Rolling a Role Model

As a woman in the world of computer science and information technology, I am used to being surrounded by men.  When I was single, this was either a blessing or a curse–depending on who the guys were and how interested in them I was.  Recently, I had a young woman in my office tell me that she saw me as a role model.  It is likely the most flattering thing that I have ever had someone say to me, second only to my husband telling me what a great mother I am.  The most devastating part is that she told me on one of my last days in the office.  I transitioned to a different office to accommodate the needs of my family.  But, those words have impacted me in a profound way and inspired my first blog post about role models in the IT world.

I wanted to start by sharing a short history of the role models that I have actively had in my career.  You will quickly see where this is heading, I believe.  I will be brief, here, to stay on topic, but you can read a little more about some of these folks on my website.

  • Steve Kessler taught me how to program at our local library in a small Indiana farm town. He taught me Apple Basic and dbase working on automation projects for the librarians.
  • Dr. David W. Brown taught my Jr. and Sr. year computing classes at the Indiana Academy.  He taught me to be “language-agnostic” and to learn the fundamental logic of programming so that I could survive in any language–since some of them are fads that come and go.
  • In my Indiana Academy classes,  I was the only girl.  The boys in my classes were always accepting and never treated me like I knew less because of my gender.  There were only a few of us, but many thanks to you gentlemen:  Chael Hall, Steve Gunn?, Clint Rusk, Bryan Strawser?
  • The fine young men of Computer Science House at RIT who taught me how to use vi on a clam shell dumb terminal in my dorm room, taught me how to format my Physics labs using groff/nroff for our printer, and introduced me to the world of Unix.  If it were not for you, I might have left RIT after two months and my career would not be what it is.  So many to name, but at risk of missing one:  James Craig, Mike Williamson, Tony Parisi, Matt Allen, Brendan Tuck, Tad Hunt, Frank Barrus, Eric Van Hensbergen, Keith Larson, Shane Brady, Geordie Klueber, Scott Brown, Eric Edwards, Rob Smith, Anatoly Ivasuk, David Filliatraut.  I add Bob K. aka Boba but I refer you to the next bullet.
  • Warren Carithers and Ken Reek, professors at RIT, who exude such computer science know-how that just being in their presence made you feel like anything coming out of your own mouth was not worthy.  Mrs. Margaret Reek was a pure joy, but I only had the pleasure of maybe one class with her.
  • Rodger Baker and Hank Etlinger, also professors at RIT, who watched over me during my years at RIT.  I never knew another girl in my Computer Science classes nor another female in my major.  They made sure I was keeping up in my classes as well as being challenged.
  • My first job out of college was at the Dept. of Defense.  My supervisor, Larry Alberter, and my teammate Bogdan Sagatov, were my best advocates and Jim Durcan had the best sense of humor for a man with such wicked CS skills.
  • In graduate school at RIT, Nan Schaller introduced me to the fascinating world of ray tracing and VRML with parallel processing.

The position that I just left was the best job of my entire CS career.  It was the first time that I ever worked with a female engineer, Ms. Ellaine.  She is a lovely woman and I only hope that I can give back to her as much as she gave to me.  The gentlemen in my office were incredible.  I would often sit in meetings and recognize that I was the only female present.  These gentlemen treated me with respect and equality.  I hear so many terrible stories of women struggling in their careers to be given just an ounce of respect that their male counterparts receive.  I am profoundly fortunate and grateful for the colleagues I had there.

As you might have noticed, pert near every person who made a significant impact on my CS/IT career is a man.  I would like to say that I never found this to be a problem.  Every single one of them treated me well, imparted knowledge in my direction, and guided me in one way or another.  They all made me feel like family and treated me with the same respect they would their own daughter, sister, niece, wife, etc.

For this reason, I never actively sought out female role models because I was so well-cared for by those around me.  This is what I really want to say to anyone in the CS field who sees a young woman following her dreams, embarking on her own career, or looking to learn:  embrace her as family, treat her like your own.  If this was your wife or daughter working in the office with you, how would you hope she would be treated?

I still feel too young to be a role model to anyone, but my resume now shows 20 years of experience.  It would be quite dreadful if I did not learn anything in that time that I could not pass on to someone else.  I do not feel like I have too many opportunities to become a role model, but the lovely and intelligent young lady from my last job has taught me that I need to be on the lookout for such opportunities.

I hope I can repay the encouragement that I received by giving back to young men and women in the CS field in some way as my career continues.  Sometimes you have to just roll your own role model, but if you just look, I am sure you can find one around you.

(Many fine women have been role models in my life in other ways, but not specifically in IT.  I will write about them another day in another post.)

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