology.
Tell us a bit about your current role. What are your priorities?
I work to develop software solutions for managing millions of GE’s aviation assets. Want to know which fan blades are installed on an engine? How many hours an aircraft has flown? We’re working to make it easy to log, update, and retrieve that information.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a woman in tech?
I’ve found initial impressions are key. As a woman, you’re not always given the same benefit of presumed knowledge in your space. I know the value I can bring to the table and I don’t let fear stop me from sharing it.
How has GE been particularly supportive in helping you overcome this challenge? Has the support you’ve received felt reflective of GE’s overall culture/policies?
I’m surrounded by women in technology leadership roles at GE. Around here, if you’re the best at what you do, it doesn’t matter who you are. You’re going to be put into the role that you deserve.
What initially drew you to GE? And what’s one of the most amazing things about your workplace that you didn’t learn until working here?
I love that GE is both a century-old company rich with history and an agile organization striving for the leading edge. One of my favorite (and most surprising) things about working at GE has been our culture. I was admittedly nervous rejoining the corporate workforce after years at startups, but for as large and old as GE is, we maintain an appropriately casual atmosphere. I have yet to experience any of the typical corporate stigmas, hierarchical “rules of engagement,” or unnecessary stringencies. Around here, everyone works hard to achieve a common goal, whatever the path to get there may look like.
What are three things you make sure to do each workday before you disconnect?
1. Inbox zero. I ensure I’ve read, filed, or responded to every email I receive each day.
2. I’m an obsessive list maker. I start each week with a list of everything I need to accomplish, broken down by day. Each afternoon, I review my list to check that I’m on track and add or adjust as necessary to ensure I deliver what I’ve promised.
3. I check in with my team. I work with an almost entirely remote team, and so keeping communication channels open is critical. Sometimes it’s touching base on a project, other times it’s just a hello and word of appreciation for the work they’re doing. Building trust and respect among coworkers is, in my opinion, the No. 1 contributor to team success.
What’s something you’re especially good at at work?
It’s been a learned skill, but I enjoy taking a large nebulous problem and breaking it down into a digestible solution with small action steps. It’s a valuable competency on teams tasked with big challenges. Looking at a huge mission all at once can be overwhelming. But by decomposing the problem into smaller and smaller pieces, the path forward begins to emerge.
What about outside of work?
I’ve renovated a number of historic homes and keep busy with a constantly evolving list of creative pursuits. I love painting, baking, spoon carving, and interior design to name a few.
What are you trying to improve on?
Taking ownership of a problem that may be a stretch for my role. If I recognize an opportunity to add value that may be tangential to my cut-and-dry job description, I’m working on having the confidence and courage to step out in faith and tackle it anyway.
What are you currently reading/watching/listening to?
I’m a podcast junkie. Classic favorites are Radiolab, TED Radio Hour, This American Life, and How I Built This.
What’s the one career move you’ve made that you’re most proud of?
Leaving the comfort and security of a corporate career to start my own company. I paid myself $6,000 that year and I worked 80+ hours a week. But I learned more in that time than I did in my seven years of prior corporate experience combined. Without it, I am confident my career wouldn’t be what it is today.
What’s the most memorable piece of career advice you’ve received?
A few years into my career, I had a particularly challenging month personally. One morning at work it must have shown on my face because a woman in senior leadership pulled me aside. She didn’t ask any questions, but she shared a personal anecdote about a tough season in her life a few years back. She said, “On the days that I struggled to get up and put on a smile, those were the days I put on lipstick.” Lipstick can mean different things to different women, but my lesson from that was this: On your inevitable hard days (whether personally or professionally) those are the days to try harder. Forcing yourself out of your normal routine in small ways starts a chain reaction of positivity and productivity throughout your day. That advice has served me well.
What’s your #1 piece of for women who are pursuing careers in STEM, or in other industries that tend to be dominated by men?
Don’t overthink it. If you want a career in STEM, chase after a career in STEM. Your experiences may be different from those of a man, but if you’re passionate, talented, and driven, the only thing stopping you is yourself. Self-imposed doubt has never done anyone any favors. You are capable. Don’t let yourself forget that.
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