WiAC ’12: Panel / Strategies for a Successful Career in Computing

Hey! I was at the USENIX Women in Advanced Computing 2012 Summit earlier this week and am blogging the talks from it. You can view more of my posts about this conference under the wiac12 category on this blog.

Panel: Strategies for a Successful Career in Computing

  • Rikki Endsley – community manager for USENIX
  • Jennifer Ash-Poole, AdNet Systems/NASA GSFC
  • Jessica McKellar, Project Lead, Ksplice Group, Oracle
  • Sherry Moore, Software Engineer, Google
  • Margo Seltzer, Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences


Rikki: Once you’ve been in a field for a while, you get bits of wisdom along the way. What do you wish you’d known then that you know now? What advice would you want to give yourself back then?

Sherry: I think as a female engineer, one thing I definitely wish I’d known is to market yourself. There are many ways to market yourself that aren’t just about going to presentations, to your boss, or to your upper manager. If you want to be well-respected among other engineers, especially as the only female, you should tell the people around you about the hard problems you’ve been solving. Do this at lunchtime, in the hallway – but say it with enthusiasm. You’ll gain so much respect from the other engineers, who will also support you. I wish I had known that – once I learned that, my career advanced tremendously.
Margo: It’s okay to ask questions. Be confident enough to ask questions. I was a young engineer at Stratus and I’d been asked to do this fairly straightforward task. There was a part I fundamentally didn’t understand. Instead of asking, I did something really stupid – when I had my code review, my boss looked at me and said, “You didn’t ask, did you? You could have just asked!” For a variety of reasons – it’s not just us, the guys have this problem too – you feel like you’re suddenly stupid if you have to ask a question. Being confident enough to ask questions and hvae them answered is important.
Jessica: To make a sweeping generalization, if you have opportunities in front of you – just say “yes.” Commit to the conference talk, even if you’re afraid it’s over your head. Go to the dangerous start-up. Don’t freak out about it. If people are confident in you, take them up on it. Okay, don’t actually say yes to everything – I mean – if you feel something is too much of a reach – just do it.

Rikki: Since you’re young and female – what has been your experience as such a young women in a male-dominated field today?

Jessica: In the startup scene, I think the situation has definitely gotten better. If you surround yourself with people who want to succeed… well, they want the best people. The places where people assume I’m ‘in HR’ are places like conferences or on the internet. This doesn’t happen with the real people I work with day-to-day. I’m working with young people. I hesitate to talk about a generational difference there, but people I’m working with who are older and further away from my day-to-day work are the ones I have more of the problems with.

Rikki: I’m in my 40’s, I started in journalism and ended up in this field. Everyone else, what were your experiences as a young woman, how have you seen how young woman are treated as they come in today, and how do you think that’s changed over time?

Margo: I’ve been fortunate and I’ve made my own fortune. I’ve been pretty comfortable with who I was. I have two much older brothers: both were salutatorians, and both were beaten by the smart girl for valedictorian. It never entered my mind that I was weird because I was doing computers, even though I was one of 3 people in the program. I had the attitude that I belonged and I’ve never questioned that. But I’ve also met idiots:
The first company I worked at out of college – a bunch of us got our own coffee machine because the office machine was horrid. I would buy the coffee and take care of that, and Alan would supply the cream. A new guy started, and we invited him into our coffee club. Later, he came to me and complained that there was no cream. I explained to him, “Mike, what don’t you get? I do the coffee, Alan does the cream.”
He said, “but I can’t bother him about that.”
“You can bother me? Get out of my office,” I told him.
There’s no reason to put up with any crap. Don’t do it. Later that day, I ran into him and I said, “Don’t talk to me, I’m still really mad at you.”
In response, he asked, “Can you get me a cup of coffee?”
I talked to my manager about it. This situation could have gotten out of control if I hadn’t been clear that it was way out of line. This was back in 1983. You can bring a huge amount of power to the situation by making it clear what was not okay and laughing at them.
Jennifer: Looking back, I realized all the sys admin teams I’ve been on have been mostly women with a few men. Now I’m on a 4-women, 6-guy team. On most of these teams I’ve been on, I had management support and didn’t have any issues like that. I did see these kinds of things when I was an astronomy/physics major, though: a lot more there. I handled it. My father always told me, “You can do whatever you want to do. Don’t let them get to you.”
Sherry: I went to college in China. In college, half of the engineering class was women. We were never treated differently and never given the excuse not to be the best just because we are female. When I came here for grad school, there were only two women in the entire computer engineering division. I have a 14-year-old daughter now, so I’m very conscious to not let her get away with anything. I tell her, “Just because you’re a girl isn’t an excuse to not do well. Put the effort into the homework to excel and be number one.” As a society, if you don’t give young ladies excuses and if you tell them that they are expected to do just as well, they will naturally do it. Just as with Jessica – I don’t think the guys in the company think of you as female. When I was on the kernel group, they treated me like another person and expected me to be competent and to do my job.

Rikki: The cultural differences here seem to have made a big difference, as well as parents and academic settings in setting the tone. It’s interesting. Leslie brought something up in her talk this morning, “As if.”
A lot of women in tech fields or academics have imposter syndrome, where they think they don’t really know what they are doing and people are going to find out that they are a fraud. These are intelligent, smart women who are good at what they do. I read about it and related to it, and I’ve found a lot of women are like this. Have you ever felt you had to act “as if” – you know on paper you have the skill set, but you don’t feel you can do it? What experience have you had with imposter syndrome?

Rikki: I had that at my job at Linux New Media when they first hired me to open their North American office and launch the magazine. I was able to do it, knew in my head that I could do it, but I was shocked that other people felt I could do it.
Sherry: One line I love saying to my female clients is “fake it until you can make it.” I have moved around all pieces of the system and software stack. I started with hardware, to application level, now I’m into networking. What I’ve found is:

  • 1. You really have to believe in yourself.
  • 2, Admit when you don’ t know, but explain you have what it takes to learn and pull it off.

I was tasked to lead 20 engineers on a project. I’d never led an effort like that before, but I knew I could pull it off. Have the confidence to believe in yourself, and think of the experience and support you’ll get.
Jessica: Commit yourself to things, even if it’s a stretch. All the time I struggle with imposter syndrome type things. An important part of it is that the people I work with are wonder kids who came out of MIT and they programmed before they came to college. I started programming in college, so I feel like I’m playing catch-up and I have to work harder to close that gap. I have to compensate for the extra time they had. Part of the way I do that is that I sign up to do things when they seem hard to me so I can prove to myself I can do it. Once you stack up enough of those data points, you can reflect back on what you achieved and know you can do it.
Emily: My male colleagues also feel that same way. It’s not just the women.
Rikki: I agree. It’s more common with women but men definitely feel it too.
Sherry: When I started in grad school, I worked as a system administrator. My husband at the time was a lead system administrator. We’re all called in at 4 AM, when a system went down. I had to do all the typing and he told me what to do – instructing me what to type and what to do. Nothing happened – it didn’t fix it. I told him, “You told me to type all of this on a production server, and you don’t even know if it will work!?”
It’s just like Emily said, and all the male colleagues do the same thing – so fake it until you make it.
Margo: sometimes I don’t think they are quite as aware they are faking it. I advise a lot of students. At one point I had a student couple, a man and a woman. She came into my office after class and said she didn’t get it, not as much as the guys do. “I know I get good grades, but at some point they’ll figure out I’m not really good.” This was before I knew the term ‘imposter syndrome.’
She felt they knew what all of the answers because when I called on the men in class, I didn’t reject their answers outright even if they were wrong. I try to find the most correct part of students’ answers and gently correct them. So I told this woman student my secret, “Listen to the answers the guys are giving in class. They’ll answer every single question – try to figure out what they really know vs what it sounds like they know.”
She came back and realized she knew just as much as they did. So embrace your inner imposter.
Jessica: Awareness of the ‘imposter syndrome’ really made a big difference for me. This is a thing you’re doing mentally to yourself.
Lois: I know through grad schoolat Harvard, my husband talked about how the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. You’re so aware of what you don’t know that you feel like a fraud.

Rikki: Along the same lines, we were talking earlier today about speaking up or speaking first at meetings. I had to work on that early on in my career. Have you had those experiences or observed that with other women – you knew they had the answers or contributions, but they weren’t speaking up? What have you observed and what would your advice be?

Margo: I’ve never really had a problem of not speaking up, but one of my best friends in grad school was the only woman in her group. She would say, “Let’s do X.” The advisor would not hear it. A guy would say the same thing and the advisor would hear it.
One of the other students looked at the advisor and asked, “Why do you do that? She just said that 5 minutes ago.”
The advisor had no idea he did that. Fortunately, the other guys spoke up. Somebody in the room has to speak up.
I had this happen to me once on a panel about leadership in engineering. I was with some high-ranking guy in the military, some executive. I had said something, and two people down, someone said, “Joe said such and such” in reference to my comment. Another woman in the audience caught my eye and mouthed, “You said that.”
Someone else on the panel spoke up and said, “Actually, Margo said that.”
It’s so much powerful when a third party observes you’ve done something. Be that third party: this is something you can do for your female colleagues. When it comes from a third party, it’s incredibly jarring because when people do this kind of stuff, they don’t even know they’re doing it.
Jennifer: I’m on a non-profit board. In the last meeting I said, “You know, when I say something, you guys don’t pay attention.”
“Really, we’re doing that?” one of them asked me.
The next few meetings, I noticed that he was really making sure that I was saying something. The group also started noticing some of the more quiet guys should say something, too. Sometimes the guys have blinders on – I had to speak up for myself because the other seven guys didn’t have a clue.
Sherry: I have a trick or advice if you’re in a meeting with a lot of other people you don’t know. Be the best-dressed person in the meeting – they will always look for you for acknowledgement. I made sure I wore a suit, and they always look for me for acknowledgement.
Jessica: I have a sad observation about kids. I’ll be helping teach an elective class in a high school in the Boston area. We brought a bunch of kids from the class to Google to give them a tour and brainstorm topics they wanted to cover in class. There were a bunch of girls with a bunch of boys – on the tour, the girls were all on the back of the tour. They were at the back of the group while we were talking to engineers. They didn’t suggest topics and I had to shunt them to the front so the engineers could call on them and get them to ask questions.
These are high school girls… it starts really early, this not wanting to step forward. Whatever we can do for the girls that we know, culturally and in school – it starts really young, so it would be good to combat it while they are young.
Margo: I have a 14-year old son who plays World of Warcraft, with adults. It came out one night at dinner that he plays with a voice synthesizer: It makes him a 28-year old woman.
“Why is that?” I asked him..
“Well, if you’re a guy and you tell people what to do, they tell you to shut the ‘F’ up. But if you’re a woman, they listen to you.”

Rikki: On that topic of high school girls: I’m the parent of a high school girl who may or may not be in this room right now. I got into technology on my own; I got my first computer when I got out of college. I submitted all of my papers via my typewriter. When you look at high school now, what do you think is the key? What would be helpful to get more girls interested in technology, or at least make sure they’re exposed and know that it’s an option?

Jessica: It’s such a hard problem to unpack. I do a lot of STEM volunteering, especially with middle school girls. I ask them – “Does anybody ever tell you that you can’t do that or you can’t go into science?”
They laugh at me – “Of course we can do math.” At that level, they have confidence in their abilities. Something is happening in between middle school and high school. I don’t have the answers, though.
Jennifer: I was with a friend at a middle school TAG expo. These two girls came up to me, not my friend. They asked, “How can we be astronauts? We really want to be astronauts!”
Did they come up to me because I’m the female, or because I was closest to them? I think sometimes to get to some of the high schoolers, it helps if you go out there and say you’re having fun working on compute but you also still do girl things like make quilts. It gets the girls to realize that they’re not weird that they think math and science and chemistry are fun – not that it’s something that’s weird. You have to go out there and let them know that it’s okay to do this.
When I went thourgh astronomy and physics, I had mentors who were told they wouldn’t get telescope time because they were woman and they told me, “You’re not going to be that way.” So be a mentor.
Sherry: I have a 14-year old girl; I don’t know if she’ll get into engineering. I try to be a good role model and show that I’m having a fun time. I try to take her to conferences so she sees that I know my stuff; she’s come to Google and Sun and watched me at work. So, she knows it’s possible and that she can be as good as she wants to be at it. She knows a lot of other females in engineering and in the tech industry, too. I want her to believe she can be good at anything she wants to be good at.

Rikki: It seems like mentoring is a big key to helping get more girls and students involved in technology. This is a nice segway to the next question – what mentors have you had? How have you found you rmentors? How do you go about finding a mentor? Short-term vs long-term mentors. Have you only had female or male mentors, or a mix? How has it worked for you?

Margo: The first person I would describe as a mentor had been my professor when I was an undergrad, then he left the school at the same time I did and ended up consulting at the company I ended up at in 1983. Today, we’re writing a grant proposal together. He totally believed in me, and it was never even all that explicit – he said things like, “Oh, she’s really good so I want her on my team.” He was instrumental, though, in what happened to me over the next 10-15 years. He was very clearly a mentor.
When I was a young faculty member at Harvard, there were two senior faculty who made it clear that it was their job in life to help make me succeed. They were there for me, running interferenece – their implicit message was “We believe in you and will do what we can.”
I use that same line with my junior colleagues now. “It’s all about you, I’m here to help you succeed.” Create that kind of faith in your junior colleageues.
Jennifer: I was in a place where I have a degree in astronomy and physics, I’m doing data analysis and talking to scientists, and I’m bored out of my mind. NASA has a program called ‘Circle mentors’ – if you had something you were interested in, they would find a manager who was not in your direct chain. A manager from NOAA mentored me. This manager said, “Go! Your assignment is to find someone you want to talk to.”
I went to our system administrator to determine if I wantred to do programming or system administration. I talked to Laura Carrier, before she went on maternity leave. When she came back, she offered me a job. She really gave me the opportunity, but it was that manager at NOAA who said, “You should go do this, come back, feel free to be able to pick out what you want to do and talk to people who do it to figure it out.”
Laura was a great mentor, she sent to me LISA. I’ve had more mentors since then, too. Circle mentoring is great because those mentors can look at you from an outside point of view – they’re not in your management chain – but they can also give you structured help and figure out where you need to go and what you can do for the company.
Jessica: I haven’t had a ton of mentorship. My parents aren’t technical and I was a really serious kid. There’s a photo of me at age two: I was wearing an acid wash jean jumper thing with a lunchbox, sitting on the corner of the house watching the schoolbus go by. I wanted to go. I was really serious as a kid and wanted to study since I was young. I didn’t have a lot of explicit mentorship, but something is true for me that has been true for a lot of women I know – I didn’t get the structure from my parents or family but I got it in high school. My science and calculus teachers were all women.

Rikki: Another topic – when Sherry talked about how she dresses when she goes to meetings… I noticed influential “women in technology” articles normally talk about how they look and how they dress. I love cute heels but seriously… have you noticed appearance and dress and that sort of thing affecting women in our field when it just doesn’t seem to be a topic for men? It’s not an issue for them. I’ve talked to one woman who intentionally wore baggy t-shirts and jeans at booths, otherwise people wouldn’t talk to her.

Jessica: Not getting mistaken for a booth babe is a priority for me. It’s really annoying. I have wonderful teammates who will say, ‘Hey bro, I’m not technical, you need to talk to her.’ It’s a problem at conferences still, but it’s not a problem at work. I don’t normally think about cltohing, I wear turtlenecks and jeans all the time.
Margo: I wear dresses but it’s a problem when you’re running wires on the floor. I want other women to know it’s okay to be a girlm though. It’s a message that doesn’t come across very often. There are women who like to dress up and wear skirts – that’s okay, it doesn’t mean you’re not a hacker.
One of my students ended up going to a consulting firm. She was fashionable, she looked really nice in clothes, and she wore nice clothes. She had one of her teammates tell her that dressing nicely was ‘inappropriate’. She sent me and email asking for advice. I told her, “This is his problem, not yours.” But there is this problem if you want to be taken seriously: looking too good is a detriment, and that kind of sucks.
Emily: When I was starting out as a sysadmin, sometimes I would wear a skirt. The number of guys who needed me to crawl under their desk increased, so that trained me to not wear skirts.
Sherry: I enjoy wearing skirts, I wear them almost every day and I feel very comfortable. Whenever I go to a meeting or more serious conference, I do wear my suit and try to look more respectable. I want everyone to look to me for acknowledgement!
Jennifer: I do wear a dress every now and then. I did on my wedding day. But I’m in a collared shirt now: this is ‘dressed-up’ for Goddard. Sometimes one of my colleagues will wear a skirt so she can say she can’t crawl under a desk. It’s never bothered me. The scientists have to dress up, but if you show up in a suit or tie where I work the support staff will ask you, “Where are you interviewing?”
Sherry: Dressing is a thing for the guys. They’ll dress differently so they stand out. One of my friends wears a tie every single day. He said it’s because he wants people to remember him.
Rikki: In my old job, I asked someone if they had a funeral that day and they did!
Ryan: On the top of my newsfeed right now is a Wired article – it says that the Facebook New York office dresses more nicely than the West coast office.

Rikki: One more question – I was talking with Jennifer about how you negotiate for different roles at you rcompany or organization. Salary is a big one. A few years ago I talked to my stepfather about salary. He said he just hired a man and woman for the same role and he’s given the man more money. I was shocked, but my stephfather told me “Well, he asked for more.” How do you negotiate or have tips for women to negotiate?

Margo: How many people have read the book Woman Don’t Ask? Go right now, buy it, and read it cover-to-cover. Next time it’s time for your annual review or job review – go read the book – we don’t ask, and we don’t get. There is nothing wrong with asking if you want a raise or higher salary. It’s a fabulous book.
Rikki: Not only do you have to ask… I also have all of the reasons why I got the number that I’m asking for… “I live here, and have this level of expreience, and this is the average.” But I wait until they ask, I don’t tell them the reasons up-front.
Margo: I have a friend who is the top soccer producer for ESPN. When she first worked with ESPNm she had been a freelancer; she did all of the World Cups and Olympics. Soccer is very technically-challenging to produce. She was one of the most talented in the company. I sat her down and told her why she can ask for whatever she wanted. She’s a confident, accomplished woman, but I had to give her all the reasons. She went in and pretty much got it.
Cat: I don’t think this only applies to money. When I was talking to Google, I came from a job where I was working 75% time. I asked for two days a week to work from home. I asked and I got it, even though they have a reputation against supporting that.
Jennifer: For the longest time, it was a joke between me and my husband that I made more money than he did. I don’t know where I learned how to negotiate. My choir teacher in HS was always like, “We’ll shoot for the sun. Shoot for the best and if we don’t make it, that’s fine, we’ll hit the moon.”
Don’t just aim for the moon. You’ll get a little bit more than what you thought if you shoot for more.
Sherry: I don’t know how many of you have been to China or Beijing. There’s a silk market there. The opening price is always 200% – 300% of its value. You negotiate by cutting the price down to the bare minimum. Offer 10%… when they say no, walk away, find the next seller, offer him 20%… by walking around and making offers like this, you’ll figure out the right price.
If you’re a seller, don’t ever aim low. If you’re a buyer, don’t ever aim high. Always ask for what you want: the worst case is they say no. If you don’t, ask you’ll never get it.
Jessica: I had a boyfriend in CS who told me that I could negotiate my salary for my internship. I tried and they incredulously gave me the money and then changed their policy to not allow it again. I was fortunate that someone recognized that I needed help and gave me guidance.

Questions from the Audience


Clea: I always thought I’d be a pioneer and there would be women behind me and we’d take over the world. Now, it seems like it’s just a percentage of women who go into this field. Do you think we’ll always be in the minority in the next 25 generations? Are more or less women going in? I see less.

Margot: The numbers are apalling. You and I went through at the heyday when there were the most women in compute rscience. If we look at other countries like China, we can see that it doesn’t have to be that way. What is it about our society that this happen? I think it’s an American statement. Even in Europe, it’s better. The CRA does a study every year… it’s terrible.
One thing we might be able to do to make it a little bit better – unless we change the culture completely – is to not require so much personal sacrifice to enter the professional. For mid-career jobs, we construct the jobs in ways that requiring you making enormous sacrifices in your personal life to succeed. In general, women will refuse to do that. Why would enter this field if I can do something else and not sacrifice my personal life and satisfaction?
One of the best engineers I know is a woman who decided she only wanted to work 20 hours a week to see her kids. She gets more done in those 20 hours than most of my male colleagues get done in months. Most of the men in the group have families and children, but only two have ever decided to work part-time. The way the jobs are constructed, it’s hard to have a life. Having a life is good.
Jennifer: I see a lot of women in science. One of our associate chiefs had children. A colleague of mine, his wife retired from NOAA after 30 years… I see it in little pockets. I see women scientists coming up at Goddard saying they have their twins, and their life, and science. And I’m seeing guys doing things when their wives have the career. It’s in pockets; I don’t think it’ll be a broad swell, but I see it in the science part. The women scientists are married and have their kids, are going forward with their career, and the men and partners are supporting them.
Jessica: In the last couple of years there have been a lot of really positive changes in programming and open source communities that signal to me that we’ll eventually get there. I devote a ton of my energy to doing progamming outreach for women. I do a lot with the python programming langauge; I’m on their board of directors and outreach committee. In the python community, there’s been a tremendous increase in awareness of gender diversity and issues, calling out of bad behavior of men, and a lot more positive stuff going on. There’s also the Debian women group and the GNOME womens’ outreach program… these give me great hope for more support for outreach to women in the community.
So then it becomes a question: “If there’s support there, are there women who will rise up and take charge?” Open source is ready, I think.
Sherry: I do notice that there are a lot more researchers – most of the doctors at the hospital my family goes to are female, so I think there are more females advancing in science. At Google, there are actually a lot of women. Sabrina and Kat can attest to that.

Susan: My son is at RIT in science. His incoming class was 40% women. We may need more of the T and E in STEM, but not the S. Do any of you have anecdotes for seminal moments that put you on the path you’re on today? For me, VAX first social networking for me – chat, talk, and write. That put me on the path I’m on today.

Jennifer: I worked at LPM, and we were 6 years behind in Voyager translation for nitrate tapes. Six years of backlog done – I didn’t write the program. I could, however, get the data out and written for the scientists, but I realized that I had this detail. It involved higher-level math… I was taking a spherical trigonometry, in second-level astronomy. I’m talking about the project while my parents are in the room. My mom turns to my dad and goes, “Do you understand what she’s saying?”
My dad goes, “Not a clue.”
I know more math than my parents: that’s a good thing. But you hit a limit. Working with the VAX tapes is a logical problem. I know how to do it. I think that’s what got me on that track, even though I have astrophysics degree… I realized I missed pounding my head against the wall on a system problem.
Jessica: I didn’t start out in Computer Science. I was in Chemistry and I got that degree, but I had a bunch of friends who were CS majors. They were learning a class of material that was very differnt than what I was doing. My friends taking computer science were really learning a toolbox of tools for solving more arbitrary problems in the world, and that seemed powerfully compelling for me. I felt I had to get in on it, so I took one of the last famous 6001 CS courses at MIT. I got an internship, and an on-campus apprenticeship. I was totally hooked.
The power of CS was evident to me at the beginning. A pivotal point for me was my very first experience in an open source project. For a lot of women, this is either not an experience (they don’t do it at all) or a negative experience. I was an intern at VMWare using a python library called twisted. I muttered, “The documentation sucks. I’m going to send an email to the mailing list saying the docs sucks.” I asked if I could help because it sucked. Instead, the maintainers made a conscious decision to welcome me and encourage me to submit patches, and helped me along the way. That has turned into years of friendship. I’m now the maintianer of that project and writing a book with O’Reilly.
Gliff made a point of making my first expreience a positive one. It makes it clear to me that it’s important, as we go through our CS/open source careers, that people are having positive first experiences. You may not know that it’s their first experience, so try your best to promote a positive experience for everyone. You have the opportunity to help that person who submitted a crappy bug report to continue to try. I would encourage you all to think about that: “Teachable moments.”

Nicole: We’ve talked about identifying mentors and finding mentors for yourself, but it’s equally important to mentor others. What are even small things you can do to be a good mentor to other women?

Jessica: I tell all of the women who I know who are awesomely technical to submit a talk. I tell them that they should go to this conference, or talk at this user group event. Some of them wouldn’t do it without repeated prodding, and the best way to get women to step into leadership positions is to tell them they should do it.
As organizers for the Boston Python User Group, we’ve constructed a programming pipeline to get women into the python community. We don’t construct a separate space for women. We run it as part of the existing community. We run intro to python events for women with a custom curriculum that is appropriate for any absolute beginners. It’s hands on, applied, low-pressure, and free. There’s no financial committment. We have followup events and try to integrate women into the user group and get them to step up into leadership positions.
We’ve taken the user group from 0% women to over 15% women – consistently, at large 100-120 person events. It’s been a huge improvement over the past 18 months. We’ve also has tremendous community support – we’ve received grants from the Anita Borg foundation and it’s been replicated in other cities in the US: Philly, DC, Portland, Indianapolis. The Boston Ruby community is also emulating our philosophy. That’s something that we’re doing. It’s exciting. We want long term, measurable success. Working within an existing community can be effective. If people are interested in talking about this, I would love to talk to you.
Jennifer: I’ve done a lot of mentoring in the model rocket community, for kids and women. I don’t don’t think I’d ever thought about doing it in the sys admin world. The women I’ve worked with are at the same level or above me. If a young woman came up to me, I’d like to mentor them. If you haven’t mentored in computing but you’ve mentored in another area, I still think it’s a good thing – even if it doesn’t channel into the computer stuff.

Carolyn: I’m really impressed, you’re all wonderful role models. If only we could all feel as confident as you’re demonstrating right now. Men are the other gender, and there’s a couple in the room right now. How can we open a conversation with them about advancing women, and what could they do to help us?

Margo: We should commend all of those men who took the time to come and spend the day with us. Here are some suggestions:

  • Bring some of the messages that came up here today back out back to your organizations.
  • Notice when a woman is being overlooked and speak up.
  • Men can be mentors to women too. Be a mentor.

Those are some great first steps. Each of you guys and gals should find two of your male or female friends to bring next year to make the discussion bigger and broader.

Sherri: I’m kind of curious. To the gentlemen in the audience: what would you like to get out of this meeting, what were you hoping to learn, to hear, to gather?

Ryan: We’re rying to hire more women at Facebook. I manage women sometimes on tech lead projects, and I want to understand because we’re not recruiting as many women as we should. I also volunteer at schools and want to learn about more that I can do. I’m taking notes and sending them to engineering managers.
Sherry: Thinking back, I don’t have a person I went to for advice as a mentor, but throughout my whole career I had a lot of management and senior technical people who let me do what I wanted to do. Positive feedback loops with them helped me and made me feel more confident. I would go to them to talk to them about a brilliant idea I had – that kind of encouragement is positive in helping female engineers’ development. Make a point of encouarging their ideas.
Margo: My standard list of logistical things you can bring to your organizations to support women:

  • 1. Go to your company website, look at the pictures and images there. What do they say about women at your company? I was at a panel at EMC World and I went to the EMC World website. The pictures were not welcoming to women – it sent a mixed message. Then I went to Oracle’s website and I was not overly impressed, either, with the imagery on it (it tends to be men talking to women.) I was not impressed with the gender ratio of the big speakers at Oracle World, either. Go home, look at your company’s website, and see what message you’re sending to the world about your company’s gender ratio.
  • 2. If your company hsa a university relations group, buy women’s size shirts for them. When you send your women out to recruit and you’re making them wear men’s polo shirts that don’t look good on them, you’re not sending a good message. Women want swag too. These sound lik ea stupid things, but they mean something. What a shock you don’t recruit women, you can’t be bothered to buy them shirts that fit!

Rikki: One really strong mentor I had – I hadn’t worked at the company very long -after a conference call he called me and asked why I didn’t speak up. Afterwards, it didn’t take long for me to start speaking up. He’s the one who encouraged me to start the Rose blog, which was my women in open source blog. I got to meet so many people from having that blog. I wouldn’t have thought of it if he hadn’t suggested it. He called me out when I did things that wouldn’t help my career. But that one phone call helped me more than anything.

Rikki: Leslie brought up earlier about women having to know more than their male counterparts. Has anybody had those experiences?

Sherry: I definitely feel that way. I feel like I have to know more, and I think that’s it’s partially the attitude that the more you know, the more you know you don’t know. The guys seem secure with what knowledge they already have. They feel strong in the knowledge they have, and women with the same amount of knowledge feel insecure about it. So I think it’s more about how you feel about it rather than how much you actually know. If you don’t feel confident about yourself, nobody else will.

Elana: We talked about women in IT and work life balance. Has it come up? I’ve been very fortunate to work in women-owned company with women on the board. I find it a little hard as a mother of three to validate my work-life balance, because they have the same issues. I wonder how all of you make that work.

Margo: This is one of my favorite topics. Part of it is being confident in what your decisions are. I was the first woman to have a child in the school of engineering (I was only the second woman to work in the school of engineering, though.) So, they didn’t know how to handle maternity leave. The dean asked me what I was going to do.
“I’ll teach in the fall and finish up, and bring the baby into the office with me for the Spring,” I told him.
He said okay – kudos to him – so I took my kid to work for 7 months. There are some environments where this doesn’t work. But it doesn’t occur to us to ask.
One of my college classmates – she had done this at a tiny startup. What a cool idea, to be a mom and be at work. It was fabulous. Think outside the box: what works for you? Feel free to make decisions that work for you and figure out how to juggle it. My kid is graduating from 8th grade tomorrow. I’m organizing the party… so I’m juggling. I’m not here at the conference as much as I normally would be, but it’s okay. It’ll go ok.
Jennifer: I like to joke with my manager… “I’m taking every other Friday off, if you don’t give it to me I’ll go postal.” I have other obligations that I want to do. Early on in my career, I felt like I had the time because I didn’t have kids. I am contributing even without kids, though – I need every other Friday off to help my ‘rocket kids.’ Family always comes firs. My officemate has 2 kids, drives an hour away, has a weird work schedule… but your job is always going to be here. Even if you do or don’t have a child – if your work life is good, do what you need to do. It’s been a good environment where I’m at. If you don’t come to work happy, if affects everything else.
Sherry: I have a 14-year-old firl who graduated from 8th grade and an 11 year old boy. I’m probably not the best example, but I was leading the most difficult projects – dynamic configuration – when he was born. I would put him to bed and I wouldn’t sleep thorugh the night. But I truly love what I do, and that to me was not a sacrifice. At the same time, I feel so fortunate to have my children and my life outside of work.
Linus’ license plate is ‘DADOF3.’ The OS is his hobby; his job is as a father and he’s working so he can be a father. If you don’t step out of your work to really live your life, you’ll lose your perspective and not know what’s really truly impotant. You really have to enjoy every step of it. If you feel you’re making a sacrifice, you may regret it later. So make sure you’re enjoying it.
Jessica: My youthful perspective is on the start up, all-in, intense side. That situation is a little different. The reason why they founders of the start-up picked me – they knew I was good and would be all in. It was all the time, 6 days a week. So I also want to say – women, if they want to, are capable of committing the same level that men are, and they shouldn’t be afraid of doing that if that’s what they want to do. Make sure you express that you’re able to commit yourself, because sometimes there’s a perception that women won’t.


  1. Thanks so much for these detailed write-ups on all these WIAC panels!

  2. I am so glad to be able to read this even though I was not there. Thank you!

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