by Valerie Rickert

Nasa, IBM, Mommyhood and Back

One of the first programming languages I learned, COBOL, was created by Grace Hopper.

Women in Tech? There are not many of us around. In a world of engineers and other STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) professions, women are in the minority. At most 25% of engineers and computer scientists are female. Why?

Why are so few engineers and computer scientists female? Your guess is as good as mine. I believe, however, that young girls and women are not encouraged to join those fields with the same vim and vigor as boys are.

I’m one of the few. No one encouraged me to join. I had no friends or parents to offer me advice. There were no mentors available, that I was aware of, for girls interested in the sciences. I was fortunate, however, to attend an all-girl high school whose focus was a college prep curriculum. In that environment, I learned that I could do anything if I had the initiative and worked hard.

In my career, I’ve worked in many different business environments. Some of those environments were more progressive than others. At any one time, an office may have many male engineers. If a woman happened to walk into that office, most of those men would assume the woman was an ‘admin’, a secretary, or some other support position to her male colleague. A female engineer? What was that? There were and are very few women engineers around. In my current environment, I know of only three.

I wish things were different, but I’ve come to accept the fact that this is life in STEM. I choose to accept it and focus on what I love most — coding! And in the process, I have become an example for girls and women who want to pursue a career in STEM.

How did I get into the field, you might ask?

Me in 1987, early in my software engineer career.

My Own STEM Origins

My original plan was to graduate in Journalism from the University of Houston. I loved to write, and wrote everyday in a journal, filling many pages with stories. However, when I walked into my first Communications class and met a sea of two hundred plus students in the auditorium, I had second thoughts. All these people would be competing with me for a job. I felt small.

Following the advice of a friend, I decided to try business. Finance was fun but after two accounting classes and being bored out of my wits, I found myself lost again. Where was I to go?

One of the requirements for my business major was computing, so I tried out COBOL. I was intrigued. I liked the idea of creating and solving problems. And, I was ‘writing’. When I discovered the fact that the COBOL language was created by Admiral Grace Hopper, a female naval officer and fellow geek, well, I was even more fascinated. Wow!

My favorite memory of my COBOL class was writing my program using punch cards. ‘Make sure you label those cards’, someone had suggested to me. I ignored the advice and didn’t realize the value of that statement until I dropped my deck of cards onto the floor. It took hours to resequence those cards into the correct order in order to run my program again successfully. Yikes! Thank God that was the last time I had to use a card deck. Card readers were removed from the Computer Center and curriculum the following semester.

By the time I completed my second computing class, Fortran, I was sold. I changed my major to Computer Science and loved every one of my classes. I actually got an adrenalin rush with each successful program execution. I was hooked! Possibly another draw for me was the number of men in those classes. Few women wanted to program and that was ok by me!

I wrote operating systems and compilers; discovered computer architecture, boolean logic, and digital circuits. A whole new world had been opened up for me.

Computer Science was hard, and I often found myself working into the wee hours of the night in order to get my work done. I discovered the value of pseudocode and tracing through the logic so as to reduce debugging time.

During my college years, money was scarce. I worked as a grocery store checker to pay for school, so my time on the computer was often piecemeal. In the early 80’s, dial-up modems were the rage. There were no cell phones back then, no internet, no laptops. My first computer was a Radio Shack TRS-80 with 64K of memory. I used it to play games mostly and to connect via dial-up modem to the University of Houston Digital VAX server so I could work on my programs remotely. However, we were only allowed a strict 30 minute time slot and were afterwards automatically booted off and disconnected. It could take an hour to reconnect! Working from home over the phone this way was extremely frustrating. Who could possibly get all their work done in just thirty minutes? It was a ridiculous policy and just not practical for me, so I often drove to the University of Houston, after 8pm, to work on my programs in the Computer Science lab.

It took a long time for me to finish my degree. Six years to be exact. But it was so well worth it: every day, every hour, every minute. Making a career as a grocery store checker was just not appealing to me. I needed to use my brain.

Finally, I came to my last semester . It was time to begin the interview process. I knew I would be the first in line to sign up for an interview time slot.

However, it was 1983. There were no cell phones, no online sign ups, no Facebook or Twitter. Email, as we know it today, did not exist. To get an interview, I actually had to drive to and show up at the University of Houston in person. When I got to the Career Center at 7 in the morning, there was a single paper notice posted on the door with time slots for interviews. All were filled.

In order for me to get the time slots I wanted, I decided to show up at the Career Center at 5 a.m., pencil in hand, poised at the door. At the spot on the door where the paper would be lowered before competing warm bodies, their hands held high with pencils at the ready, I squeezed my way in. When the paper was lowered, people hurriedly scribbled their names into the spots they wanted. Sometimes, someone else was faster. I was at the Career Center often, with pencil in hand, many times before 5 a.m.

Through perseverance, I finally did get time slots for the companies I wanted to interview with. In 1983, the economy was slow. Companies were hiring in low numbers. It was a dog eat dog world out there for job interviews. I felt a huge sense of accomplishment when I finally managed to get a few offers. My stint as a grocery store checker would soon be over. In the end, I decided to join Ford Aerospace, a NASA contractor. My first job would be as programmer for the Space Shuttle Simulator!

My STEM Career

I learned a lot about the Space Industry during that time. The push to get the shuttle into space as quickly as possible after touchdown with the goal to get one of three shuttles back into orbit every 30 days was worrisome to me. At the time, I thought the goal to be very unrealistic. Atlantis was the newest addition to the fleet. Then, in 1986, with only four shuttles in the queue, the rush to launch brought the Challenger to disaster. I was deeply saddened.

Life went on.

My computing career branched out into consulting and I programmed for many different industries, primarily oil and gas. Usually I was sent out as part of a team to develop business applications or, solo, as a tech expert, to fix system bugs or enhance specific functionalities. My career sent me to companies such as General Motors/EDS, BP/Amoco, ExxonMobil, Enron, El Paso, Texaco, Star Enterprise, and Shell.

At Enron, I helped implement a data center move. At EDS, I was sent in as a PL/1 programmer to help their team implement a Human Resources system. Before my stint at EDS, I did not know much about relational databases, a requirement for the job; so on the trip up to Detroit Michigan, I read a book on DB2 and was able to hit the road running the following week. I loved database (back-end) work. Relational databases were fun, logical, and so much easier to implement than their hierarchical predecessors.

At Ross Laboratories (now Abbot) in Columbus, Ohio, I was called in as a PL/1 expert to find the reason for system crashes that halted the manufacture of their Ensure milk shake product. Already production downtime had cost the company over $1 million in lost revenue. After tracing their application, I discovered that the author had used recursion in the recipe. At the time, servers did not have the memory capabilities that they do today. Recursive programs call themselves repeatedly, stacking buffer contents, until they reach a particular ending condition. For the Ensure application, the server ran out of memory after more than ten levels of recursion and bombed. Someone had wanted to be a clever programmer instead of a practical one. I rewrote the program, dropping recursion, and instead used standard procedure and function calls with parameters. I fixed the program; the Ensure product was once again on the manufacturing assembly line; and all was right with the world!

There had been doubters of my capabilities on that all-male team. One in particular questioned my solution to the recursion problem. My success, however, won him over.

Soon thereafter, I found myself back at NASA working for IBM and leading a team of programmers to write the data dictionary for the International Space Station (ISS). Another cool space application!

At this point in my career, I was now a team lead for the ISS NASA project, the account manager of our IBM account, and I taught Professional Development classes to our consultants, after hours, at our downtown branch office. I taught Presentation Skills, Client and Team Interviewing Skills, Consulting Skills for the Technical Professional, and Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I became a Powerbuilder expert and a Certified Powerbuilder Instructor. I was definitely burning the candle out at both ends.

After so many clients, however, I was beginning to tire of the industry. As a consultant, you are sent in as an expert on some particular toolset or methodology and must, therefore, prove yourself as expert over and over to your customers. It got old for me.

My daughters and their dog, Chiquita.

STEM Career vs. Family

I left consulting and joined a company where I could maintain existing applications and spend more time with my kids. I refined my skills by learning Oracle DB, PL/SQL, Visual Basic, and Unix.

Still I needed more. I wanted to spend more time with my children. So I retired from my full-time job to become a full-time mom. I traded my computer programs for Girl Scout troop programs, overnight campouts, and badges. I became a room mother and helped with school activities and holiday programs. I helped my daughters with their homework, took them to piano lessons, ballet lessons, dance lessons. It was worth every moment and I would not trade it for all the dollars in the world.

Soon, however, I felt the call to program. I discovered that I still loved it; I felt an urgent need to get my hands ‘dirty’. Through due diligence, I found a part-time job as a webmaster for my church and became a substitute computer teacher at the school. I did freelance website work for local business and a few not-for-profits. Some people actually thought I should program for them for free! Forget that!

However, because I was no longer in the business full-time, I discovered that I had hurt my career. Returning to the tech industry was extremely difficult. Leaving my career behind for full time mommy-hood had been a mixed blessing. Technologies change like lightening and I was losing touch. After being a full-time mom for nearly ten years, I found it hard to again find a full-time job in Tech. The world was changing all around me and I was desperate to get back in the workforce. I was getting a divorce and I had to be able to support myself.

I finally did manage to find a job as a contractor, but in a role where my skill set was extremely under-utilized. I discovered the company I worked for was part of the good-ole boy network where women were confined to administration roles. Women were not taken seriously at all. I felt belittled.

I was able to improve my Excel skills and learn Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) on my own in order to streamline my job, but the work was not very interesting and I still felt out of place. I took advantage of an opportunity to build an application for the Project Controls group using Oracle and Application Express (APEX). My APEX skills were self-taught as I was the only IT Tech in the department. Even the local Oracle DBA had no idea what Application Express was. I had to learn it on my own. I searched Google, books, and Oracle APEX forums. Ultimately, I was successful and delivered an application, still in use today, that tracks invoices and purchase orders for many projects in the company.

Today I am still trying to find my niche in the IT marketplace. I am not there yet.

Me today — still trying to find my niche.

STEM Advice For The Future

So now what do I do?

I learn. I attend seminars and meetups. I’m currently refining my skills in Javascript, Bootstrap, Meteor JS, and Mongo DB. I mentor young people. I teach those who are just now learning to code and I offer advice. Again, I am usually the only female programmer of my generation.

One thing that might have helped me get back into the computing field earlier was networking. Over time, I lost my contacts. I didn’t think to, or didn’t want to, keep those contacts current, keep in touch, or even to make new contacts. I isolated myself. In the end, that reluctance hurt me.

Networking is such an important tool in the search for a new job. My advice to Women in Tech, new and established, is to maintain your contacts. Join professional organizations like the Anita Borg Institute, the Association for IT Professionals (AITP), and the Institute for the Certification of Computing Professionals (ICCP). Make new friends. Network. Continue your IT education. In IT, you must constantly learn new things in order to keep up with the latest technologies. Without continuous education, you become a dinosaur. Subscribe to Podcasts; join Safari; attend tech Meet-Ups; get certifications.

Encouraging Girls in STEM

And you know what? I am still the only woman in the office who knows how to code! During my career, there were always just a few women in computing. With time, it seems even most of those have fallen away. Why is that? How can we encourage women to stay in the field and girls to join?

It’s a conundrum.

My advice is to get involved! Participate in The Hour of Code at schools. Encourage your daughters to continue in Math and Science. Make the Engineering Club fun! Build robots! Learn about Raspberry Pi and create cool gadgets with your daughters!

Girls can be just as good as boys or better in those fields. You can do anything if you put your mind to it.

So, What’s your story?