Sonja Erickson of We Heart It

It’s not every day you hear about women in technology and engineering, but that’s what we love about Sonja Erickson. The 52-year-old VP of Engineering at We Heart It is proving that passion and curiosity can open doors for women in male-dominated industries. “When I meet young women with tech aspirations, I encourage them to stick with it, ask for more than they think they are worth, and not be intimidated by the men in the room.” Sonja is now leading a team and helping to build a successful social media platform for millions of young people. “There are no soft pillows or romantic music around delegation: stuff has to be done, my job is to make sure it does.”

Her intrigue with how things work physically blossomed into a desire to understand how people work. She took on early roles in software start-ups, lived in London to work across Europe, and eventually worked her way to a VP of Engineering and Tech Ops position, where she managed an organization of 200 people. Although We Heart It is only a team of 20 people, Sonja tells us the experience is still exciting, “things happen faster and can be implemented quickly. It’s fun, fast and always different.”

Keep reading to learn what it takes to be a woman in the engineering and technology industry, how “organized serendipity” led Sonja to We Heart It, and what fear she needs to overcome in order to go on her dream vacation.

Full Name: Sonja Erickson
Age: 52
Current Title/Company: VP of Engineering, We Heart It
Educational Background: Did not attend college

Where did you attend undergrad? What was your major of study while there? Did you receive a graduate degree? Title of Degree?
I never finished college – in fact, I hardly started at the University of MN when I realized it wasn’t the right path. Instead, I lit out for San Francisco where it seemed to me that things were happening.

What was your first job out of college and how did you land that position?
My first job in tech was at a software start-up, I got the job through friends who saw my talent for fixing things. When I was kid, I spent hours taking things apart and mostly putting them back together. A friend had a job in tech support at a software company. They were looking for someone literally to plug in computer, set-ups networks, order supplies, and understand how systems work. I was willing to try it. I went in for the interview and told them I didn’t know how to fix computers, but that I could fix a tractor. He said, “It’s all the same,” and hired me.

What first attracted you to the field of engineering and technology?
Simply, it’s super fun. I’ve always been curious about how things work and most tech environments feel like being part of pod of people solving a problem. To me, that’s a party. Initially I liked the solving problems and the fixing things aspect of technology, but likely I could have applied those same skills and interests to other fields. I landed in the soup of all the early start-ups and therefore ramped into technology quickly.

Take us on a brief synopsis of your (extensive and impressive) career path!
From the ground floor– I mean, really, like from plugging things in– I worked into roles in design, architecture, troubleshooting, and eventually building and running teams. My intrigue with how things work physically morphed into a desire to understand how people work. In the end, a great idea is only as successful the team who can get it up and running. I worked at the first place for seven years and got a real understanding of how a tech company works. From there, I went to a few smaller start-ups where I built the network infrastructure. Many of these companies needed to sell their products worldwide.

I was fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity with one company to go to London and work. I had always been interested in working abroad and helping a company have more of a global presence. This was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. I moved around a fair bit and landed at Ofoto, one of the first photo sharing sites on the web. My work at Ofoto came about because a friend of mine contacted me and said I would be perfect for the job. The reality of the business world is that it is all about who you know. I said it once and I will say it again: never burn any bridges. You never know how you can help someone or how someone can help you. I stayed over six years working my way to V.P. of Engineering and Tech Ops and managing an organization of 200 people.

Previously, you have worked for several engineering and technology companies. How does the work you have done for them differ from what you’re currently doing?
At We Heart It, the whole company is 20 people. Ironically, now we serve more unique users than at the place that had more than 200 employees. We Heart It is a mobile-first company, which is exciting and brings new challenges. In a smaller organization, things happen faster and can be implemented quickly. It’s fun, fast and always different. In a larger organization, there can be more deliberation and work to get people on board and rowing the same direction. At a startup, you will be called upon to chip in at every level (and I do mean occasionally emptying the trash). You have to be willing to do what is needed. There are trade-offs for sure.

You have twenty years experience working in engineering and technology. What are your thoughts and opinions on the growth of this field?
Limitless. There are things we haven’t even imagined that are traveling down the pike at light speed. More women should be involved at every level and in every role. When I meet young women with tech aspirations, I encourage them to stick with it, ask for more than they think they are worth, and not be intimidated by the men in the room– there will be more men in the room than women. Still, if I could find hot-shot women coders right now, I’d hire them. Early in my career, I worked for three women V.P.’s of engineering. That was unusual, but it showed me a way to the top.

Tell us about how you landed your job at start-up, We Heart It.
Organized serendipity. I worked with one of the board members elsewhere. That being said, tech, like everything else, is about relationships. I was looking for a new opportunity and put that out in my networks. A friend I worked with at Ofoto heard about the position and put me in touch. It’s super important to maintain good relationships, even when you leave places.

What is a typical day in your life as both a VP of Engineering and a COO?
I get up around 7:00 am and immediately the work day begins – checking emails, looking at my calendar for any potential early morning meetings and if need be, putting out any fires that have popped up overnight. I get to the office around 10:00 and check-in with my team. We have what is called our “stand-up,” which includes the team of engineers. We outline our goals for the day and what everyone has going on. My day is filled with many meetings with the other company leadership (President and CEO, VP of Product, etc.) and we make strategic decisions. I usually just eat lunch at my desk. That is something that most people in the start-up world know—you don’t get to go out for lunch or workout on your lunch break. It just doesn’t happen.

I never finished college, so I have a rather unusual path. These days you can find some whiz-kids who skip college and go straight to companies like Google or Facebook. While most entry-level engineers today graduate with degrees in computer engineering, I was fortunate enough to have a friend working in the tech industry that believed in me and gave me a chance. To be a good engineer, you need to have some inherent skills that are not necessarily taught in college: resourcefulness, an ability to keep the big picture in mind, a vision, and above all—optimism! 

What advice can you give to someone aspiring to work in the engineering and technology field? What skills are necessary to be successful?
Have a passion for problem solving and numbers. And for women, develop a strong sense of self and thick skin. There are still very few of us in the field. Do not underestimate the skill of getting along with people.

How does your educational background and skill-set compliment the industry you’re currently in? What qualities would you say are essential to do the job you do?
I never finished college, so I have a rather unusual path. These days you can find some whiz-kids who skip college and go straight to companies like Google or Facebook. While most entry-level engineers today graduate with degrees in computer engineering, I was fortunate enough to have a friend working in the tech industry that believed in me and gave me a chance. To be a good engineer, you need to have some inherent skills that are not necessarily taught in college: resourcefulness, an ability to keep the big picture in mind, a vision, and above all—optimism! 

As I grew into a management role, I realized the importance of motivating people and understanding the more human side of my job. Because I didn’t have a traditional trajectory into my career, I think I learned through “the school of life” about how to become successful without that piece of paper. 

How does your leadership role differ from your work building worldwide networks?
Building worldwide networks is hands-on technical work. Being a leader is less about the hands-on and more about management, organizational skills and ability to delegate. Building is something that is very rewarding; however, without the interpersonal skills to manage others, your career might get stalled. 

What obstacles have you faced during your career, and how were you able to overcome them? What are the greatest rewards?
In the beginning there were some obstacles to overcome, given that I didn’t have a technical degree. The reality was that once I got that first shot, I could work hard, make a difference, and impress others enough that one opportunity led to another. Frankly, the biggest obstacles in my early career were my own limiting beliefs in myself when I was younger. When I began my career, I didn’t realize what I was capable of. Once I figured that out and became more confident, obstacles (such as a company going under during the dot.com bust or something not working as expected) simply became learning experiences. The greatest reward is that I’ve given great opportunities to people to further their careers, and many of these guys have become good friends.

What attributes do you look for in recruiting and hiring team members and colleagues?
Humor is awesome, along with self-knowledge, and transparency. Also, I like grown-ups in terms of accountability; you show up for the team. Ambition can be great as well.

What insight can you provide in regards to working for a start-up? Co-worker interaction, environment, etc.
Do what needs to be done, regardless. In a start-up, you might have to run out to buy toilet paper– and beer, of course. And don’t get in the habit of eating the ubiquitous snacks. Experience has taught me to swear off Oreos and Red Bull.

The journey to one’s career inevitably begins with menial tasks, as you must first pay your dues. What advice can you offer everygirls in staying motivated during this time?
Suck it up, buttercup. I’m joking a little, but really enjoy it. It’s about the journey. Add value and you’ll be surprised where you end up.   

Being a successful woman leading a team at We Heart it, how do you go about delegating tasks?
I love managing my team. We work very collaboratively. I feel privileged to work at We Heart It and to be able to mentor such a strong team of engineers. I look at who has strengths in what area and try to match up projects that way. It is important to set my team up for success by playing to their strengths. We work in Agile, as do a lot of tech teams, so everyone is self-directed and has to be. There’s no soft pillows or romantic music around delegation: stuff has to be done, my job is to make sure it does.

We Heart It is a social network that provides a canvas for people to connect, create and express themselves through images. We Heart It is where people express their authentic self and how they feel today. Unlike apps full of selfless and humble bragging, We Heart It is a comment-free space where people share with others through images that capture every moment and idea. People are able to share, express, and be themselves creatively without fear of backlash. We Heart It facilitates a shift in mood; our users tell us they browse to feel good. 

Best moment in your career thus far?
I’m in the now. We Heart It is delivering an awesome experience to millions of young people and I’m loving it. (You can find me at weheartit.com/sonjaerickson– I need more followers. I like puns and bunnies, by the way, and am fond of unicorns.).

What advice would you give your 23 year old self?
Don’t assume you know who you will become; I never could have predicted my career, nor what’s possible in the world.

Sonja Erickson is The Everygirl

How would you spend a day off?
It’s trite, but I’m into yoga. And I like mixing fancy cocktails and hosting dinner parties.

Vacation you’re dying to take?
Surf camp, but first I have to conquer my fear of waves.

I wish I knew how to:
speak spanish, tango, keep my cat form scratching my furniture.

Favorite way to unwind:
If it’s been a long day I like to drink a beer and watch Chelsea Lately.  Alone or with friends.

If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Tavi Gevinson of Rookie. She’s not even 18, so I wouldn’t order a cocktail. She’s a genius and pretty great actor and represents the demographic of We Heart It’s members

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