IIT Bombay graduate. Doctor of Lasers. New mom. Google spouse.
Okay the Google spouse thing isn’t in itself cool, but that’s how I met Priya. Within minutes of meeting Priya three years ago, I wanted to be her friend. She’s a tech lady in the hardcore-est of ways: a Doctor of Lasers. LASERS, people. For those of you unfamiliar with lasers, consider that, unlike many areas of tech, Priya’s day to day work typically involves tools that can burn your fingers off or cause you to go blind. There are few engineers that venture into lasers, and even fewer who are women (<10% in the field, by Priya’s estimates). Fortunately, Priya is used to being the odd non-man out.
Priya’s engineering career started in late high school. Before that, she wanted to become a medical doctor, but that would have required her to drop math midway through school. Nonplussed about stopping math, Priya decided engineering would be a better fit: “I just knew I wanted to work with lasers”. She focused on getting to IIT, the most prestigious school in India and has possibly the most competitive entrance standards. Coming from an all-girls school, it wasn’t until Priya started college at IIT that she noticed anything unusual. In her words: “I was the martian coming in; only girl in a class of 19. There were lots of stares”. When asked if she felt intimidated, it sure doesn’t seem like it: “I intimidated the guys”.
Right on, girl.
In addition to the usual challenges of getting into the world’s most competitive engineering school, Priya had to contend with a family that was less than enthused about her plan. Coming from a conservative family where arranged marriages were the norm, Priya’s family worried that going to IIT would make her “too educated”. “I was already too tall”, she points out. And in the words of one of her aunts: “She’ll be 22 – who will want to marry her then?!”. Fortunately, her parents were supportive, and ran effective defense.
Priya made it to IIT Bombay out of hundreds of thousands of applicants. She entered the Engineering Physics B. Tech program, and of the 420 students admitted to IIT Bombay that year, Priya says about 20 of them were women – less than 5%. What’s more, in Priya’s experience about half of the men in her class had never interacted with a woman their own age. As a result, Priya dealt with a lot of awkwardness, even by typical women in tech standards: “I was excluded from social outings because the guys felt they couldn’t behave in a relaxed way with a woman present”. Even worse, there was a classmate who developed an obsession with her. Priya documented the harassment, submitting emails to the dean, who in turn took action against the harasser. While this resolved the harassment, Priya feels that many of the guys in her class blindly sided with the creepy guy.
Undeterred, Priya graduated with her B. Tech and turned her sights to the US, which was the natural career path for students looking to work in research. Priya chose the PhD program at Rice University in Houston and was the first member of her whole family to move to the US. Initially, she was concerned that the gender imbalance at Rice would mean similar issues with her male colleagues to what she faced at IIT. The guys she worked with turned out to be completely respectful. What’s more, she met a handsome American gentleman at Rice who persuaded Priya to marry him over the course of 5 or 6 years (sources on the timeline differ). Probably not what the aunties back in India had in mind, but at least they found a match for the tall over-educated girl.
Priya has faced additional challenges since graduating from Rice. In her first job, she was routed into a marketing position even though she was clear that she wanted a research position. She was pressured by the employer to try out marketing anyways, and she wound up being very successful in the role. Regardless of her success, Priya wanted a research job, and she eventually found a startup building analysis tools for greenhouse gases: “I was employee #15 and I loved it! I was happy to be doing research”. The role was exactly what Priya wanted – she worked on the company’s new signature product that increased company sales by two orders of magnitude. “Customers were very happy”, Priya says proudly. But organizationally, the company was a disaster. As the company grew, Priya says that she felt more and more marginalized: “I was the only female in science or research, I was also 10 years younger than everyone”. When I asked her why she put up with it, she confessed: “I should have left, but I’m not a quitter, and I was emotionally attached to the product”. Priya did her best to handle the harassment effectively through HR, but says they discouraged her from making any complaints that would require serious legal action. She focused on her technical work for a few more months, and was eventually laid off with a good severance package. She admits she could have taken the dismissal to court, but the effort and the potential damage to her career was not worth the potential money she could have won.
Since leaving her last company over 2 years ago, Priya has not gone back to work full-time,. She and her husband Ben had their first child, Rahi, and Priya has taken this time to reevaluate what she wants out of her career. She certainly has no shortage of options as she has had a consistent stream of job offers since leaving her previous company, and recently had a part time contract job at an early-stage start up. As a mom in the Bay Area, she’s found that she finally has a chance to meet a lot of other technical women: “I know so many other moms, and the Bay Area is a really cool place where the moms are lawyers or scientists”. Right now, Priya is enjoying motherhood and plans on doing so for another few years before returning to the work force. Originally, this made her nervous: “who’s going to hire me after being away 5 years?”. But she has since seen several colleagues (men, actually) take similar breaks and come back to work without any problems. While Priya has faced some tough challenges in her career, they are challenges that many women will face some point in their careers. In Priya’s case, her choice to work in tech has given her the power to work elsewhere under terms of her own choosing.
On a much lighter note, what’s playing at Priya’s dance party? “Desi Girl”*, of course.
*Desi: Slang term for the people, cultures, and products of the Indian subcontinent or South Asia and, increasingly, to the people, cultures, and products of their diaspora [Wikipedia]
When a colleague of mine mentioned that his mother was a programmer in the 60’s, my brain could not compute. Like most children of the 80’s, my understanding of the 60’s is largely based on watching Mad Men. How is it possible that there were women programmers then? Was it hard finding time to program between preparing martinis for your boss and his mistresses? Or, shockingly, has TV led me astray and the 60’s weren’t all cigarettes and sexual harassment?
According to Liz Kennedy, it’s somewhere in between.
Liz Kennedy got into programming in an age when women didn’t study CS in school, largely because such programs didn’t exist. As an undergraduate student at Agnes Scott College, a liberal arts college for women in Atlanta, she studied Chemistry and eventually Math in order to secure a job in “Scientific Programming”, a kind of early-day Intro to CS. Although neither of her parents worked in computing, she was always drawn to how specific math is. Liz credits a high school math teacher in particular for guiding her: “she expected as much from the women as the men, so it wasn’t a big deal”.
Fresh out of school, Liz had the choice of working in education, a sector that offered a reliable career track for a woman, or venture into industry, where there were few women, particularly on the most interesting and technically challenging projects. Liz had a clear goal from the start: “I wanted something challenging to work on”. She started work as an Associate Aircraft Engineer at Lockheed Georgia, an aircraft manufacturer that eventually merged into Lockheed Martin. There, she programmed loads analyses for Lockheed’s C-130, C-141 and C5A, which were cutting-edge military aircraft. From the outset, there were challenges. Liz earned $4/week less than the men who started along side her – and that was just how it was. When she asked her boss whether Lockheed had any programming openings for a college friend of her’s, her boss’ only question was “What kind of figure does she have?”. And naturally, the maternity leave policy was, astoundingly, even worse than contemporary American maternity leave: “Lockheed had a policy for 6 month pregnant women to quit”.
After leaving industry for over 14 years while she raised her 2 boys at home, Liz returned to an industry that had changed a lot but remained fundamentally the same: “the languages and technologies were different, but the logic was the same”. Similarly, while there had been progress in women’s rights, the tech industry was still hostile towards women. At one of her first jobs after returning, she struggled to define her work as more than “a glorified secretary”. Rather than resigning herself to the menial tasks she was given, she applied programming principles to redundant office tasks and took on tasks outside of what her boss gave her. She stayed in the job only as long as she felt she had to to avoid a blemish on her resume. She eventually joined Computer Sciences Corp., where she worked on a project for Amtrak’s Northeastern Corridor to provide real-time information on train location and movement, which dramatically improved safety by preventing collisions. The project lasted 3 years and allowed Liz to prove her technical competency to her colleagues. As a result, she was promoted into management, where she continued to increase the scope of her work. Over the following 25 years Liz worked in senior management positions for 4 other companies providing technical development and support. At peak, she managed 180 people, and according to Liz, her pay is now consistent with the men working at her level. Though technically retired now, Liz is regularly offered contracts to manage large engineering projects. In an economy where its common for workers in their 50s and 60s to be forced into early retirement, this truly speaks to the reputation Liz has earned for herself in what was once an industry that eschewed women entirely.
Although Liz started her career in a very different climate from the women starting out today, I think her guiding principles remain just as relevant: “Keep your goal in sight, figure out what you need to do, and be flexible about how you get there”. In attempting to figure out how I will balance having a family with the increasing demands of my job, this advice really speaks to me. In an age where women disappeared out of industry to have kids and almost never returned, Liz came back and continued an upward trajectory to reach an elite level that few in her field ever reach, regardless of gender. Her experience is also evidence that women, no matter how experienced, often continue to face discrimination. Even in recent years, Liz has had colleagues question her abilities because of her gender. In one incident, a man was concerned that Liz would be too busy with her grandchildren to finish her contract, though he lacked any concern for the granddads working on the project. With confidence, Liz will find a way to resolve the issue while saving face for her misguided colleague. This can mean waiting until there’s an occasion to speak privately to the offender, or giving yourself enough time to calm down and present your case in a more friendly manner. “Pick what matters to you, let the rest go”.
Amen, Liz – amen.
This is certainly a career for all of us to celebrate. In the words of Chubby Checker, Let’s do the Twist!
Designer. Walker. Gelato-aficionado.
There are many sides to Hannah Johnston, a Usability Interaction Designer at Google based in NYC. For the last two years, she has worked on Google’s Search UI, which is to say the face of Google. For instance, she designed several features of the new Knowledge Panel feature, which Hannah points out as being quite useful when you’re searching for things “like celebrities, or mountains”.
How did Hannah get to be a UI designer? Unlike Software Engineering, where you generally study in an undergrad CS or engineering program and maybe some grad school, there is no standard course of study for UI Designers. In Hannah’s case, she started out at Carleton University in her hometown of Ottawa, Canada studying Industrial Design. But in her words: “I got sick of designing furniture”. In between school years, Hannah worked for Virtual Ventures, a computer camp hosted by Carleton that has produced a surprising number of Google’s senior engineers. “I found that I really liked what I was working on at the camp”. Around that time, Hannah ran into a high school friend at Carleton who was studying in the Bachelor of Information Technology program. “The stuff she was studying was pretty much what I was doing in my spare time for fun”. So she made the switch. Having found her calling, she ended up winning the Governor General’s medal, the award for the
top student in each program, and went on to complete her Master’s “on the design and development of customizable game elements for a massively multiplayer online, dance-based exergame”. As part of her degree, she and a classmate made a walking, talking pony, pictured here.
Having been prodded by her over-bearing older Tech Lady sister to apply to Google, Hannah did an internship in Google News UI in New York the summer before she completed her master’s. While she had considered teaching at university until that point, the Google experience convinced her to try out industry for a while. In addition to shaping the UI that hundreds of millions of Google Search users interact with every day, Hannah contributes to Google’s fun social culture with the “art + gelato” campaign that she co-organizes. This is surprising given that Hannah has a self-described reputation as a hardcore introvert. “I could give a TED talk on Exiting Gracefully 101”. She also maintains balance in her life by walking to work (6 miles, every day!) and occasionally writing her blog How to be a Grownup (like a Pro). She is also an amateur DJ, producing monthly mixtapes of new (and some old) music she’s been listening to lately. Her mixes have been declared by my boyfriend’s certified hipster borther as “cool”.
In spite of her shy tendencies, she emphasizes the importance of networking, but doing it in a way that works for you. “7pm cocktail hours are death”, she says. Instead, she finds other ways: “When I meet someone, I ask what they’re doing – it’s an easy conversation starter”. While Hannah doesn’t think that this is something that women need to do differently from men, it’s important that they don’t shy away from networking even if it makes you uncomfortable. In particular, she points out that you shouldn’t avoid talking to someone just because what they’re doing looks hard. “I also email people who are doing cool things – some will get back to you, some won’t, but I’ve made some good contacts this way”. Unlike software engineering, with its glaring gender disparity, the women:men ratio in design is around 2:3 by Hannah’s estimates. However, like in software engineering, the disparity grows dramatically as you move up the ranks, highlighting the importance of professional networks for women.
What’s playing at Hannah’s dance party? “Some embarrassing stuff, like Biggie Smalls”, but if she has to pick one song, it’s The Look by Metronomy.
It’s a very hipster dance party, apparently.
(Programming Note: Tech Lady All-Star interviews will be a regular feature. If you or someone you know is a tech lady all-star, forward your suggestion to firstname.lastname@example.org)