Thriving in Tech: Paying it Forward with Shannon Burns

Written by Jacob Yoss

Shannon Burns is the Head of Engineering at Flatfile.io and a long-time Women Who Code member. Shannon recently made a generous contribution to our community equivalent to 10 percent of her first year’s engineering salary to fund a scholarship for women pursuing a computer science education. She was gracious enough to sit down with our Content Creator, Jacob Yoss, to discuss what inspired her to launch this new scholarship program, her unique career path, and her advice to women in technology.

What’s the story of how you became involved with Women Who Code, and how has the organization impacted your career?

I became involved with Women Who Code early on in my career. My pathway into tech was a bit atypical because I completed my undergrad degree in Recreation. I graduated just after the Great Recession and was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life during a tumultuous economic time. I took a bunch of odd jobs until I found myself working a sales role for a startup with a few guys in an attic. It might have been a bit naive, but I remember thinking “If these guys can run a company, why can’t I?”

I decided I would start my own business and wrote a five-year plan. However, I realized I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I got nervous when investors started taking me seriously. I needed to hire programmers to build my company, but I didn’t know enough about programming to evaluate an engineer’s coding skills. I figured what I needed to do was learn to code.

I put my startup on hold, left my job, and went on unemployment to study JavaScript full-time. I also tried to immerse myself in several different technology groups to connect with people in the industry. Someone at a tech party suggested I check out Women Who Code, so I went to another event the community was hosting and loved it. I met so many incredible people, including the organization’s CEO, Alaina Percival.

Women Who Code became instrumental in launching my career in tech and getting me to where I am today. Learning programming is intimidating when you don’t know where to start, and the community gave me abundant, free resources (which were essential for an unemployed person from a low-income network, such as myself) and a supportive place where I could see people like me succeed. I attended several other events and study groups and eventually met one of my most influential mentors. She was the first engineer to pull me aside and offer herself as a resource — if I ever had a question or got stuck on a problem, she made it clear she was available with answers.

Many of the women and non-binary folks I met through my years of participation have become trusted and influential mentors, advisors, and colleagues. No one achieves success alone, and while I aspire to do much more in my career, there’s no way I could be standing here without the support of groups like Women Who Code. Having the right people who were willing to jump in, take an interest, and foster my professional development enabled me to go from being completely non-technical to a fully-fledged engineer and onward.

What inspired you to make your generous contribution?

The mentor I mentioned suggested I apply to a coding bootcamp, which were rather new at the time. I followed her advice and applied to one of the early classes at Hackbright. I never thought I’d get in — their acceptance rate was lower than Harvard’s — but I figured, what’s the harm? However, I did get in at the same time I had accepted a non-technical job at Lyft. I was faced with a major decision: financial security at Lyft, or unknown opportunities through Hackbright? I decided to attend the latter.

Unfortunately, Hackbright was expensive, and there was no scholarship program. Several months of unemployment had put me in a tight spot. So, I started crowdfunding to pay for tuition, but it didn’t pan out as I’d hoped. I began researching ways to raise money that not only allowed me to attend the bootcamp, but gave back to the community in the long term. An idea came to me: I would start a forward-funded scholarship foundation and become the first recipient of my own scholarship — which I called Hacking for Women — and then once I got a job in the field, I would fund the next scholarship with money earned from my new salary.

The key phrase there is “forward-funded.” A generous and anonymous Women Who Code member paid for a significant portion of my Hackbright tuition. Now that I’m well-established in my tech career, I can afford to give 10 percent of my salary to sponsor someone else’s education, and there’s no one I trust more than Women Who Code to make sure the scholarship goes to the right person. Hopefully, whoever receives it will pay it forward the same way.

That’s an incredible initiative! Your career path has taken you to many interesting places, so I’m curious about your keys to success.

After graduating Hackbright, my first entry-level job was at a startup that a large company had just acquired. It was a great place to get my feet wet, but I soon moved on to working in developer relations with a company called NGINX. That role was a ton of fun. I then transitioned to Slack, and within Slack I went from developer relations to being a full-time mid-level engineer, then senior engineer, then engineering manager, and now Head of Engineering at Flatfile. My career experienced a significant arc in a relatively short period of time.

What truly helped me along the way was not underestimating the power of being genuinely willing to help other people. Think of how you can find a way to add value to the lives of those around you without concern for what’s in it for you. When you do this, people will conspire in your favor to try to make you successful, which is humbling and beautiful.

One of my favorite books on this topic is called Give and Take by Adam Grant. It’s about being willing to step into the role of “giver” in the workplace, and how that contributes to your career success. It’s important not to lean too heavily toward people-pleasing at the expense of your own well-being, but being authentically mindful of bringing others up will serve you well.

How have you overcome roadblocks in the past?

I’m a very determined and community-minded person. When the universe tells me “No, you can’t do that,” my first instinct is to question it and investigate why. It’s not coming from a place of arrogance, but curiosity. Why am I encountering so much resistance here? What can I do about it, and what can I learn from it?

It’s always better to focus on things that are possible instead of things that are impossible. Imagine thinking through how you would approach the problem if some of the constraints you’re finding weren’t there. If you can break down those hurdles, then you can circumnavigate obstacles and forge ahead, or you can figure out how to remove the constraints themselves.

However, I do get stuck fairly often. There’s a lot I don’t know. Being comfortable enough to acknowledge my limitations has helped me tremendously. When that happens, I go to people in my network and ask for their expertise. People are almost always happy to help because it’s exciting and fulfilling to be able to assist someone else. Understanding that no one is an island and allowing others the opportunity to share their wisdom is one of the most significant ways I overcome roadblocks.

The ability to ask for help is a good skill to have. On a different note, what are your immediate and long-term career aspirations?

My long-term goal for so long has been to start my own company. A big part of that desire came from when I graduated college and spent some time trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I asked everybody I knew how they knew what they wanted to be when they grew up, which sounds childish, but we’re all still growing up, aren’t we? People gave me some fascinating answers, but almost everyone I spoke to mentioned how much they hated their current jobs. That made me want to create my own company that adds value to the world and fosters a workplace that people actually enjoy going to. My career has exposed me to many of the challenges companies face at different growth stages, so I can apply those lessons once I’m in a position to realize my vision.

In the near future, though, I love working at Flatfile. There’s a lot I can learn from the organization before I start my own.

What advice do you have for other women in tech?

Seek out places that are safe havens for you in your career. By that, I mean find a place where you can feel safe looking stupid in front of others and asking stupid questions (though there are no stupid questions, of course). Find a place where you feel comfortable telling people you’re not okay. Being that person for other people is a significant part of my management philosophy — encouraging people to be radically vulnerable and openly acknowledge how their emotional states impact their abilities to work. I’m the kind of person who wears my heart on my sleeve, so I’ll broadcast my emotional state with people in the workplace because I see how much damage inaccurately guessing someone else’s emotions inflicts, especially when power dynamics are involved.

I remember this high-ranking woman I worked with and looked up to. She was having an awful day one time, and everyone felt it because several tiers of the company hierarchy worked for her. To her, it was a normal bad day for any number of life reasons, but everyone couldn’t help but ask, “Is she mad at me? Did I do something?”

She ended up tweeting about it, reassuring everyone that she was just having a bad day and it was no one’s fault at work. That experience really stuck with me because I noticed the power in acknowledging your feelings to the people around you. Everyone’s assumptions caused tension, but her owning her emotions deflated it. No one should have made assumptions in the first place because it wasn’t her responsibility to confess anything, but as a manager, she successfully put everyone at ease.

Ultimately, that’s my advice: embrace vulnerability. Leaning into the awkward moments at work is more empowering than you know.

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The Women Who Code community distributed $61,000 in scholarships in 2019 and $364,000 in 2020. We thank Shannon for her generous donation that helped make this possible.

We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers. https://www.womenwhocode.com/