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Lowering the Veil

by Kirsten Jones
09/20/2007

Kirsten Jones is the current webmaster for The Perl Foundation, and works at Applied Minds creating prototype web applications for the creative geniuses therein. She has a recently-resurrected blog at www.perlgoddess.com and can be reached at synedra@gmail.com.

I was honored and somewhat surprised to be asked to participate in this set of articles. A few years ago, I was so hidden away that nobody would have found me to suggest I participate. Although I had advanced through my 10 years at Cisco to become a highly regarded Senior Engineer, I never participated in anything outside my very small world. One big reason for that was that I lacked confidence in my ability to offer anything of interest to the larger community, which caused me to avoid seeking out ways to participate. The person I was then would never have been invited to write; and if she were, she would have scrambled madly in the other direction, certain that she had nothing of value to say.

In fact, the first couple of times I attended O'Reilly's Open Source Convention (OSCON), I clung desperately to the coworker who had accompanied me, refusing to leave his side and venture out among the ravening hordes. I would probably still be working at Cisco and hiding from the greater world if he hadn't decided to eat dinner with his parents one night during the 2005 conference. I tried to get him to bring me, but he insisted that pretty much anything I did would be more fun than dinner with his parents and, with that, he firmly left me behind.

Faced with the choice between staying in my hotel room and meeting other conference attendees, I reluctantly set forth to talk to these people, wielding a Scrabble game to use as my excuse for treading on their time. Even so, I was extremely reluctant to introduce myself, until a couple of them pulled me into their conversation and made me feel welcome. As the evening progressed, I met more of these Important Perl People and discovered that they were quite nice and interesting, and interested in talking to me. Out of the friendships born that evening came my eventual election as Webmaster of The Perl Foundation and an interview with Socialtext, a small startup.

During that interview, I impressed the founders of Socialtext with my empathy and enthusiasm. As one of the founders remarked later, she frequently found that engineers would tell stories that had things interacting with other things, but there were no people to be found within the stories. The stories I told had people and things interacting with each other, and I also demonstrated an ability to listen to people and help them get what they needed. These "soft" skills, along with my excitement, got me the job and opened up a new world of experiences for me.

During my two years at Socialtext, I discovered that while my "hard" technical skills were very important, it was the "soft" skills that made me invaluable to the team. At my core, I am a Renaissance person, viewing problems of all types as intriguing challenges. Just as I love digging through code to find a creative solution to a tough technical problem, I also enjoy finding ways to solve communication problems between people, working with customers to figure out how to make our product work for them, or figuring out the right management strategy to step around pitfalls. They are all puzzles of one type or another, and they are delightful to me. There's very little I enjoy more than finding my way to the other side of a difficult obstacle. Over the time I spent at Socialtext, I faced challenges in all realms, discovering skills I hadn't realized I had, and building my confidence in my ability to face the unknown.

I had not realized what a huge impact these opportunities had on me until just a couple of months ago, when I attended Yet Another Perl Conference (YAPC). I was scheduled to speak about our product and some of the client applications I'd created. I was fairly terrified about going onstage to speak, but figured I would relax once I started in on the presentation. I had prepared carefully for the talk and was excited to share what I knew with the audience. The fates, however, had something more entertaining in store for me. First, my computer crashed. And, of course, it wouldn't reboot—or agree to act as a hard drive for another computer. A few more technical glitches, and I was left standing alone on the stage talking to the audience—with no slides, no network, and no props of any sort. But I was OK. I knew what I was talking about, I interacted with the audience and talked proudly about our application and my projects, and the audience learned what I had to share.

The hardest lesson anyone can learn is to trust in yourself. Giving yourself the opportunity to succeed means taking a chance that you might fail. This is even more difficult for women working in technology where it often feels like everyone's eyes are on you, waiting for a misstep. This is particularly true in larger, more hierarchical organizations; only by moving to a smaller company with founders who really value individual perspective and contribution did I discover the breadth of talents I had to offer. The most valuable gift you can give yourself is a chance to find your hidden talents, but to do this you often need to take that first leap of faith.


Series creator and editor Tatiana Apandi Recommends: learning how women in other businesses thrive: http://www.fortefoundation.org/site/PageServer?pagename=enewsletter_V2_I1.


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