Before we get started, a big thank you to Jorge Segarra (blog|Twitter) for inviting me to write for SQL University during Women in Technology week. I’m honored to be in the company of such cool people and to be a part of such an awesome endeavor. It has been so much fun planning for this with Jes Borland (blog|Twitter), Julie Smith (blog|Twitter), Jen McCown (blog|Twitter), and Wendy Pastrick (blog|Twitter). They are an amazing bunch of women.
I love data. I love making a living in a technical field. Is this what I wanted to be when I grew up? Well, no. I wanted to be a:
- Wonder Woman (my Underoos phase)
- Astronaut (my Sally Ride phase)
- Archaeologist (My Indiana Jones phase)
- Egyptologist (An extension of my Indiana Jones phase)
- Detective (My Sherlock Holmes/Harriet the Spy phase)
- Field Surgeon (My MASH phase)
- Engineer (The result of attending engineering conferences in High School)
See a theme? Every field I was interested in had some basis in a scientific discipline. What? You think Wonder Woman doesn’t count? You think that Invisible Plane invented itself? Anyway, I was a bit of a tomboy, and I thought digging in the yard for non-existent fossils was way cooler than playing with dolls. I was never encouraged to be who I was. I was just a kid who found this stuff interesting.
My point is this: I don’t have a technical career now because someone pulled me along a path to it. Quite the opposite. No one ever told me that I wasn’t supposed to love science. No one ever pointed out that what I wanted to do with my life didn’t fit a classic stereotype of women. This is why I’ve struggled to embrace the Women in Technology movement. I’ve never felt like being a woman in my career field was all that challenging. In fact, I know that I’ve had opportunities come my way because I’m a woman. (p.s. — Yeah, it irks me a little. I believe I can stand up next to anyone and hold my own. But, at the end of the day, I’m a capitalist. If being a woman opens the door a crack, you can be sure I’ll try to kick it wide open with experience and competence.)
Don’t get me wrong… the women and men who volunteer for and support this organization do great work. Some kids out there aren’t as lucky as I was. They don’t have parents who humor every ridiculous science experiment and who take them to the library to check out books on ancient Egypt. And, the fact that I stand on the shoulders of thousands of women who did have to fight and claw their way into the lives they wanted isn’t lost on me. I am so thankful that I am a Gen-X baby, and wasn’t born 30 years earlier. I suspect my life would have been very different. I know I’ve been lucky. I know that my experience doesn’t mirror everyone’s, and I know that there are still (in 2011!) injustices happening in the workplace every single day.
But, in the spirit of my own personal experience, I want to use this platform to honor 5 men who helped shape my outlook on life and my career. Why men? Well, I want to remind everyone that while we’re talking about women in technology this week, there are a lot of men out there who both support and need the support of all of us too. I’m a mother of two boys. My sons are being raised as I was raised, with dreams and aspirations that are never called into question**.
1) Dale Bass – My Dad – My dad is what we here in the South call a Good Ol’ Boy. He’s a blue-collar kind of guy. His eyes sort of glaze over every time I try to explain what I do for a living. But, when I was a little girl, he had more influence on how I see the world than any other man in my life. He taught me how to shoot a rifle and a bow. He bought me a four-wheeler, a junior circuit board kit, a chemistry set, and a telescope as gifts throughout my childhood. When I was five he went to sign me up for soccer. He was told there wasn’t a girls’ team. Without missing a beat, he said, “Okay then, put her on the boys’ team.” He never once let me believe I couldn’t do something because I’m a girl. I still believe him.
2) Jeremy Hammonds – My Husband – Jeremy puts up with my various neuroses and my pathological need for self-imposed stress. That alone gets him on my list. But, he also loves that I’m smart. He loves that I have a career. He’s more likely to send me an execution plan than a love letter. I love that. And, shhh… he lets me be an emotional wreck when I need to be. When I have to put my game face on at work, it’s okay because I know I can come home at the end of the day and tell him how the project makes me feel. Then, when I’m done whining, he asks me what my solution is. I love that too.
3) Ken Smith – My High School Geometry and Algebra II Teacher – Mr. Smith was one of those all-too rare teachers who really, truly cared about his students’ futures. He sat me down in my 11th grade year, when I was imagining a senior year full of blow off electives and told me that what I really needed to do was make something of my last year of high school. He talked me into signing up for both Computer Science and Physics, two science credits I didn’t need. He told me that I needed to jump at opportunities to learn. He tutored me through sections of his class that I struggled with to make sure that I was always academically eligible to play sports. He taught me that a little extra homework was worthwhile when you were learning something cool. Like Turbo Pascal 7.0. Who could have known that that one piece of advice would set me on this path?
4) Ken Smith – My first supervisor in the Air Force - Yes, I have two Ken Smiths on this list. They couldn’t have more different personalities. Sergeant Smith took a totally different approach. He never gave me special treatment, and he never singled me out, even though I was the only woman in a shop of 60. He berated and swore and when I was pregnant with my first child, told me that if I was going to be a baby about having morning sickness I could go sit somewhere else. At the time, I didn’t understand what he was doing. But, he was doing me the greatest favor he could. By making a point of not ever treating me differently, he set a standard for everyone else around me. By never getting special treatment, the door was never opened for me to be treated poorly. He shaped my expectations for how I want to be treated in a male-dominated field.
TANGENT: Very early in my career, I had a supervisor who was afraid to tell me when I did something poorly because his greatest fear was that he would make me cry, and he couldn’t handle crying. I had to gently explain to him that while I am of the female persuasion, crying at work just really isn’t my thing. (it has happened, but very rarely) Then, once I’d convinced him that I could handle criticism, he said this to me: “You suck at T-SQL. Like, really suck. You think like a COBOL programmer not a DBA (which was true at the time), and you need to spend an hour a day working on this.” So, I guess I got what I asked for, but guess what? Because of him, I don’t suck at SQL any more.
5) Finally, the guys I’ve interacted with throughout my career – To those of you who aren’t afraid to tell me when you think I’m wrong and aren’t afraid for me to be right… To every one of you who got over the fact that I have hips and breasts and started treating me like just another member of the team… Thank you. If you ever invited me out to happy hour after work or weren’t afraid to tell an off-color joke in front of me, I’m indebted to you. Here’s the thing… It doesn’t matter how comfortable I am being a woman in this field. If you can’t get comfortable with me being here, then we’ll never make any progress. I’ve been so lucky to have been surrounded by men just like you every step of the way. The list of names is too long to print, but y’all know who you are. I owe you one.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t care about forcing a population in technology that mirrors the demographics of our country. What I do care about is making sure that every single person, boy or girl, never experiences any barrier to the life they want, be it as a database developer, stay at home parent, or Wonder Woman. If we can accomplish that, it’ll all work itself out naturally.
** Okay, I did tell my son Chase that he might want to have a Plan B if his aspiration was to be the next Eminem. But that’s just good parenting.
HOMEWORK — I have one and only assignment for you:
1) If there’s a kid in your life, boy or girl, watch and listen to them. If they express an interest in something, support it. Take them to a library or a museum. Find a person who does what they want to do and let them talk to them. If she’s digging in the yard for fossils with your best serving spoon, go get her a shovel. The holes in your landscaping are a tiny thing compared to the beauty of watching a kid who’s engaged in her passion. You don’t really have to do much… just don’t say no.