I am a woman in tech and cybersecurity. At the moment I focus on cloud security including cloud pentesting, assessments, audit assistance, and teach cloud security classes. I taught myself to program as a kid on a TI-99/4a, and I have been geeking out professionally for over 25 years.
What’s it like to be a woman in technology, telecommunications, programming, and cybersecurity? Also working for startups, venture capitalists, fortune 100 companies, and your own business? Let me start by saying I’m far from the typical woman, though I think I may be more so when it comes to women who chose to go into tech and cybersecurity. I don’t know how accurate personality tests are, but I took the Myers-Briggs and each time I come out as an INTJ. Less than 1% of women fall into this category according to some reports, though I believe the number in tech is higher. Early female members of the Google team and some of my female tech friends are also this personality type.
What does that have to do with anything? I think generalizing about women in security and tech potentially lumps a bunch of very dissimilar people together. There may be a lot of women in security who are very different than me and have a much different experience and opinions. On the other hand, the low number of INTJ females may align with corresponding percentages in tech and security. Our personalities may draw us to this profession, help us deal with things in tech, or both. I don’t know.
So how did I get into tech? By accident. I learned to program as a kid and took Pascal in college to get out of a second quarter of chemistry. I got an A in chemistry but I didn’t like the Bunsen burner. I thought I was going to blow up the lab. I was double majoring in fine art because I always wanted to learn to paint, and business because my dad said if you get a business degree, you can do anything. I got a piano scholarship only because I could send in a tape. I get too nervous playing in person. To keep it, I had to take music theory. I was also on the basketball and volleyball team. They were good and went to state. I was brave enough to try out, and there was a spot to fill. Mostly I was a benchwarmer.
I didn’t have a lot of guidance in terms of careers or what to take in college. When my mom told her parents she wanted to go to college, they said, “Whaddya wanna do that for?” She tried to study to become a veterinarian, something women didn’t do. One of her professors told her if she didn’t come to class on Friday so he could tell his dirty jokes he would give her an A. I asked her if she went to class on Fridays. “No! I got an A!” She later dropped out due to harassment, and became a PE teacher, and then later a 6th-grade teacher when she couldn’t beat the first graders around the track anymore.
I’m convinced that my mom chose physical education because she couldn’t get over not being allowed to play in the softball game against another grade school as a young girl. She knew based on the order people were picked that she was the third best player at her school. She had to sit on the bench and watch when they played another team (before Title IX). She met my dad at a dude ranch where they both worked in the horse barn. Women weren’t allowed to work in the horse barn. Except my mom.
I think I’m more like my Dad than my mom. She’s tougher than me for sure. But I suppose we have something in common. She’s not exactly the most typical woman either. She instructed me to take Latin in high school because it would help me later. I’m still not convinced. Going to college was a given. What to do in college was another matter. I was a bit on my own. It was pretty obvious I wasn’t going to be a veterinarian when I couldn’t give a colt a shot while my parents were out of town. I just stood there with the needle and said, “I can’t do it.” My mom gave up and called a guy who was in vet school to take care of it. I think my parents were ok with the fact that I was studying art in college as long as I was doing business too, but they never said much.
Although I programmed as a kid, no one around me did it. I had no clue anyone did this for a living. I was just bored with games and wanted to write my own. My mom noticed me attempting to type code out of magazines my dad left lying around. He had gotten into a multi-level marketing company selling computers. He believed computers were going to change the world. None of the neighbors in our small town knew what a computer was, let alone why they would need one, but pretty soon they all had one.
My dad was right about computers, but unfortunately, the company selling the Texas Instruments computers, Tronics, went bankrupt. He went back to teaching. My mom brought home a TI-Basic programming book and dropped it on the table. I picked it up and wrote a computer program and stored it on a cassette tape. Teri’s Times Tables — if you got ten random math facts right, it would show you an American flag and play The Entertainer. Programming was simpler then. It was easy to translate chords from my piano books to computer frequencies and turn pixels different colors. Computers hooked up to TV screens for monitors had a lot fewer pixels in those days.
So this is how it began, but it was a winding path to where I am now. I didn’t program in my high school as there were no computers. I took typing. On a typewriter. We finally got a computer when I was a senior to create the school newsletter, which I helped write.
I never took programming in college with the intention of becoming a programmer. The thought never occurred to me. In Pascal, it was so easy because I had done it before. Everyone else struggled because they couldn’t understand the professor. I was popular with the soccer players for like five minutes because I helped them with their homework. At my second college, The University of Washington, the art counselor told me art majors don’t take FORTRAN (my attempt to get out of science labs again).
“What do art majors take?”
“Geology. Or oceanography.”
“OK. I like the ocean.”
I ended up with a business degree, and I didn’t even take the information technology track because I didn’t want to do the computer labs in the afternoon. I did take a database design class that I liked and turned out to be helpful later. Plate tectonics are super cool. I dropped out of the graphic design program because the art professors were snooty. Technically I didn’t get picked, but I was going to quit anyway, and my last project was garbage. I wasn’t into it. I applied for and received an “International Marketing” scholarship for an essay I wrote because who couldn’t use a break on tuition? It probably helped that I was involved in an international business club which I joined because I wanted to travel and meet people all over the world. Well thought out choices, right? Clearly, I would be working in cybersecurity someday.
I got out of school with a marketing concentration and worked for a graphic design and public relations company — two separate one person companies each run by two very different men. I never went through campus interviews because I saw a guy get a job as a manager at Mervyn’s, a cheap clothing store, which I presumed he would hate. I also nixed the suggestion that I could get a job as a tester at this new-ish company called Microsoft because I didn’t want to be a cog in a wheel. Needless to say, those cogs are all multi-millionaires and probably retired right now.
When one of the guys I was working for wanted me to be in a TV commercial in my nightgown, I said no thanks. He said it could be my big break. I told him I didn’t want a big break. I never thought of this as anything but harmless because he was a nice guy and married to a very cool artist woman, but at this very moment, I am starting to consider just how weird that was. I tried to sell graphic design services for the other guy. After I landed a meeting I obtained by calling people out of the phone book (yes, the paper kind), he would go to the meeting, and it usually wouldn’t work out too well. That is another story.
Sometimes I have been known to be oblivious. Perhaps that is why I wasn’t bothered too much in tech. I never thought anything of the nightgown thing as we were promoting something called the Seattle Street of Dreams with fancy houses people can tour. I think there was actually a woman in a nightgown in a commercial at some point so it was probably nothing. That’s usually what I assumed.
If a guy asked me out and I wasn’t interested, I just tried to say no thanks without hurting anyone’s feelings the best I could. If he was obnoxious I just avoided him. In one case I had a manager that was insisting on my phone number to support a system after hours. He was creepy. I refused. He started demanding. Another guy stepped in, and I gave him my phone number instead. It was fine. I never got a call. I think I only talked to my boss about someone once in my career, but it wasn’t a big deal. The guy bothering me was just a dork, and I wanted him to knock it off. He stopped after my boss talked to him. I never felt too bothered that way in tech on the job the way other women seem to be. Guys harassed me much more when I worked at restaurants and outside of work.
Anyway, after working for the marketing guys, I started a writing business called The Write Connection after I realized they couldn’t write. I wondered if people would pay for someone to help them write, so I went to the library and did some research. A freelance writer named Robert Bly wrote that he was making $100k per year, so why not. I got a couple of gigs. I was ecstatic when a guy who led mountain climbing tours all over the world was willing to pay me $35 per hour. I knew about him because I worked at Mt. Rainier for three summers in college. I wrote him a sponsorship proposal for his business based on things I learned helping that international business student group. He got his sponsor.
Further research led me to believe that I needed to sell to Corporate America to make real money. I knew nothing about Corporate America. I decided to spy on them by taking temp jobs at random offices to see what it was like and meet people. A couple of temp jobs later, I landed in the IT department of a Fortune 150 oil company. I was sorting out phone bills after an acquisition. My boss immediately bumped up my pay when I found a lot of errors where we were sent invoices from the other company that they should be paying. He said I was too smart.
Then he put me on a project managing ISDN installations at gas stations. That was before DSL or cable for Internet connections. It was a very complicated implementation sending packets over the D Channel if anyone remembers what that is, and it didn’t work most of the time because most of the COs (central offices at the phone company that supports your old school phone if you still have one) required an upgrade. When I started, I didn’t know there was more than one phone company or what ISDN was. I figured it out.
My boss was cool and let me take all kinds of classes like Oracle database programming and telecommunications classes, where I learned about the OSI model. I even punched down a phone line once with a guy in the office but decided I didn’t like it. I also taught myself Access and Visual Basic to build an application to support telecommunications services, projects, and budgeting. An auditor later recommended the whole company should use it. I thought to myself, programming is like writing, only different. And it pays pretty well. I quit the writing business.
Here’s where my journey as a women in tech begins. I had some frustrations along the way, but I don’t know if these things only happen to women. I also don’t know how much of it is self-induced by my non-compliant behavior. I can’t tell you why things happened the way they did, or how to fix everything. I can only tell my story.
Teri Radichel — Follow me @teriradichel
© 2nd Sight Lab 2020
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