Whatever your gender, there’s a good chance that at some point in your life, you’ll have to ask yourself “what’s my priority, family or career?” Historically, any answer meant choosing one path over the other. Career advancement couldn’t coincide with having children. However, the answer doesn’t have to be a choice of ‘family or career’, but simply an expectation that neither journey will mean missing out on enjoying the other.
Valentina Bonsi began life at Booking.com in our mobile apps team. Her skills as a developer were obvious. What was less apparent, at least to her anyway, were her skills as a leader. Fortunately for Valentina, others did notice these abilities and a team lead role beckoned. Those same qualities – alongside her strong technical abilities – naturally saw her grow into the role of Manager of Software Development. She’s now left the front-end life behind and has become Booking.com’s Director of Security Engineering.
“This is where the plot thickens.”
You might be wondering what any of this has to do with the aforementioned question of ‘family or career’. This is where the plot thickens. Before taking on a pivotal role in leading our first line of defence in security, she became a mother. Again.
“Before going on maternity leave, I was mostly on the front-end side of things. The transition kinda happened by accident.” Says Valentina. But this happy accident doesn’t mean she wasn’t up for the challenge. Or as she puts it, “if you want the title, you have to actually do it. And think I can do it.” It helps having people around her she trusts. And a voracious appetite for learning. “I’ve always felt like i’m working with very smart people. And always getting given opportunities to do things I never knew I could. If you need me to be that i’ll just learn what needs to be learned.”
“There are a lot of similarities between leading a family and leading a team.”
But Valentina wasn’t just taking on the responsibility of a new team. She also had the kids to think about. “There are a lot of similarities between leading a family and leading a team, especially when it comes to convincing children or colleagues to do something. If you empower them to come up with the solution – rather than tell them what to do – there’s a massive difference in how much collaboration you get.” Which certainly makes a lot of sense. “Yeah, if you don’t, you’ll never get out of the house in the morning” Valentina says – talking about her kids, not her colleagues.
A big challenge to overcome for anyone who decides to start a family is time. This primarily manifests itself in two ways. First is the time one has to take off from their career. This is often a much longer period for women, although this is beginning to change in some places – like here at Booking.com, where parental leave is being split more evenly more often.
“Valentina on the other hand is an exception to this rule.”
Taking so much time off from your work-life to focus on family shouldn’t have a detrimental effect on your career, but it all too often does. At least, this was certainly historically true. Valentina on the other hand is an exception to this rule – an exception that will hopefully soon become the rule. Taking time off from work didn’t have a detrimental effect. In fact, it was helpful when taking on a new role and greater responsibility. As she says, “what made it easier was that I didn’t have anything to let go of. I’d already handed my track over like 5 months before. I already had the perspective of coming in to a new thing.”
Time off isn’t the only time constraint when it comes to career and family. The other is availability. As Director of Security Engineering, Valentina oversees one of the most critical teams in all of our tech infrastructure. Or as she puts it, “the whole company relies on us to do the right thing. It’s definitely a big responsibility.” So how does she find the time to do that and take care of young children? The answer is simple. Trust. “This feeling of responsibility is a great way to bring people together. It gives you a sense of purpose. You always have to be able to trust your teams to work with them.”
“I can leave my job behind when I go home at the end of the day.”
Valentina might be the director, but she’s far from a dictator. When it comes to her time and that of her team, she relies on the “smart people” around her to make the right decisions. “I have enough of a trusted team around me that I can rely on other people. I’m really lucky from that point of view. I can leave my job behind when I go home at the end of the day. And when I don’t, it’s because it’s something I really want to finish.”
This ability to focus on something else other than work when at home is why career and family don’t have to collide. And the same goes for her colleagues. “I make very clear to the people I work with that it’s not an expectation that they always be on; always be ready to answer the smallest question.” After all, Valentina admits, when you have children, your time is not necessarily always your own – “for me, having kids means I have a very fixed schedule. I can’t have, say, a 12 hour day in the office. It’s impossible. There’s always something you need to do.”
“Keeping the work-life balance is easier when you have someone else keeping you in check.”
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as Valentina points out, “keeping the work-life balance is easier when you have someone else keeping you in check.” And you certainly can find time for yourself. Sometimes. “I read a lot. I think that’s down to me liking to learn. I don’t really watch TV or anything anymore, but I find reading very relaxing.”
It is possible to balance kids and career. Being a mother and senior management. Being a woman and being a woman in tech leadership are no different – as long as you have a company and colleagues who believe the same. Of course, there is still some way to go before we can say the tech landscape is truly equal. But there’s certainly light at the end of the tunnel.
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