Riikka Mercer on the beauty of technology and the importance of community

Riikka Mercer on the beauty of technology and the importance of community.

Most people may think that building community within a workplace is the job of the managers or HR. They may wish there were more committees supporting them and their coworkers but lament that said committees haven't been created. Riikka isn't one of these people.

Work should be a safe place for everyone.

Riikka Mercer
Technical Product Owner, Ascendum
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Since starting at Ascendum, she has been an integral part of the creation and success of several employee-run committees, all while working a full schedule as a product owner. She took the time to chat with us about her love of technology, what drew her to her career, and community building at work.

Can you explain your job a little and what it entails?

I act as a product owner. I help with managing projects, products, and relationships with insurance, artificial intelligence, and financial clients. I help make sure we know what the client needs and work with the team to be able to deliver on those needs.

What drew you to this career?

I love technology. I’ve been working in software for 11 years. For me designing and building applications and platforms is almost like art. It’s taking chaos and structuring it so many people can work together to build something that helps others. I’ve worked as a Business Analyst, Application Manager, Scrum Master, Project Manager, and Product Owner. I’d probably do it all again if given the chance!

For me designing and building applications and platforms is almost like art.

What’s the best part of your job? 

The people I meet and being able to build a relationship with them, understand what they’re struggling with, and being able to see their smiles when they get solutions to make their lives easier. It is my way of feeling like I helped someone have an easier time. I also love the Diversity work I get to do and how supportive the company is. I don’t have to worry about hiding who I am here. I get to help build connections, make people feel welcomed, spread awareness on important topics like mental health, pride, and community volunteering. These are what make me love my job.

Did you have any notable mentors in your career? If so, what advice still sticks with you? 

My first boss out of college was a wonderful person named Cindy. She was managing .net and vendor applications in the financial industry. The first thing she did when we met each other is ask if I had a preferred name, what I’d like to learn and do, and how she can help me grow.   I still view her has the best manager I’ve ever had. I try to be a person who can help my team feel welcome and comfortable talking about what they need. We are all people and I want to support my peers as best as I can, so they grow along with me.

I want to support my peers as best as I can, so they grow along with me.

How did you start your career as a Product Owner? 

I thought I was going to college to be a software developer. I graduated as a Project Manager and Business Analyst. One thing that I learned is that it’s possible to develop into areas you want to grow by communicating with my manager. I got to learn writing code by asking to help build a few pages in our report module. I got to learn how to work with MicroStrategy, SQL, TotalAgility, Cortex and more by seeing a need and asking to help fill the gap. It allowed me to grow and be more technical so I could talk to developers in their language and still understand business language.

What accomplishments are you most proud of, work or otherwise?

I’m happy I am finding work life balance and have support from work and chosen family to focus on self-care. It took a long time in life to get to a point where I didn’t neglect myself. I’m also proud of being able to work with diversity and help young adults fresh from college find out what they’d like to do via internships and hearing them be happy and confident. I was excited to see the jobs they got and stay connected even after the internship. Happy several chose to come back to my team!

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in the tech industry?

When I first started my career, I struggled with one team member who did not like having a project manager that was so young. For a while I had to leverage another developer to relay tasks to this person and ultimately worked with our manager to try to come to equal ground. It was resolved in the end and it’s the last time I’ve seen someone look at my experience level or age as a reason of conflict.

As I was coming to terms with my LGBT+ side I also ran into a few issues where I worked with 2 separate scrum masters in the past. In both cases they would make comments about my Preferred name vs. Legal name or preferred pronouns. In both instances I worked with the manager and HR and both times the issue was resolved. I luckily haven’t had similar incidents in the past several years or at this company.  These have taught me though that being open with my manager and having connections to the diversity and HR groups gives me a strong position to voice my concerns when something does happen, and I would encourage anyone who feels discrimination to reach out to their HR or Manager. Work should be a safe place for everyone.