People don’t just give you respect, you have to earn it
Here’s where I start to learn what it’s like to be a woman in tech and to work in Corporate America.
I was fortunate to find a boss that encouraged me to do more in tech as I wrote about in my last post. I also was lucky to have a couple of female programmers around me in that company. I’m not sure how common that was in the early nineties. My next small team was all men — and they were great, by the way. One man who was much older than me took over my code after I left said it was “amazing.”
It seemed like there were more women in programming than telecom. There was one other woman in our small group that did telecom work, but when I went to conferences, it was a sea of men. All the women I ran into from the phone companies were sales reps.
Tangent. I don’t know how many times men have tried to get me to work in or help with sales. Please don’t. Although I read some books on the subject by Zig Ziglar and others to get by in past businesses, I am technical, not a salesperson. You want my sister, who can sell anything. Unfortunately, we are like oil and water, and she doesn’t like tech at all. She was in the top 50 Tupperware salespeople in the nation at one point — and I didn’t buy any. I told her I’d rather give her money than buy something I didn’t want. It’s not my thing, but if it’s yours, that’s cool.
At one company I’m pretty sure they were going to try to make me a product manager, but I headed it off by asking for a new technical job in a different part of the company. I only did that type of work when it was blocking my project, and just because I was good at it doesn’t mean I want to change careers. My technical projects were successful — when I was working in an environment conducive to success. Part of that is having project managers and product managers who can deliver what you need to build what is required. Sometimes I took charge in that area just to get the requirements I needed to build the system and complete the project. It didn’t always make people happy.
I was recently at a conference where two women separately told me they were in a technical role, and someone convinced them to move into some form of management. I started to wonder how often this happens, so I asked a question on Twitter. I was curious to see if anyone faced something similar, and wondering if this contributes to the lack of ladies in purely technical roles. A few women responded that yes it happened to them, so consider the reason why you are asking a person to step out of a technical role if you are.
When it happened to me, I almost always said no. As with some others, I was a manager for a while. I did it for one reason alone — and agreed to do it under one condition: I would be in charge and able to deliver a project the way I wanted. When you are someone’s manager, you have a better chance they will implement your ideas. With an incredible team, we were able to deliver the main thing I set out to do, and the related reason I took the job. However, if the company you are working for does not back up your decisions, it will undermine your credibility. Although I hired and worked with some incredible people that I still talk to and work with to this day, I will never again be a manager unless it’s my own company.
I think the first time I got annoyed in my newfound technical role was after my boss left to move from California to Seattle shortly after he put me on the ISDN project mentioned in my last post. He left for a couple of weeks. I just had to figure out what ISDN was and report the project status. At one point, one of the other technical managers came over and asked, “Is [John] sending those reports from California?” What. I told him I was sending them and sat at my desk after he walked away, mildly fuming.
I figured out what the problem was with the ISDN project while my boss was away. First, as mentioned in the last post, the central offices needed updates. Additionally, the techs constantly configured the devices wrong and would have to go back to the gas stations multiple times. This repeated problem ultimately could be pinpointed to four values in an eighteen-page configuration. I created a one-page form to track all the critical pieces of information for each gas station. Except for the CO updates, the project started going more smoothly.
What happened next introduced me to the world of male bias — a trip to the BP office in Cleveland, Ohio. Our company had purchased 300 of their gas stations. I remember sitting at the conference table with a bunch of men, many with mostly gray or white hair. A young blond girl like me sat two seats away. She was a secretary. This imbalance did not escape me.
They all started hemming and hawing about the problems with their oddly-configured ISDN project. I raised my hand because I was too naive to have fear. I still am, and it regularly gets me in trouble. If you’re looking for a mentor, I mentor you all right now to find someone more qualified. I told the men in the room what the problem was, and told them about my form that solved it. I can’t remember if I had it with me, but I may have even held it up.
Oh man (no pun intended), did I get shot down. Loud rebuke followed, yada yada yada. Scoffing. Growling. The conference moved on. I said nothing else for the rest of the meeting. It was pointless. I may have been glaring at all of them as I sat there ticked off.
At some point, we broke up into different rooms, and I was told to go help some group to solve some dumb problem in which I was disinterested. The men in charge went into another room — and lo and behold! They came out with a form with four fields on it to fill out before sending a phone tech out to install ISDN. My form, basically.
This happened many times in my career, the last being not so long ago. I used to get so angry. Now I am just glad the problem is solved and I don’t care if they think they solved it. I know the truth. I also have seen people I know and like take credit for my ideas. I don’t think it’s always intentional. After I write about something or give a presentation, or tell them my thoughts, somehow they twist it around to it being their idea. My response at this point in life is generally, “Whatever.” Life is too short. There are way more productive ways to engage your brain cells. There are a few exceptions, having to do with copyrighted material and legally binding contracts, but for the most part, it’s not worth it.
By the way, I resolved that CO problem. I went to a telecom conference and heard the president of PacBell talking about how marvelous their ISDN product was. When I got back, I clipped an article about ISDN leveraging packets over the D-channel out of a tech newsletter, printed a report showing the orders we had placed that were over a year overdue from the application I had written to track them, and wrote him a polite letter on company letterhead. The next week we had the top ISDN engineer from PacBell scheduling meetings with us. I realized later in my career that this only worked because I worked at a Fortune 150 company. As an entrepreneur, I got kicked to the curb If I tried something like this. Money talks.
The attempt to stop my efforts to make progress has not always come from men. A woman was working at that same company who pulled a power trip on me. She was Asian, but I’ve experienced or heard of things like this happen from and to all races of women. Often the finger is pointed at men for not allowing women to get into tech or to advance in their careers- but sometimes the limiting factor is coming from other women. Although men have sometimes been roadblocks to successful outcomes in my life, some of the worst experiences in my career that have diminished my trust in other humans to support and back you up were the actions of women.
In this particular case, I don’t think the woman was evil, nor was it anywhere near the worst. I think she just wanted to control a situation. Maybe she felt slighted that this young punk got to do all these things and she was jealous. I have no idea. I had nothing against her and knew very little about what she was doing at work — I just wanted to learn to code.
Specifically, I wanted to build a Microsoft Access application to track all the phone bills and the ISDN project. She was a programmer and told me I couldn’t because I didn’t know how and they were already working on this project. They weren’t. They had much bigger problems than my little database, which wasn’t going to hurt or connect to anything. Rather than help me, she tried to stop me. She also attempted to kick me out of my boss’s office while he was moving and he said I could use it — but another very cool manager said, “If anyone bothers you, just tell me, and I’ll sit on them.” I never forgot that or how much I appreciated it. I still tell him to this day.
Here’s my take on woman vs. woman. People are human. Some (not all) want to be more successful than the others and will do whatever it takes to get there, regardless of gender. I also observed that at times, women are sometimes harsher than men when judging other women. I’ve noticed that when I teach classes where people submit evaluations, I often get lower scores from the women than the men. These are women with whom I have a good rapport in class, and they ask me questions. I never understand this — shouldn’t we, as women, be even more supportive of each other than our male counterparts as we are all facing the same issues?
If women want to advance in tech, we need to back each other up, not tear each other down or compete agaist each other. I see all this promotion of women in tech, which is admirable — as long as the motives and cause align. Hopefully people are doing it for the right reason, and we are doing things that actually make a difference (i.e. ratios improve).
I’m not sure the world needs another new “women in tech” or “women in security” group if one already exists to which you can contribute. I wish more women would participate in technical events that are not gender specific. I run a technical meetup with almost 3,000 members. When a women in tech group at work asked me to participate in their event, I suggested they could come to my meetup to see what a woman in tech is doing at their company. Nobody came. Maybe I’m just different or Seattle is just nice, but I’ve never felt uncomfortable at technical meetups, conferences, or felt the need for a women only group for that reason. I realize sometimes you just want to meet other women and I was a part of a women entrepreneurs group in the past.
I think visibility of women’s issues is good, but I keep asking myself — are the things people are doing really making a difference? Perhaps instead of more women in tech panels, we need women to band together, back each other up, and to collaborate with men in hiring positions to contribute to solutions to this problem that get more women in technical roles, along with attending and speaking at conferences — on technical topics.
The non-tech women out there could be more supportive as well who are in tangentially related positions that support women in tech and help them get promoted. Don’t pretend to care and be helpful when the reality could not be further from the truth, based on a misdirected email I received and the fact that I was once actually removed from a position where I was achieving success when a woman was my boss who wanted to take over my project. Inauthenticity shows through in the end, so make sure your intentions, hearts, and minds are in the right place when you wave the banner for “women in tech” — we need to actually help each other achieve success. And to those that are genuine and have helped me a ton — THANK YOU.
All these people acting like I couldn’t possibly know things, couldn’t do things, or treating my solutions as subpar at my first job really bothered me. I was complaining about this lack of respect to my laid back beach volleyball partner from Mississippi. I believe he may have been partaking of paca lolo as it is known in some parts, a fact I was not initially aware of when I started playing in tournaments with him. I told you I can be oblivious. He said something amazingly profound under the circumstances, which stuck with me.
You can’t just expect people to respect you —
you have earn it.
As it turns out, his words were spot on and backed by scientific research, which I’m sure he did not know. I read a study once which I can’t find at the moment which showed that men would be biased towards a woman, but after hearing her credentials, accepted her as competent. I presume this works with other women too. I didn’t read this until recently, but I immediately realized how I had unknowingly leveraged this fact.
There was another female programmer I completely admired at that first company. If my memory serves me correctly, at one point, she took her boss’s role after they demoted him. I don’t wish bad things for anyone, and I was not privy to all the details, but someone told me that. Maybe he didn’t want that role and gave it up. Whether or not it was true, it made me in awe of her. She had this way of being polite but not taking any guff. If people acted as if they were helpless or didn’t want to do something, she would ask them why until they stopped shirking responsibilities or figured it out. I liked that. One day I asked her if she would have coffee with me and asked how she got into programming. She said she got a master of software engineering at a particular school — so I got one too.
That was the start of my journey to earn respect. I thought that if I could present enough credentials, people would respect my ability to solve their problems. Over the years, I have learned to back up my statements with facts and research. I’ve gone further to get other credentials and even got some awards and honors along the way that I didn’t even know existed, nor did I expect them. I certainly had not intentionally set out to get them. I never had problems getting a job in tech, because I had as much or more credentials, and eventually experience, as many of the men in my field. I also used to know a myriad of programming languages, and my resume was overflowing with buzzwords recruiters were seeking.
There was one particular large tech company, however, where I failed to get a job. Over the span of years, I think I applied two or three times and at some point decided “never again.” I often had multiple companies trying to hire me when I decided to make a move, so why should I kill myself to get into a company that doesn’t want me?
One person wanted me to recite the code for a singleton pattern over the phone. I have implemented a singleton pattern many times and am aware of possible implications of incorrect implementation in a multithreaded application. I do not generally, however, memorize the code so I can recite it over the phone.
Another time the interviewer asked me about Big O notation. I felt I was answering the question correctly, but he told me I was wrong and explained it all to me. Regarding this particular mechanism of measuring algorithm performance in advance of writing code, I get it, and it’s valid, but I think it’s overrated at the same time. There is usually more than one way to solve a problem. Sometimes understanding the logic beneath the notation is more important, and the words and symbols people overlay on top of basic principles feel like noise. When you’re working on a complex application, you need to performance test applications for all the issues that do not fall nicely into algorithm performance, like DNS problems and latency. With financial and security applications, you need to be absolutely certain the data is correct as TCP packets traverse the network.
On another call, I had to solve some meaningless little character manipulation by typing code into an online computer application. To me, this skill doesn’t relate to large scale business problems with many factors. That format was also too much pressure. I failed that miserably, to be honest. I got almost a perfect score on the logic portion of the GRE, but coming up with those answers that fast in an interview is not my thing. Give me any solve-able computer problem, Google, books, and some time, and I’ll solve it with one or all of those.
I also know people and recruiting companies that game that whole system by asking every candidate that comes out what the question was. It’s a lot easier to be prepared when you know the questions in advance. I realize it’s hard to judge candidates, and I have made mistakes. I think in my gut, I questioned some of my choices, but there was always some looming hiring freeze. I also hired some of the most qualified and brilliant people I know and we delivered results. In any case, I could have worked with any of the people I hired successfully, given supportive executive leadership. When I interviewed either as a manager or a development lead, I tended to ask more real world questions related to the problems my team is currently trying to solve. I like to see how people think, and particularly avoid the neat programming trick I learned last week that I now expect every other person to know.
Somehow I never passed those particular big company‘s interviews. I’m not sure what this says about that company or me, but perhaps other women are facing similar challenges. I was happy just to find places willing to hire me based on my track record of successful projects and credentials — and I delivered. After getting my master of software engineering, I helped one company grow from a startup operation to a multi-million dollar company as the nearly sole technical architect and implementer. I reverse-engineered how websites were ranked on Google and wrote code to dynamically get that company to the top of search engines while other SEO (search engine optimization) companies at the time were hand-coding HTML pages and charging $100K. Their sales skyrocketed.
At Capital One, where I was initially a back office development lead, I had a team of some of those most intelligent and competent people I know. That team kept me in that role longer than I probably should have stayed due to other frustrations I may write about later. The team members changed over time, but I had an amazing QA lead. Our team delivered successful projects that processed things like taxes (cost basis and 1099s), dividends, and sweep accounts for billions of dollars of assets under management. In one case, a DBA told us something wasn’t going to work on a project and was trying to block it. We got permission to do it. When the project was released, our project manager reported transfers into investment accounts increased by over 150%, with no bugs. There were also fewer errors due to tools we released to business — because I sat with them to understand their processes and designed them myself in collaboration with a great UI person.
I faced a lot of challenges throughout my career. Some of them could be related to my inability to accept the status quo or contribute to something I knew wasn’t going to have a successful outcome. Perhaps it was related to not being perceived as a team player when I informed someone that a particular approach was not going to work, even though I was right more often than not. Some of it was related to being a woman. I offset that by working hard, learning lots of technologies, getting certifications like the GSE, degrees, and obtaining other types of experience, knowledge, and qualifications.
I advanced my programming skills on my own time. I remember shoo-ing a boyfriend away just after college when he wanted to me to go out with his friends to do something I didn’t really want to do anyway because I had to learn something for work. I used to have geek-out Saturdays with a friend of mine who was learning Splunk and now works at Zillow. When I couldn’t use AWS initially at Capital One, I set up a personal account and studied outside of work (it’s free!), and started the Seattle AWS Architects and Engineers Meetup so I could learn from other people at companies that were using AWS.
All these experiences lead me to my main point. Demanding a seat at the table without the qualifications to back it up will likely lead to resentment when it displaces a more qualified candidate — in perception or reality. This approach may backfire. Although women’s panels like the one I was just on aim for good, I suspect the people who are in attendance are not the ones that need to hear the message. So what will make a difference? Yes, I do feel like women have to work ten times harder than men to prove their qualifications, but the more we hold up credentials the more we will earn that spot.
Instead of talking about quotas, let’s talk about qualifications, and the women in tech who are delivering results that make companies successful. The more we get into roles dominated by men, the more the gender bias will fade, in my opinion. People will get used to women holding a seat at the table — and in some companies, that is already true. When I worked at Capital One and Nordstrom, I noticed they had women in technical and top executive roles. I felt like people were more accustomed to working with and reporting to women. That’s not to say it was easy or perfect, but these companies are aspiring to do the right thing.
In contrast, I worked at a technology company where I was the only female architect. I think I got in because there aren’t a lot of people of any gender in the cloud architecture and cloud security space. If there were, I doubt I would have gotten the job. I think there was one other female programmer outside our team, where I hired additional women. I felt like a lot of the men were not comfortable with a strong technical woman, and it made me uncomfortable in return. I don’t think the men were bad (at least I’d like to think they were not). They were just not used to a woman recommending technical solutions and speaking on technical topics, as far as I could tell.
Let’s change that uncomfortable feeling. Let’s quash the doubt that women can deliver solid technical solutions. Maybe as more women infiltrate the tech space, people will learn and understand that women are as smart and capable as men. Research has shown that companies that hire women have better outcomes. Sometimes those studies point to the fact that women are “nice” and have more “emotional intelligence” — but women should be recognized not just for their feminine qualities. In my case, I don’t think people will tell you I was the nicest and most patient person they ever met. I am nice — mostly! I just don’t take any guff, like the woman I liked when I was younger. And yes, I am also self-aware. Nobody’s perfect. Hopefully, they will tell you that I deliver results and they respect me as I respect people who do good work and have good intentions. I hope these studies and reports will start focusing on the technical capabilities of women and less on soft skills, though both are certainly important.
To men and women — and those companies or conferences where the ratio of women to men is lower, try a little harder. To hiring managers and people giving technical interviews, check yourself when you are evaluating resumes, credentials, qualifications, and the achievements of women. A female manager participating on a panel with me at AWS re:Inforce who works for AWS noticed that men would give other men passes while they would call out any credentials a woman lacked to a greater extent. If you are a woman rating another woman, be honest but err in the upwards direction if you’re not sure.
Hire woman-owned companies when you can, not because it’s a woman but because the woman has a proven track record and qualifications to support furthering the perception that women are qualified and competent. Reach out to female technical presenters for conferences who may not have known about your event or had time to apply. Allow women in your company to go to those conferences in place of men, either because they have earned it, or are eager to learn. Each small action can help change perceptions and level the playing field — getting women in prominent roles, who have credentials and proven track records — and help women develop those track records if they don’t have them yet. And most of all, give women the respect they earn and deserve not because we need to support women in tech, but because they are qualified, competent, and can help your company be more successful.
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