Stretching Yourself

by Juliet Kemp
09/18/2007

Juliet Kemp has been playing with Linux systems for around 6 years now, after discovering that it was an excellent way to avoid Finals revision. She is currently sysadmin for the Astrophysics group at Imperial College, in London (UK), and is responsible for wrangling a Linux+Solaris network and its users.

I first became interested in Linux during my final year at university, after a friend installed it for me and then left me to it. I relied heavily on the assistance available from the local LUG, managed fairly quickly to stop using Windows altogether (it helped that the other alternative was Finals revision...), and that was that.

A few months later, when in search of part-time work to fund my post-graduate degree, a part-time systems administration job (in the one remaining women-only college in Oxford) came up. Despite the fact that this was quite clearly beyond my then-current capabilities (I was very up-front about this at the interview), I got the job. Largely on the basis that even if I didn't know that much yet, I knew where to find information when I needed it—an ability that has stood me in good stead ever since.

I learned a lot during the 18 months I had that job, and during the summer programming job (for which, again, I was woefully underqualified but did well in) I had during that time. I think the women-only environment at the college was helpful when I was first getting to grips with a lot of things. My boss was also both helpful and patient (and tolerant of the odd screw-up!). Having said that, my overwhelmingly male colleagues at the coding job were also good coworkers.

After finishing my M.Phil, I dropped out of technical work for another 18 months or so, before landing a programming/sysadmin job at a university. The systems administration side was fun, but the coding less so, since, as the only non-scientist on the project, I was largely lumbered with the less interesting sections of code. Happily, a further 18 months on, I was able to move into full-time systems administration, with the added advantage of being largely, day-to-day, my own boss.

My current working environment is slightly male-heavy, but I've rarely run into any sexism, much to my pleasure. I have occasionally noticed gender differences in the way some people I encounter manage working relationships, but given that there are also age-related and cultural differences (we're a very multi-national group), it's hard to pin much down to gender in particular.

Women often—as I did—have the problem that they may not have spent as much time as adolescents playing with computers or other bits of tech. So, there's the fear of starting late, of asking questions that men of your age (you worry) may be well beyond. My experience, though, has been that starting late is absolutely no barrier. Do some research before asking the questions and ask questions sensibly: you'll find there's a lot of help available out there. It's perfectly possible to catch up fast and to learn on the job. No one knows everything (especially in systems administration, where the nature of the job is that there's always a brand new problem in your inbox). The important thing is to recognize what you don't know and to identify where to start looking for a solution. (And to write things down! A piece of advice that I have always had real trouble following!)

Women are particularly prone to underselling themselves, and in a male-heavy environment that can be even more true than average. Never be afraid to try to do a bit more than you think you can safely manage. It may not always pay off, but it works out well more often than you might expect, and it gets you to far more interesting places.


Return to Women in Technology.