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.

When you’re experienced in life…

And you have a 10-15 page paper due for your masters class…

You start with a beer…

And you don’t plug in your laptop, so time is ticking…

And you write a WordPress post…

And then maybe, just maybe, you write your paper.

After another beer.

(Inspired by “When You Give a Mouse a Cookie” and an impending group project deadline.)

I’ve concluded that the metric by which God will assess my life isn’t dollars but the individual people whose lives I’ve touched.

Clayton Christensen, in an article for Harvard Business Review, “How Will You Measure Your Life”

Mr. Christensen is most famously known for writing “The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail”. He passed away yesterday.

How Will You Measure Your Life

Check the article for how he answered three questions, and why he thought they were the right three questions:

  • how can I be sure that I’ll be happy in my career?
  • how can I be sure that my relationships with my spouse and my family become an enduring source of happiness?
  • how can I be sure I’ll stay out of jail?

I’ll keep thinking on the three, and perhaps answer in a later post. Will just say up front that his questions are worth pondering.

It seems fitting after a long day of responsibility and leadership that I should look down at my feet and see wiggling ears on my socks. I remember that I paired these socks’ color with an executive ensemble designed to give a good impression in the office today. I put on my black boots to pair with my slacks, and the boots and the slacks covered the ears. But now the boots are off, the day is done, and the ears can wiggle. I am pleased in an illogical sort of way.

I spent most of last weekend at my alma mater, UMBC. Friday night, I met some new mentees through the CWIT mentoring program, and Saturday and Sunday were spent at HackUMBC. So, lots of opportunities to observe undergraduates in action and answer questions about what sorts of things my company does and who we hire.

The hackathon was a very interesting experience for me. Participants got started after lunch on Saturday and turned in their projects Sunday at 1. There was no guidance on what to build or who to build it with, other than that teams could consist of 1-4 participants. There were a few prizes offered by sponsors such as ourselves for which a team could go after – ours was for best data visualization but others sought best hack using Docker, best use of public financial data, or best use of Google Cloud Platform, just to name a few. There was nothing stopping a project from applying for multiple categories: I know we saw a project for our data visualization judging that used financial data and Docker containers – not sure if they hosted anything on Google Cloud Platform.

The goal of a hackathon isn’t only to win prizes, of course. It’s also supposed to give teams a chance to learn and apply new skills. The team that won our prize used Unity, a gaming engine. Other teams used d3.js or plot.ly or Google Maps + some HTML or even Minecraft (linking directly to that project – innovative idea). Some teams got farther than others: one team had a great concept and a locally installed Jupyter notebook (via Docker, if I remember correctly: check off a potential prize category) with a well-built out machine learning model that they could reason about and defend. But they just hadn’t gotten to hooking up their prototype UI to their data. Another team had a drop-down list to trigger a visualization, but could only as yet talk to their concept of the visualization. That didn’t win them our prize, but still gave those teams a good bit of interesting experiences to talk to us about.

Remember, these students had 24 hours to bring together a team, put together a project concept, and then execute on their concept. Now, I know practically that some of these folks team regularly together. And at least one team indicated they’d been scraping Twitter data ahead of the event to give them a leg up on building out their display that needed geo-located tweets. Still, though: I saw team formation happening in the hackathon Slack channel and at the tables in front of our sponsor area.

What was more amazing to me was that a few teams came up to our table and asked my guidance on what tools to use. Some of that happened late in the afternoon on Saturday. Meaning, they were picking their toolkits on the fly, and then building out their app without prior experience in at least portions of the stack. For a project that had a hard timeline, though admittedly loose requirements. Wow – the very thought gives me personally the shudders, were I in their shoes. Uh, I’d want to form my team knowing that folks had complementary skills that could come together to solve a generic set of problems. One team told me they didn’t know how to interact with databases and knew they wanted one, so they coded up a flat file database on the fly. I have to believe I’d have taken a different route, but kudos to them for pulling something off with it.

I’m trying to imagine how to use that hackathon idea for an event at my company or through BWIC. I’d have a hard time personally carving out a full weekend: attending the event during the day was a big enough lift, but many of the students stayed overnight. One indicated to me she’d had a great idea and burst of energy after her 20 minute power nap. Ugh. Been there, done that, don’t wanna go back! But maybe spreading it out over a week would work. Or constraining it to a day. It just looked like so much fun!

Last month was my one year anniversary with ClearEdge. I had the opportunity to drive our company Tesla for one day… and I passed it by because I was crazy-busy working on a proposal.

Sweet Tesla ride!

My chance came around earlier this month again, and I passed it by.. this time, I’d managed to lose my wallet and license while driving my motorcycle. Since I didn’t have a license to present for insurance purposes, I had to let my chance slide by.

This week, though – well, this week I had my license AND a new promotion to a director-level position. I didn’t let it pass me by. That Tesla and I drove to all the happening places: church for VBS, the Chic-Fil-A drive-through where my daughter was working, breakfast with my hubby for our anniversary (21!) AND the Bruster’s ice cream stand. Because the new cyber technical director needs to go out in style!

So, Tesla uniqueness… electric car, ridiculously good pickup : 0-60 in < 5 seconds. SO comfy inside.. Streaming music. Quiet ride. App that lets you make your passengers’ seats make fart noises. Automatic lights and windshield wipers. Self-driving.

Self-driving: As a parent who relatively recently had to ride with a new teenage driver, I have to confess feeling that same panic when auto-steering was on. As a software engineer, I never want to think about computers being in control. Watching Tesla think that the car next to me was shaking and pivoting 30 degrees back and forth into my lane did not give me confidence as I rode past a guy walking along the side of the road. And auto-steering did mean auto-braking on the highway as cars ahead of me slowed; it did not mean auto-braking at the red light in my neighborhood. Thankfully, I was watching and testing for that…

My twelve year old is convinced we should buy one. My frugalness suggests I’ll pass. That said, if ClearEdge were to pull my name from the hat in September as the winner, I’d be happy to use the fart app all the way down the highway…

Ran across a comic strip this morning described as “9 Non-Threatening Leadership Strategies For Women”. . Linked to the original source, but the reminder of it this evening came from Fast Company’s “How to be a Non-Threatening Woman”, which linked back to the Cooper Review’s original article…

In this fast-paced business world, female leaders need to make sure they’re not perceived as pushy, aggressive or competent. One way to do that is to alter your leadership style to account for the (sometimes) fragile male ego.

When I first skimmed it this morning, I thought the writer was trying to give good advice… “Trying” being the important word here. I grew frustrated as I read the article, until my caffeine-deprived brain got enough clues that this was a tongue-in-cheek approach and meant to highlight the pain-in-the-rear-edness behaviors some of us experience, and the stereotypical coping strategies / highly annoying behaviors some folks use to cope. (Note that I’m not focusing solely on women doing the coping – seen guys do some of these things as well. Just as highly annoying.)

I’m a woman in tech. Highly outnumbered and have been throughout my career. On my current project, in a room of 35, I’m one of 3 women. The 3rd woman joined one month ago, while the 2nd woman was still on maternity leave. So, for several months, just me in the estrogen column. Neither of the other two women are leaders of groups in the room. Leaving me the sole female leader in a room where the guys shoot rubber bands at each other as a form of male bonding, where another of the tech leads said his frat-hazing treatment of a more junior member of the team was his way of showing care, and where one team member gave another leader in the room a thong as a way of poking fun at his accent in pronouncing ‘thon’… I’ve been talked over, had things demeaningly explained to me, and had my points and ideas repeated by others (and thus finally heard)… I definitely lean to the ‘left’ on the pictures presented in the article, and refuse to shimmy to the right.

Next week, I leave that particular team. I didn’t think I was leaving because of the sort of behaviors demonstrated – there were other reasons to leave. But suddenly realizing how much I’m looking forward to gelling with a new team.

Part of my job duties include recruiting new software engineers to join our firm. I think we’re pretty neat. We’re small, though, so its not as if we run mega-magazine campaigns or TV or radio ads. Instead, we rely on a more direct form of recruiting. If I know you, you’re likely to hear about our company. If I don’t know you but we have a chance to talk about professional stuff, you’re likely to hear about our company. If you’re connected to me on LinkedIn, you’re likely to hear about our company. And if LinkedIn thinks you might be a good fit for the candidates we’re searching for, you’re likely to hear about our company.

Where you’re not likely to hear about our company, as heavily anyway: my personal Facebook profile or other social network personas. I keep my professional network fairly broad, and my personal network a bit more close. Microsoft announced today that it’s buying LinkedIn, and various TV talking heads were concerned that LinkedIn’s network reach and stickiness (how many times I’m likely to return in a day/week/etc) aren’t as high as, say, Facebook or Twitter. I don’t go to LinkedIn as often. When I go, it’s for a specific purpose. When I “clock out”, I go to other places. LinkedIn wouldn’t serve me well, and thus wouldn’t receive the money I give it per month to provide search and contact services, if it was as wildly open to interactions as other spots.

So, Microsoft, find better ways to help me source candidates. Find better ways to help me market myself to potential employers. But don’t expose my info to every family member, church member, friend of a friend, etc: I prefer to keep my business activities separate.

Headed on the train up to NYC to attend Strata, which is a BigData + Hadoop conference. Looking forward to sessions on Spark, as well as getting exposure to other open source platforms which might be of interest to my company or to its clients. And, of course, interested in making contacts that help us either hire more people or enter into new business areas – particularly those that have fewer barriers to entry to bringing on people!

That’s the blend of things that go into my idea of a successful conference visit. I should come away with some 3-5 contacts that make sense to follow up with, post conference, and should find 2-3 things that I hadn’t previously really been exposed to. Oh, and I should be able to come away with some sort of themes of the event – folks were talking about topicY moreso than topicX, or the main thrust of the birds of the feathers sessions aligned or didn’t align with what I saw in the curated conference speaker topics. And somehow fit in a bit of wandering around the expo to see if there’s a commercial offering that makes sense to track or compare the open-source world to – some killer feature or ease of use bundling or new infrastructure or platform as a service offering to experiment with.

After the event, I’ll put together a summary – intent is to post it here, as well as make it available through our corporate LinkedIn page. Nerdery publicly shared!