Lithuanian-native, Justina is building a successful IT career in the US. She's proof, you have to learn to fight for your dreams.
After accepting a management position two years ago, Justina Juknevičiūtė left Lithuania and is currently working at the Chicago branch of the US programming services company Devbridge. Justina's journey into the IT sector began early, at just 16 years old. Although her career has met various challenges, today, she relishes her career dynamics, a tremendous pace, and a growing professional experience that stretches beyond the Atlantic.
She's been working at Devbridge for almost five years, two of them in Chicago. I sat down with her to learn more about her experience working in IT.
What was your career path like? Was it challenging to decide to leave Lithuania and relocate to the US? What did you do to prepare?
My time at Devbridge came quite naturally. I started my career as a senior test engineer. At that time, the Vilnius branch had a little more than 20 employees, half of them working on the project I joined. We were working on a product for lawyers to make it easier for them to find evidence in digital documents. As the complexity of the project and the team grew, so did my responsibilities.
Initially, I took on the responsibility of the product testing strategy and its practical maturity and integrity. I later oversaw the project results, not only in the field of testing. As such, I found project management challenges emerging alongside engineering puzzles.
I believe that this experience led to a further positive to then reset my professional goals. The support and trust from my managers and my achievements proved that I can do more than I dared to try before. We arranged for me to move to Chicago, where I could gain more project management experience. It wasn't hard to decide or prepare for it. I didn't go off into the unknown. The change seemed like a natural progression.
What tasks and changes awaited you in Chicago? How did you manage to adapt to the new environment?
When I went to Chicago, one of the greatest personal changes I had was shifting from being a night owl into an early bird. Due to time zone differences, I wanted to start the working day early to have more coordination time with my colleagues in Lithuania. I'm now used to the earlier days, and I even really like this change.
The nature of the work has also changed. I used to get involved in the project when it was already clear what we would produce and how. Part of my job is to make sure that what clients want to implement is the right and the best solution for their business problem. I am now involved in the project from the outset: from setting project goals, budgeting, and team size planning to solving day-to-day issues or managing the client's expectations during the project.
I consider two things to be my direct responsibility: first, the well-being of the project team, and second, achieving project goals. I think the more complex the project, the more critical team coherence is. I am happy to share knowledge and contribute to the growth of the team. It's hard to get over the finish line if everyone is not pulling in the same direction.
What sparked your interest in information technology?
We had two distinct professional lines in the family - either "exact" or musicians. As a child, I tried both. I graduated from music school, but when my uncle donated a computer, he actually gifted Pandora's box. I remember I was green with envy because my neighbor had Windows 98, and I only had 95 at the time. My uncle had recorded a lot of old rock and various games on that computer, and that was enough.
As a curious and headstrong child, I immediately became hooked and began to take an active interest in how all sorts of things work. I remember that at that time, we were still using Dial-up Internet with those funny connection sounds. I got a lot of grief because while I was "hanging out" on the Internet, no one could call our landline. I was particularly successful at school, and I really enjoyed mathematics, physics, and computer science. After graduating from Julius Janonis Gymnasium in Šiauliai, I finally decided to study Technomathematics at Gediminas Technical University in Vilnius.
You have more than ten years of professional experience. How did you decide on a career in IT?
I have heard from colleagues that their parents said they would not make a living out of games. My parents didn't say that. For as long as I can remember, I liked computer games, and still do.
I had friends who were actively working on online game projects, one of whom offered me the chance to join his team. At that time, it was one of the most popular MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) servers in Lithuania. When you have several thousand players on one server, you have a lot to learn: from communicating with different people, managing time, not to mention professional responsibilities and duties. Perhaps because I was responsible and didn't allow the work to affect my science results, or perhaps because they saw my passion, my parents always supported my various "extracurricular" adventures.
I graduated with honors and sincerely didn't know what to study. I am grateful to my father that instead of giving specific answers. His advice made me take responsibility for big decisions myself. He said, "Choose whatever you want. The most important thing is that you're happy." I chose a field of study that would combine my hobbies. I figured that sooner or later, my real vocation would appear on its own.
While studying in Vilnius, I worked on various online game projects until the third year. Later, the IT teacher offered to try out the field of testing. I subsequently found myself in the internship program of a well-known IT company. There I gained valuable experience and later went out to work in the IT department of one of the largest banks.
How did you manage to combine studies and work? What was the hardest part about pursuing a career in IT for you? What words of wisdom would you like to offer those pursuing this field?
The biggest challenge was finding time for all the activities without abandoning my studies. Also, I think we are each faced with stereotypes in one way or another. I have had to fight a number of times to be judged on my competence. Contrary to what it often seems, it wasn't because of gender or because IT is considered a "male" profession.
Much more often, additional efforts had to be made to earn the respect and trust of colleagues due to my young age. In these situations, I learned several things like how to substantiate and project my opinion, and have patience and not to give up, even if the circumstances do not seem fair. Perhaps most importantly, it's never set up barriers for yourself just because someone else doesn't believe in you.
I came to Devbridge after gaining a lot of experience and maybe feeling a little burned out. Fortunately, I found a team and an organization that matched my values and allowed me to successfully move up the career ladder. I am really very grateful for that.
In your five years at Devbridge, you have progressed to being a top leader who works on one of the organization's most significant projects. Do you see your career path in the US? Do you still miss Lithuania and have considered returning to work in Vilnius, Kaunas, or Klaipėda?
I'm currently happy in Chicago; it is fun working in an intercultural team. I'm happy to have improved in my professional field, but there's always something new to learn. Of course, I miss Lithuania, especially my mother's cold borscht and tea evenings and conversations with my father until the early morning. I used to return to Lithuania at least twice a year, but during the pandemic, it has become impossible.
Although there are really great opportunities to travel in America, a lot of beautiful nature, and a good lifestyle, there is at least one area where Vilnius beats Chicago. That is the sand volleyball arena, where summer lasts all year long. In Chicago, the volleyball season is much shorter. There are more reasons to return to my much-loved Vilnius, not just because of volleyball. Just not yet this year.