How to Find—And Foster—A Sense of Belonging at Work: Tips from GameChanger’s Siobhan Sabino
Siobhan Sabino's first introduction to tech was one she's since realized is shared by many women who grew up in the 90s: Neopets.
"It's HTML and CSS," explains Siobhan of the options to customize a user profile and shop on the virtual pet site. "It was a very curious thing, and that was how I got into tech."
Her early interest grew when she went to a specialized high school that focused on computer science. "Essentially the requirement was, 'Are you good at algebra? Come on in!'" remembers Siobhan. "Suddenly there was this explanation of the things I'd been seeing. Here's how the Internet, this crazy new thing, here's how this is working. Here's how computers are working."
Siobhan credits her high school education with preparing her well to study computer science in college—she was the only freshman in her C++ class, she remembers, having skipped all the basics that she'd covered in high school—but it was also the place she first felt unwelcome. "A lot of the guys in my math class thought they were going to go to the computer program and didn't get in," says Siobhan. "And they were very salty when they found out I had gotten in. They were like, 'You don't belong there.'"
Siobhan was shaken at first, and in those early days, she recalls spending some time crying at her terminal, struggling with a QBasic program. "It was the first time I was aware of this idea that girls aren't supposed to be good at math, that women aren't supposed to be good at tech, and I just remember thinking, 'I can give up, or I can just become the top of this pyramid of people who do tech in school.' And I never looked back," she says. "I was not raised to be a quitter."
Siobhan's learned to prove herself, which is something she's leaned on throughout her career as she's taken on new challenges, including in her current role as Lead Data Engineer at youth sports tech company GameChanger.
We talked to Siobhan about finding a company where she felt like she belonged, how to pay forward that feeling to others, and how job seekers can find the fit and the community that allows them to be their full selves at work.
Finding the right culture fit
Siobhan currently does the culture interview for GameChanger. One of the questions she always asks—if you're interviewing for one of their open roles, take note!—is "What's the best team you've ever been on?"
Her own answer to that question, she realized, was a team where she worked with all senior engineers. She was the youngest and the only woman. "There was no sense of 'I have to prove myself, and to prove myself, I have to put other people down,'" she says. When she interviewed at GameChanger, she felt like it was a similarly ego-free place.
At first, she took the interview at GameChanger just to practice. She was ready for a new challenge after being at her last company for four years, and wanted to ease her way back into recruiting. A company focused on providing scorekeeping, statistics management, recap stories, and live streams for youth sports didn't seem quite in line with Siobhan's self-proclaimed status as "not a big sports person."
"Non ironically, my favorite sport is muggle quidditch," she says, smiling.
But Siobhan got on the phone interview anyway. "At the end of this half hour, I was like, 'Oh my god, I want to work there. I want to work at GameChanger because the person I talked to was so excited about the job,'" she remembers.
That wasn't par for the course in the world of tech recruiting, Siobhan had learned. "I've done interviews with famous companies where I go in excited and I leave thinking, 'Well, you clearly don't want to work there. And you're the hiring manager! Why would I want to work there?' I've done interviews with big tech companies where I go in for an onsite and they'll have more than a thousand engineers and they can't find a single woman for me to talk to. For GameChanger, it was that feeling of it is about the culture."
For Siobhan, that culture was one that focused on people and on creating meaningful connections between them. That includes between GameChanger users—"I really felt like the company genuinely valued working in sports and helping to make people's lives better, helping coaches and volunteers, helping kids to learn how to work together, and I wanted to be part of that," explains Siobhan—and between the company's employees.
Here are some specific questions she recommends asking your interviewers:
- How does your team celebrate wins?
- What is the most fulfilling thing you've done that was hard at work?
- What is your day-to-day like?
- What is it that you say makes your culture special?
- What do you love most about your job?
Fostering belonging at work
Siobhan recognizes that a big part of feeling like she belongs at work is an innate sense of confidence—one she's fostered since her middle school experience—and that another is being in a supportive environment with a welcoming culture. Choosing the environment that's right for her hasn't always been easy, but as her career progresses, she's gotten better at identifying places she wants to be, like GameChanger. She's also recognized what she can do to pay that sense of belonging forward and help others.
Creating an inclusive, welcoming environment works both ways: it's more efficient from a workflow perspective, especially on a team of engineers, who will feel more comfortable bringing up problems, sharing interesting ideas, and collaborating on solutions. And it's also more enjoyable from an interpersonal perspective.
"I've had interviews where I asked people what's their favorite part of their day. And they're like, 'I love technology.' Maybe that works for other people. For me, I like other people. I like talking to people. I like getting their ideas. I like hearing what they cooked for dinner. And also, what do they think of this architecture?" she says wryly.
When it comes to what a company can do to support those two aims, Siobhan has a couple of examples of what she's seen at GameChanger:
- Creating a "one team" mentality. When one of GameChanger's co-founders stepped down, explains Siobhan, it was a tumultuous time emotionally, and other companies might've seriously floundered. That's not what happened at GameChanger, and Siobhan credits it to the deep sense that all teams, from data to product to design and beyond, are unified. "I remember the CTO and CFO both making comments that there'd be no work that would happen that day. That that's okay. As a company, we had to mourn that this was the end of an era, that that's fine, that they left us with the tools and the culture to reach out to each other and say, 'We're going to go through it together. Are you okay?'" says Siobhan.
- Truly caring for people. "We were one of the first companies sent home early in the pandemic and we'll probably be one of the last ones to reopen, because this is about the team. This is about everyone feeling comfortable, everyone being healthy," says Siobhan. "You're not a cog in a machine, you are a person who has a family and a life and we want you to feel good because we will do the work. That will happen. But we can't replace you."
And on what an individual can do, Siobhan shares two things she does as a leader and a teammate:
- Creating connections. When she first joined GameChanger, Siobhan reached out to the person hired right before her and the person hired right after her and made a cohort, and she continues to reach out to new hires today. "Then if you're having a bad day, you have someone to talk to. Maybe they're just someone to listen to your bad day. Maybe they'll actually have a solution," she says, noting that Slack has made it even easier to send low-stakes invites to new coworkers to help you get to know them.
- Sharing the unvarnished truth. "In my experience, what makes GameChanger unique is this sense that it's okay not to be okay. I try to be honest about my struggles with mental health and verbalizing it both so that I'm advocating for myself, and so other people can feel they can advocate for themselves as well," says Siobhan.
At the end of the day, says Siobhan, finding and creating a place where you feel like you belong and your ideas matter is the most important part of work, and it's worth investing time in figuring out where you can experience that. "There are places whose answers [to culture questions] make you lie awake at night and go 'No, no, no, no, no, you don't want to work there,'" she says. "It's not that you as a person failed. It's that this is not the right culture fit. And that's fine because it'll work for someone else. You find somewhere that works for you."
If GameChanger seems like a place that might work for you, check out their open roles.
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AfroTech 2021<p><strong></strong><strong>When:</strong> November 8-13, 2021</p><p><strong>Where:</strong> Virtual</p><p><strong>Price to register:</strong> Early bird pricing is $149 for individuals and $249 for corporate attendees; regular pricing hasn't yet been announced</p><p><strong>Where to register:</strong> <a href="https://experience.afrotech.com/" target="_blank">Here</a></p><p>AfroTech is a conference hosted by Blavity, a tech media platform for Black millennials. It focuses on emerging tech trends, connecting Black talent with top tech recruiters, and providing networking and educational opportunities, with an overall goal of building a strong Black tech community. Over 10,000 people participated in 2020. While the conference isn't focused specifically on DEI, its main audience of Black tech talent is an important one to understand and to engage at work and beyond, and several speakers plan to focus on issues of race and inclusion at work. </p>
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