Miia Järvenpää has had a long and winding journey from being the only woman at the meeting table to being part of an equal work community. Because of her own experiences, she is now encouraging other women to enter the industry and take pride in their achievements.
The pile of laundry grows while Antti Holma tells a story about a pottery circle in Sonkajärvi. The women of the pottery circle were well-known for creating clay tableware sets with dozens of pieces, each more beautiful than the next. Upon completing a piece, the women would show their works to the other circle members in the understated and apologetic manner typical of Finns.
“Watching them from behind my potter’s wheel, my 13-year-old self thought that they were all out of their minds,” Holma remarks.
Miia Järvenpää, 43, laughs, folds another pillowcase, and sets it on top of the pile.
Humour and a sense of humour have helped Miia get through many a difficult situation. The situation at hand is not actually difficult; Miia is doing housework while listening to an episode of Holma’s Auta Antti podcast.
“A bit of laughter is a good way to empty the brain after work,” Miia says.
Miia works as Senior Data Engineer at the IT company *Haallas (now Siili Solutions). Her job is to make sure that the company’s clients have access to the data needed to support their business decisions. Miia is currently defining the implementation of investment reports for a company operating in the energy industry.
“My job requires close concentration so that the large amounts of data can be transferred to the right place in the right format. Preventing errors also saves the client’s time and money,” Miia remarks.
Just another colleague
Miia has worked in the IT industry for more than 20 years. After completing a bachelor’s degree in information technology in 2003, she immediately found a job at the same telecommunications company where she had interned and for which she had also written a thesis during her internship. While studying, she worked with ADSL routers in service provision. Soon after graduation, she started working in the reporting team, which better introduced her to the world of data and its tools, such as IBM Cognos.
“The technology has changed over the years, but the need to understand SQL and the rules of data modelling and relational databases is still there,” Miia remarks.
At the start of her career, Miia was almost always the only woman at the meeting table. This did not go unnoticed by anyone.
“Being a woman, I had to prove my skills in an entirely different way than my male colleagues,” Miia says.
However, she is also grateful to many of her male colleagues for treating her like any other colleague. Miia says that they taught her to be gracious towards herself. There is no need for her to be like one of the women from the Sonkajärvi pottery circle; instead, she can be satisfied with herself even if the first solution is not perfect or she makes mistakes.
“It was important to be regarded simply as one of the employees and colleagues among the others, rather than only as a woman.”
Who does not belong
Miia has always been the most interested in the visual aspect of reporting. In practice, however, there has always been more work to do ‘under the hood’, gathering information into databases and carrying out modelling. In recent years, self-service reporting solutions have become available, allowing clients to prepare their own reports based on data.
Being artistically talented, Miia originally planned to apply to study at the College of Design. It could have been an easier road, perhaps, but Miia also had an analytical side and was fascinated by mathematical subjects. In the end, this fascination was great enough that Miia ended up studying information technology instead of the arts.
During general upper secondary school, Miia was encouraged to select the basic syllabus in mathematics, as the guidance counsellor claimed that the advanced syllabus was more of a ‘boy thing’. Miia remembers wondering about this claim but accepting it in the end – after all, the guidance counsellor was a woman herself.
When Miia started studying at the University of Applied Sciences, she first had to work hard to reach the same level in her mathematics and physics studies as those who had completed the advanced syllabus. In other words, the boys.
Of the one hundred students who started studying information technology at the University of Applied Sciences at the same time as Miia, only six were women.
“Our gender made it difficult for us to be a part of the group. I wasn’t able to get involved in student groups until my third year of study, when I was a member of a student association’s board,” Miia recalls.
The bias that information technology was more of a man’s thing also sometimes came up in teachers’ talk.
“It almost felt like everyone was waiting for us to give up and quit.”
Some of the women did just that, and the number of women in the group decreased to four by Miia’s third year of study.
Talking about the feeling of not belonging to the group reminds Miia of an anecdote from her impulse trip to China during her studies. A three-month student exchange period in Shanghai was quite a challenge. Miia did not speak a word of Chinese, and she used a guidebook to get around the megalopolis.
“It was a time when even a city as huge as Shanghai only had a few internet cafés, and you could only send very expensive text messages from your phone. I kept in touch with the people at home by letter,” Miia recalls.
Miia says that many Chinese people took a photo of her for their home albums as though she were a tourist attraction. Westerners were a rare sight in the countryside in particular.
“What I learned about myself on my trip to China was that I’m ready to jump into a wide variety of things without prejudice. That’s why, instead of pigeonholing myself into any particular box, I’ve done all sorts of things where I can learn something new,” Miia muses.
Today, Miia is joined by many other women at the meeting table. Miia is a respected expert in information technology within her work community and throughout the industry, with an astonishingly wide range of skills. During her career, she has worked for several respected companies and with Finland’s largest brands. Miia has also had varied work responsibilities under the same job title.
“I’ve been able to think about broader entities or focus on smaller components. In addition to being an implementer, I’ve also sometimes taken on a more consultative role, provided training and mentored a colleague who is just starting out, for example.
Miia has worked in senior roles for a big part of her career, but she feels that she does not want to move on to a management role, at least not yet. However, she has completed studies in technology competence management while working.
“I’ve always liked to get my hands dirty at work, and I draw energy from such things as learning new technologies and holding workshops with clients. I also like the freedom in my work.”
Miia is grateful to her employer for being flexible according to her life situation. As a parent whose child lives with her on alternate weeks, Miia has sole responsibility for her school-aged daughter’s comings and goings every other week.
“This wouldn’t be possible if I couldn’t adapt my working hours to my child’s schedules. For example, I can work shorter days one week and then get my hours in the next week. The main thing is that the work is done.”
Miia says that the IT industry has changed a great deal from the start of her career. It is luckily no longer considered to be a men’s industry to the same degree. The increasing respect for women and other genders is evident in such things as training aimed specifically at them.
Miia meets people who work in or are interested in the IT industry through training and events such as those organised by the Mimmit koodaa community, which provides coding workshops for women.
“If my example can inspire someone to take an interest in this industry, it’s well worth the effort. I wish that I’d had someone who I could’ve turned to for advice and encouragement. Now I can offer them myself.”
Miia encourages everyone to complete at least some studies in the field, even if they are not interested in making a career out of it. After all, these studies never go amiss.
“The digital transformation will certainly not decrease in the future, on the contrary. That’s why all IT skills will be beneficial in the future,” she points out.
Miia has bought the entire Hello Ruby book series by Linda Liukas for her daughter, as they teach children about computers. Instead of a game console, she bought a computer for her child so that her daughter could also learn the technical side of things. Miia loves listening to her daughter talk about servers and IP addresses.
“My daughter was excited when she had lessons on information technology at school and realised that she was already familiar with the subject. Children pick up these things quickly, so it also easily provides them with experiences of success.”
Miia herself experiences feelings of success when she learns to understand a client’s business and finds data processing solutions that support it. She considers it a real boon that she has been able to get to know so many different industries through her work.
“This work certainly involves customer service because the same solution is not often applicable to more than one case. It requires not only an understanding of the client’s business but also a broad view of the industry.”
Urge to twerk
Miia was born and raised in Joensuu. She lives in the city centre, only a few hundred metres from the Market Square and the Siili office located right next to it. She likes the rural city’s relaxed atmosphere and tempo of life, which also leave time for things besides commuting.
After work, Miia heads for a rehearsal of the university choir or a twerk class. She discovered both of these hobbies as an adult, but they have become important for her mental and physical wellbeing in a short amount of time.
“When I sing and dance, I can empty my mind of other thoughts. Both hobbies also teach me new things about myself,” Miia remarks.
Miia is a die-hard fan of rock music. She has travelled around Finland and the world to see her favourite bands perform. For Miia, the next best thing after live music is listening to rock classics on scratchy vinyl records. It has its own feel.
Miia never thought that she would one day find herself attending twerk classes, much less enjoy them. Yet here she is, heading for the local gym every Tuesday and Wednesday, putting on her dance shorts and surrendering to hip-hop music.
“It did feel a little funny at first because all of the other participants were younger girls clearly immersed in the genre, but then I figured, so what?” Miia says.
Miia has also been involved in the activities of the charitable association Hope for several years, helping low-income families with children. Whenever she has the time, she accepts donations of toys, clothing and other items at the association’s office, or donations of backpacks and Christmas presents at a shopping centre.
“It’s rewarding work that I can do by donating my time and a pair of hands. It’s really worth it.”
Although Miia likes living in Joensuu, she sometimes wishes for a change of scenery. Previously, she used to visit abroad at least once a year. Miia has recently cut back on travelling abroad and looked for new sceneries closer to home.
“I love travelling, but it’s very unecological, especially flying. I hope that it will be possible to travel in more environmentally-friendly ways in the future,” she remarks.
Fortunately, there are also many places worth seeing in Finland. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Miia discovered amazing places in her region. Visiting Koli was also a fantastic experience, as it had been several years since Miia’s last visit.
“We have beautiful natural areas right next door here. Perhaps we just don’t always appreciate them as much as we could,” Miia muses.
Miia’s robust professional skills are also in demand outside of her home town, but, after many twists and turns, she is happy exactly where she is. Well, almost.
Miia’s dream for the future is to own a house by a lake somewhere near Joensuu. It would have a music room where she could listen to Guns N’ Roses and Led Zeppelin on vinyl and watch the lake change throughout the seasons.
Being proud of herself and her achievements.
*Siili Solutions acquired Haallas' business in October 2022. You can read more about it by following this link.
Text: Annika Lius
Images: Tuomas Kinnunen