Priya Gupta: Dr. Laser All-Star

Priya Gupta: Doctor of Lasers

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]

Waiting for the first tech lady sitcom

Given the current rage of workplace-based comedies (The Office, Parks & Rec, 30 Rock, etc), I keep waiting for there to be a sitcom about a tech company. And of course, I would expect it to include if not focus on some fabulous tech ladies, preferably all of {Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Sarah Silverman, Rachel Dratch, Mindy Kaling, Margaret Cho}.

At this point you may be saying “Hey tehMLE! Haven’t you heard?  There’s some movie in production that explores the world of tech! From the comedy genius behind Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus!” Once I finish rolling my eyes at you, I will point out that, though technically about “Tech”, the movie in question is unlikely to be much of a comedy, and certainly not of the caliber I’m looking for.

In the meantime, I have discovered The Mindy Project, for which I will do some shameless (though as yet unsponsored) buzz marketing. The show is great, and not just because Mindy reminds me very much of a close friend whose All-Star profile is in the works. Mindy plays a smart, capable Indian-American doctor who has an overly dramatic personal life. There are, in fact, many women I have studied and worked with in my career who fit this profile (not necessarily Indian, though). Thus far, The Mindy Project comes the closest to my dream sitcom, especially since the show’s soundtrack is very in line with my personal dance parties.

Check out the trailer.

Liz Kennedy: An Original All-Star

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

Liz Kennedy: An Original All-Star

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”.

The C-130: Just another day at the office for Liz

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!


How to go from Misogynist to Feminist

Gail Carmichael G+ posted a link to Ellen Spertus’ Anita’s Quilt piece. I highly recommend this piece for anyone who doesn’t get why there’s a bunch of fuss about getting more women into tech. I, for one, can admit to having this outlook in my early career. A great quote:

I felt that my status with my family and peers was an honorary male — not able to equal the best men but certainly better than other females. I felt that women’s underrepresentation in the sciences was due to their own lack of interest and abilities in the “hard” (therefore “better”) sciences. Nevertheless, I hoped to find girls like me at computer camp and college, but I was unable to find or befriend the few such women, even when I entered MIT.

Totally captures my attitude circa 1997-2008.

Holla atchya Tech Lady: Apps to Combat Sexual Harrassment

I was almost giddy with excitement when I read about Not Your Baby, a free iPhone App that “generates snappy comebacks to street harassment”. It is produced by Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (MACVAWC) in Toronto and available free thanks to Canadian socialism. The app offers tailored responses to different situations, so it can help you whether you’re being harassed at school by a classmate, at work by a colleague, or on the street by an anonymous creep. An amazing idea! Who among us hasn’t been holla’d at or pursued a little to hard by a creepy acquaintance? I figured the app format could be a little awkward, but I was excited to see a new media approach to the problem.

First: how pervasive is this problem? From my direct experience, there are places in my neighbourhood that I go out of my way to avoid because of the persistence of catcalling by complete strangers. I’ve been fortunate in my career to never have dealt personally with an overly creepy colleague or classmate, but I know scores of women who have. To determine whether I had a skewed view of the problem, I took to facebook to see whether my friends shared my experiences. In less than a day, I got a whole mess of responses like:

“Hey lady! Wanna be my girlfriend?”

“hey bebee…wanna to chat?”

“you misunderstood me… I was only going to hang out with you tonight if my other plans fell through.”

“Baby! Smile a little!” aka “Whatever you may be experiencing internally that is leading you to look stressed out or sad is nowhere nearly as important as your duty to look visually appealing to me, a random dude on the street.”

Among many, many others. So this app is attacking a very real problem. But how well does it do?

The first example I tested out was the “hey bebee… wanna chat?” example, which was a staple in the days of ICQ and more timely situations like online gaming and communities. So I fired up the ol’ iPad (we’re android users in this house, so pardon the goofy scale) to see what Not Your Baby had to say.

Not Your Baby App

Hmm, there’s no option for responses to internet harassment, which is unfortunate because I think an app would be completely appropriate to use in this situation. Anyways, let’s try out some ol’ chestnut street hollas. I selected “Stranger” and “Street”.

Call the Police! A man on the street whistled at me!

I’m not sure about where you live, but where I live, the police are unlikely to care if someone is hollering at you on the street without any overt physical threats. Let’s see what else you suggest…

Don’t be that guy

Okay, not bad. Interestingly the “Random Fact” is “Taking pictures of or filming people without their permission is harassment”. I know women who actually do this in retaliation to such harassment, so does this mean that they shouldn’t do that? Or is this a secret code for vigilante justice that we should read as “filming people without their permission is harassment *WINK*”.

How’s about non-strangers? Like when you’re being harassed by a colleague?

I’m reporting you

I guess this could work, but the women I know who have faced situations like this are usually trying to build relationships with their team, and taking an approach like this can make that difficult. I fully support a woman taking such a stand in the face of workplace harassment, but I’m not sure how practical of a suggestion this is. What if said person was your boss?

I'm reporting you. And I quit.

I’m reporting you AND I quit!

Well, okay, but now you’ve lost your job, and in the US, likely the rights to any severance or unemployment. For Tech Ladies, you might actually be able to pull the “Tech Lady is OUT, son!” move given that it is a worker’s market in the tech sector in many parts of the world. But for a woman in almost any other industry, especially if she’s supporting a family, this advice doesn’t seem helpful.

My overall conclusions:

Strengths:

  • Tech for social change: I love that MACVAWC is applying technology in a novel way to solve a problem that (I’ll venture to guess) everyone woman deals with at some point in her life.
  • Supportive: Even if you can’t use this when you’re in the midst of being harassed, it could be very cathartic to explore the app’s suggestions after the fact, when you’re replaying the incident in your head.
  • Informative: In addition to the “comebacks”, the app offers serious information on harassment and links to resources (at least in Canada)

Areas for Improvement

  • Online Harassment: This is an EPIC issue these days. For those of you unfamiliar with this kind of problem, I suggest you read about The Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian [WARNING: Content is very disturbing]. This is also a scenario where you could realistically use an app to respond in realtime to harassment.
  • Snappyness: The comebacks offered aren’t as snappy as I was fantasizing they would be. Sure, I would probably never use this app while I was being harassed, but I would use it after the fact to imagine what I’d say to the bum before roundhouse kicking the guy in the jaw and incinerating him with my laser eyes!
  • Practicalness: Quitting your job because you’re being harassed at work isn’t a helpful strategy, nor is calling the police because some guy on the street made kissy faces at you.
  • Android-ify: Not everyone has iPhones. This is particularly true in the US among communities of colour, where android has the overwhelming market share. As bad as it is for me in my neighbourhood, at least I can avoid the streets where I know this nonesense goes on. It would be great if the girls and women who have to walk down those streets to get to work or school, many of whom are women of colour, to have access to a free resource like this.

Overall, I recommend anyone interested to download it provided they have the right phone/tablet/emulator. This is definitely a conversation worth having. Try it out yourself and “hollaback” with your comments.

Today I’m having an obvious dance party – Gwen Stefani, Hollaback Girl.

The Interview Manifesto

Since publishing the first all-star interview yesterday, I have received a lot of questions regarding what makes a tech lady all-star. Allow me to deconstruct:

Tech: I’m interested in software and software-related jobs especially, particularly those where a woman is likely to be the only one of her gender in the room. For some examples, I think a Product Manager working for an internet-based start up totally counts. Similarly, a tech writer for a software company definitely counts. This is probably the loosest of my terms for me – if I found a woman who worked as a mechanical engineer for Lockheed Martin, you better believe I’d want to hear her story. So if you consider an interview candidate to work in tech, there’s a good chance I will too.

Lady: To be perfectly clear: if you refer to yourself as female, you can be a lady. I’m using gender, not sex here.

All-Star: Since someone asked this, I wanted to answer clearly: this is not about Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Mayer. I’m happy to write about power tech ladies when it fancies me, but that’s not what motivated me to start this. My hypothesis, which has yet to be disproven in my 15 years in industry, is that the women who manage to make it through the sausage fests that are high school CS, university CS, and the entire tech industry have something special going for them. These are really unique qualities that I find fascinating and I think make their stories worth sharing. If you’re considering nominating yourself, you probably meet the bar. And if for some reason you are truly overconfident in your own skills, well I admire your juevos and will probably think you’re worth interviewing anyways. If that ends up being the problem I’m dealing with, then we are in a much better state than I ever imagined.

So in short: when in doubt, just ask. I can manage one interview a week at most right now, so I’m quickly forming a back log. In addition to interviews, I’d love to get contributions from women on the ground. If you’d like to talk about any post ideas, drop me a line at techladyallstars@gmail.com.

After all the positive feedback I received, I’ve been having quite a personal dance party for the last few days. Right now, I’m hooked on Bang Bang Bang by Mark Ronson and The Business Intl. It features a catchy tune and some terribly pronounced French. Enjoy!