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Advice on Careers in Technology for Geeky (and not so Geeky) Women

by Dawn Foster
09/13/2007

Dawn Foster is the Director of Developer Relations at Jive Software, a collaboration software company in Portland, OR.

I guess I always have been a little geeky. At the age of 4 or 5 in the mid 1970s, I already knew Morse Code, which I picked up by hearing my dad do it when he was studying for his amateur radio licenses. I even went on to get a novice ham license myself in the 1980s, but I have forgotten almost all of it by now, as my interests have shifted to computers. My love of computers started with the early 400/800 series Atari computers. While most kids were interested in playing Pacman, I was busy writing Basic programs. Most of the programs didn't really do much, but that wasn't the point. I did not really need programs that looped and printed silly words or numbers to the screen. The fun part was seeing what I could make the computer do. Fast forward to 1995 with my newly acquired computer science degree and my first job as a Unix system administrator for a manufacturing company in Ohio.

I admit to thinking rarely about being a woman in technology until after becoming a systems administrator in a conservative Midwestern company. I remember being offended by well-meaning male co-workers offering to help me carry small items, such as my briefcase, and—believe it or not—one even went so far as to physically pull it out of my hand when I resisted his "help." Other times, men were visibly uncomfortable about letting a woman crawl under their desks to fix a computer. Maybe I thought that this environment was typical for manufacturing companies, but I was shocked at being one of maybe ten women out of a couple thousand at my first computer conference: a sys admin conference focused on AIX. The gender balance in technology has since gotten much better, and today there are many more women in technical positions.

This is not to say that all is equal. I still see far more men in speaking positions at most technology conferences than women and still see the occasional verbal abuse directed at women, as in the recent incident with Kathy Sierra. The difference now is that these inequalities get more attention than before, and I think that we are working harder than ever to make careers in technology a great choice for women.

In my case, I love having a career in technology. The fun part of having a technology career is that there is so much variety within it. In my case, after starting my career as a system administrator, I spent some time doing programming and a variety of projects. I took a brief detour out of technology and into market research (on bearing usage within steel mills). The time doing market research gave me a much broader perspective on business, especially within manufacturing, which was knowledge that I used when I moved into an e-business role focused on taking our business online. During the highpoint of the dot com era, I took a job with Intel. Working for a technology company was very different from working in an information technology group within a traditional manufacturing company. My time at Intel was spent in Intel's software organization, where my background in Unix gave me a chance to move into jobs related to open source software. At Intel, I did open source strategy, worked with open source and software development tool vendors to help them get ready for new Intel processors, and even did another short stint in market research. Upon leaving Intel, I became much more focused on community management spending some time working for an open source ERP vendor, Compiere, co-organizing the first Portland BarCamp, and now as the developer community liaison for Jive Software. Let me share with you what I have learned from my career thus far.

Having a successful career in technology is dependent on having a passion for learning new skills. Some jobs (accounting, for example) change much less rapidly than technology, and what you learned in school will likely be applicable for a long period of time. Technology degrees teach the important fundamentals of computers, programming, how technology works, and probably some basic discipline that will be very useful, but the specifics learned are likely to be obsolete within a few years.

The people who tend to be the most successful in this constantly changing environment are those who thrive on learning new skills and evolving in new directions. In many cases, this just means volunteering for new assignments that give you an opportunity to build new skills. Managers always need people to evaluate newer technologies or do some testing on a new application. System administration was one of those broad roles that gave me an opportunity to do programming/scripting to automate tasks, learn about networking protocols by administering DNS and firewall servers, provide support to end users, create web pages for our users, and much more. This broad knowledge base helps me when I least expect it, and I use what I learned in that job on a regular basis.

Trying new technologies purely for the sake of learning about them can be a big mind shift for many people who typically use new technology only to gain a specific business or personal benefit from them. I joined MySpace a while back to learn about how people were using social networking without expecting any real benefit from it. I learned quite a bit about social networking, but it also had an interesting side benefit when a few people that I had lost touch with found me via MySpace. I joined Twitter with similar expectations (do I really need to know everything my friends eat or do?); however, some great restaurant recommendations and interesting interactions with people at conferences, such as SXSW, also came out of using Twitter. I sign up for a lot of different services and try technologies that result in no real benefit, but I try to think about what I have learned about technology by using them.

It is also important to recognize that technology careers are not just for coders. A passion for technology can turn into a successful career in sales, marketing, writing, public relations, management, community leadership and a variety of other fields. Technology companies are businesses, and like any other businesses, they need people to perform typical business functions. If you have a passion for cool technology gadgets and a marketing degree, a career at a company such as Apple might be a good fit, and if you love web applications and are in sales, you might be interested in a career at Google or Yahoo!

Becoming known for your expertise within your company or the broader industry can also help boost your career. You can become known as an expert in something as broad as Java programming or as narrow as caching techniques for certain types of web applications within your own company. Blogging (internally or externally) is one way to showcase your expertise and practice writing skills. For technology careers, it can help to have a blog focused on your area of expertise; for example, my Fast Wonder blog is focused on open technologies. Speaking engagements are another way to share your expertise—whether you are speaking in front of small teams within your company, local user groups with 25 people, or at large international conferences. Open source projects can showcase your expertise by writing code, helping with translations, writing documentation, marketing, and much more. Organizing local events (meetups, user groups, BarCamps) can also help you become more well-known within the local community. All of these activities will help build credibility for people with established careers, but they can also help you get your first technology job or a new job. Pointing to a blog or open source contributions provide potential employers with tangible examples of your work and are much better than just a standard resume. I have to admit that my career really took off when I started blogging and speaking at conferences. Getting my name out in front of people opened up opportunities that were not available to me, otherwise.

All of the methods of building expertise I've described are particularly important for women. Although more women are joining the ranks of technology workers, we still seem to be in the minority in some areas. If we want to see more women entering the field, young girls need to be able to see more public role models who are women when they are considering career choices. Women entering the field need to be able to find mentors. Putting women in the public face of technology is necessary if we want to make significant progress toward increasing the gender diversity in technology fields. As I do more blogging, writing, and speaking publicly, I hope to encourage other women in technology. However, this is a group effort, and we all need to do more to encourage women to enter technical fields while helping women prosper in existing technical careers.


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