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  • Writer's pictureThiago Assuncao de Faria

Ragna Gerresten and Community Building

Updated: Aug 20, 2023

Embarking on a journey from policy economics to the heart of the tech industry, Ragna Gerretsen is a testament to the power of passion and adaptability. As a Senior Java Developer at Rabobank, Ragna's story is not just about writing code but about building communities, challenging stereotypes, and advocating for diversity in the tech space.

Ragna Gerretsen smiling on top of sunny mountain

In her Lovelace Series interview, Ragna delves into her transition into the tech world, her challenges as a young, ambitious woman in a male-dominated field, and her commitment to reshaping the image of the 'average' developer. From her instrumental role in establishing the Women in Tech community within Rabobank to her innovative projects that push the boundaries of technology, Ragna's narrative is a beacon of inspiration for anyone considering a tech career.

Dive into her story to discover the blend of technical prowess, community leadership, and a relentless drive to foster inclusivity in the tech industry.

Q) Can you share a bit about your background and your current role?

I am a Senior Java developer currently working for Rabobank. I joined the field three ago, before which I had just finished my master’s in policy economics. Next to being a developer, I am also a community lead for different communities, including Java, Cloud, and (most importantly) the Women in Tech community.

Through my work and especially through the communities, I try to help others and improve our efficiency because why do something from scratch when someone else has already done the same thing?

I also try to change our image of the ‘average’ developer so that when the opportunity arises, I speak about tech tools or projects I’m passionate about. In the past year, I have also become an avid host of some of our internal events.

Q) How did you first become interested in technology, and what led you to your current role?

When I finished my studies, I realized that it wasn’t the field I wanted to work in. Instead, I looked back at what I found most interesting: the tiny bits of code I got to write during my studies.

I started looking into ways to switch my career choice; it became evident that I had to follow a traineeship. I was lucky enough, through my traineeship, to be placed at an excellent company with a fantastic team.

They helped me out so much when I knew absolutely nothing about software, I just knew I liked the logic of writing code. One of my colleagues in my team was assigned to be my buddy, and the way he taught me really worked for me so with his help I could quickly pick up what I needed.

I started to realize that only developing didn’t work for me, I am very much a people person and love helping and communicating with others.

Amazingly I can combine my two passions at my job through the communities we have.

Q) What main challenges have you faced in your career, and how have you overcome them?

The first main challenge I faced was when I had to decide to switch careers. It was a difficult decision in many ways, the first and foremost was trying to enter an industry in which I had no experience.

Next to this, I knew that software development, especially backend development, was a male-dominated industry. I didn’t know how it would be to join it as a woman with no experience. Even though I wasn’t expecting any problems there, it was always in the back of my mind.

After all, I am a people person, and all I knew of the industry was the stereotypes surrounding it: lots of introverted men sitting behind their laptops all day without talking. Luckily, I quickly learned that yes, those types exist but no, the field is not dominated by them. There are actually many outgoing and talkative engineers!

My next challenge was being young, quick to learn, and ambitious. Often boundaries are set for when you can get a promotion or a specific job. They are usually relatively standardized such as having a certain number of years of experience for a position.

As someone quick to learn and take on several initiatives it was difficult for me to convince others that even though I might not have the years of experience that’s usually related to a job, I already do the work like one so why shouldn’t I get the reward for it?

Within our Women in Tech community, we often see that as women we’re less forward with taking what we deserve, we don’t dare to speak up as much as men do. I am definitely like this. Even now it’s hard for me to write this as it feels like I’m bragging, but I know others need to hear it. Whenever I think this way, I have to remind myself that I am capable and worthy of not only doing the job but also getting the benefits that go with it.

The same goes for all you ladies out there and also some men, don’t let yourself get pushed down by others and especially not by yourself.

Q) Who or what has been the most significant influence or support in your tech journey?

The mentor I had when I first started really helped me further my technical career. He understood what I needed and gave me a lot of freedom to try and also to fail. He never underestimated me even when I had just joined and literally knew nothing. The rest of the team was the same.

I was lucky enough to start in a supportive and inclusive environment that didn’t look at my age or my experience (or lack thereof) and valued me as a team member.

Besides this, the Women in Tech community that I helped set up within my company has also helped me greatly. The supportive and inclusive environment it creates makes my work much better. It has helped me grow and see what others need around me and how to help them.

This community of women and men (yes men as we’re all in this together) is one of our most supportive ones, where everyone is quick to help others and to react to whatever is posted.

We often have more ambitions than we are capable of achieving, every one of us contributes to the community next to our own full-time jobs and it can make it difficult to achieve big things.

I am so proud of every person who contributes as every small thing we accomplish is still a significant achievement in and of itself.

Rabobank Women In Tech community logo that Ragna Gerretsen is part of.
Rabobank Women in Tech community is one of the proudest and best parts of Ragna's work!

Q) How have you seen diversity and inclusion evolve in the tech industry throughout your career?

Looking at how much it has evolved throughout my career is difficult to say as I have only been in the tech industry for three years, but to some extent, I have seen it evolve a lot. Within my organization, we have a diversity, equity, and inclusion network which combines all the different network initiatives, including the Women in Tech community.

We only set up our Women in Tech community one and a half years ago, and we already have more than 600 members. The number of people who want to get involved and help is more than we might’ve initially realized.

However, the figures aren’t as promising as we would hope. We still have a far below-average number of women in the industry, even within my own company which is so focused on diversity and inclusion. We still must tackle two parts: 1) getting women involved and excited about tech from a young age and 2) keeping women in the industry.

We have done some research and most studies show that there’s still a high dropout rate of women from the tech industry.

I hope this will change as our efforts continue to make it a safe industry and make it more normal for women to be in it.

Q) How do you manage the work-life balance in the tech industry?

For me, it helps that I am not working on an application with full-time support. I can close my laptop when I’m done and not open it again until the next working day. We are also free to use our hours as we wish, I can always take longer breaks or have appointments throughout the day that are not work-related.

It is more difficult to get my work out of my head, I’m sure this happens to lots of people who can’t sleep because of their thinking of solutions to their problems.

That’s one work-life balance aspect that even the best work culture cannot fix. To be honest, I like it, sometimes, some of the most innovative ideas come to me during this time. Then of course they don’t work most of the time but let’s ignore that. My work is my hobby, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Q) What skills do you believe are most important in today's tech world?

I think the most critical skill to have is your ability to learn. The tech industry is constantly changing, new tools and software roll out quicker than you can imagine. We must continuously adapt to the changes around us and learn how to work with them.

From experience, I have learned that even without any knowledge of a tool, language, or even the entire tech industry, with an ability and willingness to learn you can get anywhere.

Next to learning one of the most essential skills for me to have is communicating. It’s not something that’s an essential skill for every developer, but if I want to help others and improve our processes, I have to be able to communicate.

Being a developer doesn’t only have to be about how well you write code, some of the best developers I have encountered have been honest enough to say that they don’t know something. Knowing where to find the answer or who to ask is nearly as important as knowing the answer yourself. Sometimes searching online is enough, other times another colleague might know.

Also, even if it’s not the most crucial skill to have we still have to work together with our colleagues, we have to be able to explain what changes we’ve made and how we’ve implemented them. We need to be able to share knowledge as the code could become a black box for others if we don't. By sharing our knowledge, we’re also opening up our code to new insights.

Q) Can you share a project or accomplishment you consider the most significant in your career?

The project that had the most impact on me is actually not an application I worked on but a community I helped build. I am not someone who can sit around all day and only develop, I need contact with others in between, helping them or others in whatever they need. Don’t forget that it is also vital for your career to work on your "soft" skills besides tech skills.

Helping build the Women in Tech community within Rabobank has helped me with my personal skills more than any application could.

I have been able to divide my time between technical and personal growth that I would never have been able to do without the community. It has allowed me to get out of my comfort zone, help others, and build a network.

I of course can’t leave out a tech project because it’s just too awesome to leave out. I worked on an application that tried to use as many new tools as possible. We were constantly thinking of better solutions and refactoring our code. We had a microservice architecture in the cloud, we generated lots of our code, APIs, and tests and automated as much as possible via Kafka streams and pipelines.

I can go on and on about all of the tools we used, but that might get a bit tedious. The platform itself (besides the code) was an elegant idea, it was utterly generic and enabled other teams to add new products to the platform without updating any of our BE or FE code.

They had created a generator on the FE for the other teams to use. On the BE we had smaller applications for each product that did all the product-specific logic and was built outside of our platform. Being able to work on this platform at the beginning of my career allowed me to learn in an innovative and dynamic environment where we were able to share all of our expertise with each other.

If someone had already worked on implementing a new tool in one microservice, we tried as much as possible for someone else to pick up the following implementation, in this way, everyone, especially me, could learn about the new changes. This project really helped me grow as a developer, and it helped me gain a wide range of knowledge on tools, platforms, and many other things.

Q) What are your future goals, and where do you see the tech industry heading in the next few years?

I would love to continue on the path I am following now and become a role model for others. I want to be able to be a developer while improving our communication and how we work together across the organization. To be a lead who can help on both the technical and personal side of our work.

To show that to advance in your career you don’t have to leave your technical side behind by becoming a manager.

As for the future of the tech industry, I find it hard to say. I think we all have to be willing to adapt to the extensive changes that are happening around us, not only with AI but also with changing the stereotypical image of a techie.

On the tech side, I wouldn’t be surprised if we would get much AI development help. With this, I see the importance of people having more broad knowledge to be able to link everything together and understand the bigger picture.

On the diversity side, I think we are making good progress however I don’t think it’s enough yet. I do see that we are getting more allies and mentalities are changing, I hope this will enable change and allow for a more diversified workforce in the tech industry.

Q) What advice would you give to other women considering a tech career?

Firstly, I would say do it!! The tech industry is fantastic, dynamic, and full of wonderful people willing to help you along the way. Trust me, and you’ll never get bored of the industry.

Secondly, don’t change for anyone around you, be yourself. We see so many women adapting to their surroundings to fit in, but what makes you so important is that you are different.

Diversity in the workforce is not only about creating a safe environment (although that is a huge part) it is also about having different opinions and insights.

These are so important to have in a team and an organization. Be yourself, and speak your mind, by doing so you will be creating allies, and you will be improving your team’s performance.

Q) Let's continue the flow... who would you like to read on the Lovelace Series?

I have some fantastic colleagues within our Women in Tech community and workgroup such as Julia Jakimenko, Anne Colder, and Kim Cratsz. Each of them I would love to read about!

There are also some women who I have come across who have started their women in tech initiatives such as Ineke Scheffers (founder of Girl Code) and Femke Cornelissen a community manager (and technical speaker) for Dutch Women in Tech who I think would be great to read about on the Lovelace series!

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