I’ll be part of a panel discussion this evening for a class on “Women, Gender, and Information Technology” through UMBC. The point of the panel is to discuss career advice and women’s experiences in the tech workspace, and the questions and answers below give a taste of that. Of course, all of the answers reflect my personal experiences and opinions, shaped through some 25+ years as a practicing software developer, senior technical leader, and often team lead or people manager. I’m looking forward to hearing what the other panelists offer, as well as what questions the students may ask us directly.
If you were teaching a course on women, gender, and IT or engineering what topics would you be sure to cover?
- Historic goof-ups: they’re memorable, occasionally funny, and help folks realize that technical folks are not all-knowing, no matter what we otherwise think.
- Ways to collaborate in teams: code reviews, design sessions, sprint planning. That will help folks be comfortable speaking, knowing that they understand how to provide value to the team either directly or through gaining knowledge that helps them contribute more strongly
- How to participate well in retrospectives, so that the team gains value and you gain visibility. Think through options like small incremental changes or big bang experiments
- How you can keep learning, both within and outside of a project
Were you encouraged to pursue STEM as a child? What were your STEM elementary and high school experiences like?
I knew as a 6th grader that I wanted to program computers, so yes. We had a computer at home and I wrote programs using Turtle. My parents also paid for me to go to Gifted and Talented camps in which I chose computer programming focuses. Academic success was highly valued, and if my avenue of doing that was computer programming, they were good with that. I took AP Computer Science in high school, though opted to not sit for the exam, as I didn’t believe our program was very strong and wanted to make sure I got the full thrust of material while in undergrad.
What is something that you wish you had known as an undergraduate student?
Interestingly, I don’t think I knew loans were an option. Going into college, I understood that I either earned a scholarship or joined the military, as my parents were upfront that they weren’t paying for our college educations. Thus, the _only_ schools I looked at were in-state schools where I thought I might have good odds of earning a scholarship or being able to earn enough money through a job to pay them off. As it worked out, UMBC was an outstanding choice. But I basically defaulted into it.
I’m also very glad that I took an internship as early as I could. In my sophomore year, I worked through the Shriver Center to earn a job through a startup. In my junior and senior year, I then worked for a different startup that was housed in the on-campus business incubator. Working with those startups gave me a chance to do work that made an impact for those companies and gave me the confidence that I could get paid to deliver workable software. That gave me a context through which to approach my classes, as well: yes, I could get paid without writing an operating system from scratch. (Still needed to pass the class to get through the degree, but wasn’t going to kill my career possibilities if that wasn’t my passion.) I hear of students who don’t look for an internship until their senior year and think that they’re doing themselves a disservice.
How did you decide if industry or graduate school was the right choice for you following undergrad?
Well, that idea of not taking loans was still front and center and I’d proved through internships that I could start to make my way in the world. I opted to start my career and then assess whether I needed a graduate degree to move forward.
When I did start to look at graduate degrees, I knew folks who were working through them at work. I was doing many of the things they were doing in class as part of my work. So I opted to steer clear. I did work towards an MBA at one point, but put that aside because it wasn’t fitting well with work + having young kids. Pragmatically, I also wasn’t going to get paid more as an engineer with an MBA, at least in the line of work I’ve been in.
I finally did do a masters, just within the last few years. I had earned a position at work for which I thought I needed a new set of technical skills. I thought a focused masters would be the best approach for learning them, so went back to school in my mid-forties to get my masters in cybersecurity. I earned it this past December, though before completing it changed companies and roles so no longer feel I need it, so much as needed personally to finish it up for pride reasons.
What is the best piece of professional advice that you have received?
Lots of folks will tell you to have 3-6 months of savings stashed for an emergency. Someone once told me to save it as my “go to hell” fund. By that, they meant, if I no longer thought I was working in a healthy environment, I didn’t have to stay. I could walk out the door that day and know I had a cushion to bounce off of until I could pick up a new gig. I’ve saved the money, but never actually used it that way. There’s a mental power, though, in knowing that I could if I need to. That I can say what needs to be said or do what needs to be done, without worrying that I’ve caused my family to end up on the street. That idea of knowing that I could walk out if I needed to, that I get to make the choice to stay rather than just be stuck: that’s a powerful advantage. That power to leave also lets me be more confident in my decisions to join: if it doesn’t work, I’ll find the next thing. I keep my skills sharp, my resume up to date, and keep in contact with those I’d be interested in working with again. And if I don’t immediately find the next thing, well, again, I won’t starve.
What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess and why?
A sense of the skills and knowledge of her team, so that she can help them grow as individuals and as a team, as well as make promises to stakeholders re: delivery. That’s whether she’s the explicit team lead or aiding as a contributor.
This is particularly important on technical teams: I’ve too often seen team leads promise out that something can be done or maintained by their team based on what a single developer can deliver, and assuming that then multiplies out by the number of developers on the team. Lots of times that single developer isn’t able to bring the rest of the team up to their level of understanding. Sometimes that single talented developer leaves and the team has to try to maintain what they built. I had a project once where the team lead (also the most talented developer) unexpectedly passed away and the team had to try to rebuild their knowledge and meet their delivery promises. ‘Twas a most unfortunate summer all the way around.