Women in Tech
'You just move that rock a little at a time'
- By Colby Hochmuth
- Jan 16, 2015
When you gather a group of women IT leaders from government and industry to talk about women in tech, interesting patterns emerge. For starters, few of them ever planned to make a career of IT.
Karen Evans, who held the highest technology job in government during President George W. Bush's administration, started her federal career as a GS-2. Interior Department CIO Sylvia Burns came in as a presidential management intern. Margie Graves, the Department of Homeland Security's deputy CIO, started in nuclear chemistry then spent years doing mergers and acquisitions before joining government in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. Kathy Conrad, acting associate administrator of the General Services Administration's Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies, was a policy wonk, while Teresa Carlson, who runs Amazon Web Services' Worldwide Public Sector, started as a speech pathologist.
And Leah Bannon, now a product manager at 18F, was mainly working in communications when "a friend of mine offered to teach us Python for free on Saturday morning for fun. It was five women, and it was the best Saturday I've had in years."
"You see these open doors, and you either walk through them or you stay where you are," Graves said. "A lot of times I [thought], 'OK, that doesn't really sound like me' or 'That really wasn't what I studied, what I did, what I've already done.' But then it becomes obvious to you, 'OK, I think I can jump in here and see what happens.'"
Not surprisingly, such a diverse range of career paths produces some very different experiences. Yet the leaders who gathered with FCW in late December repeatedly found common ground on the challenges that still face women in IT, the importance of creating better on-ramps, the lessons they wish they'd learned sooner and more.
What follows are highlights from that conversation, excerpted by FCW Staff Writer Colby Hochmuth.
Why IT? Because it's the means to the mission.
Although the paths were varied, the motivations were nearly universal: Federal IT combined the intrigue of new technology with a passion for the mission.
Graves: The people in our department say, "We don't deliver IT. We deliver homeland security." Because that's what we center on every day.
These are all the myriad of mission spaces that we have in DHS, and they all resonate. When we take that federal survey every year, it doesn't matter what agency you're talking about. That's what people say drives them. It's the mission.
Bannon: As a millennial, that is incredibly important to me. I look forward to work every single day. The ability to improve people's lives is hugely important to anything I would want to do.
Conrad: For [GSA], that's been the biggest draw in recruiting. It's really the combination of mission and skill because there are many places that have an equally compelling mission, but not at the scale [of the government's]. When you combine those things, you have impact that is really unparalleled.
What we hear over and over again is that while there's tremendous reward in building startups and doing really neat, cool things in nonprofits or academic work -- the opportunity [in government] to have such a sustainable impact at scale, it just doesn't exist elsewhere.
Wynn: The work in and of itself just drives you. You get into it, it's interesting, and every time you make a small step forward, it just fuels that journey. You just keep going.
Evans: [Mission is] the most important thing. You're not driven by the dollar. If you were driven by the dollar, you wouldn't be [in the federal government].
Breaking into the boys' club
Nearly every woman in the group spoke of times when she was made to feel like an interloper. Body language, sports banter and outright sexism sometimes come into play, but so do basic, if unwritten, rules of business.
Graves: There were a couple of men along the way who took a great interest to make sure that they broke down the barriers that were usually put in the way of women.
I was working with the French [Alternative Energies and] Atomic Energy Commission. We were trying to sell nuclear technology to [the Department of Energy] for solidification of nuclear waste. And this gentleman came in and was talking to my boss, and said, "Hey, why don't you have your girl go Xerox this for me?"
To his credit, [my boss] turned and he said, "First of all, she's not my girl. And secondarily, she's the person who's going to decide today whether I buy your technology or not."
Martin: I found it very, very difficult. My biggest challenge was at Homeland Security when I was CIO for immigration. I would go home crying on a regular basis. Just sitting in the CIO Council and we were so new then...I was discounted. It was the most challenging thing.
It took me a long time to understand that it wasn't about me, that it was about the concept of me bringing the idea to the table. I started actually using other members of the CIO Council to make the case for [my ideas].
Carlson: Young women [often say to me], "When I’m at the table nobody listens to me. I had an idea and no one was interested."
My first question is, "What did you do to prepare for your meeting?"
It takes time to learn that the meeting doesn’t start at the table. To be really effective, you have to identify the key stakeholders and sell your idea before the meeting starts. Along the way, you’ve got to make sure that you listen to their feedback and keep building on your idea.
Once you’ve done that, you may have a meeting to present your idea, but that’s not the end. You need to continue to build your idea over time, keeping an open dialog with the stakeholders. Developing an idea is a process that takes time, energy and ambition, not just one meeting.
Ho: It's rooted in a lot of these culture influences. For example, women in general are not comfortable with self-promotion. That's because we were taught as little girls, "Oh, don't brag," or things like that. But I think if you're not good at promoting yourself, you're not going to be good at promoting your organization.
Wynn: I played sports, and that was back when women weren't permitted to play sports. But to all the guys in my neighborhood, I was just somebody else to pick.
That is part of what shapes you. I think every time you face a time when you're alone, you're the only female in the room, the only black person in the room, the only Hispanic in the room, the only [whatever] in the room, there's always these ways to make you alone. But those are also the places it can help define you and help you be successful.
So you come up with strategies. You can be defeated by it, or you can learn from it.
Women shouldn't shy away from challenges, but look for chances to take on new opportunities that can further demonstrate their skills. If you're driven, smartly vocal, and at times have a bit of sharp elbows, women have all the talents and capacity to be very successful at whatever they choose.
Mentors, networks and examples to avoid
The participants praised their mentors for teaching them how to lead and said those feelings of defeat don't always come from the men in the room.
Wynn: I think some of the worst scars or the slights I've had have been from other females.
Evans: I agree, and I think it depends on your age and where you are. When I came into the workforce, there was a certain type of woman [who] made it on her own. She had to fight her way in. That was a different type of woman. When I looked at them as I was coming up, I thought, that's exactly how I don't want to be.
So they were really good lessons to learn.... You learn a lot watching them, but they did it on their own, and the whole idea of working together in a team, that was a different concept for them.
[My generation] learned at a younger age that one person's performance is not going to get the team across the finish line and win. You have to work together as a group. A lot of us played sports, which made a difference when you entered the workplace because prior to that, everything that a female did was about her own performance, and it was very individual.
Conrad: That myth that you have to choose between having a hard-core career or being a really great mom, I think those boundaries have really blurred in tech.
I started with the attitude that I am a woman, I have children, and I'm really good at my job.... I'm a whole person and I'm going to remain really dedicated and committed to both of those parts of my life.... I think today that's more possible than it was then.
Bannon: Being the only woman at a lot of tech events, I started reaching out to a lot of tech women's groups. Tech LadyMafia is my favorite one. That's what really taught me that women are not the competition. They are people who can help you.
Graves: We have a group within DHS that's called WE -- Women Executives. And we do mentoring formally.… But it's really individual commitment that makes that happen.
Ho: I would challenge that. I came from a consulting background, where networking is everything. [In government], the networking, the mentoring, I still think it's lacking. I know we have these executive women in government kind of groups that you can go to, some mentoring breakfast or whatever. But there isn't a mentoring culture, where people feel like they take an interest in someone and help them be successful.
Wynn: It must be an agency thing because EPA has that. I'm part of a bunch of different informal networks as well as formal ones because it's mentors or people who gave me the gift of feedback.... Then, obviously, that's what you do for others.
Bannon: I started going to a volunteer group called Code for DC about two years ago. I was trying to learn more about tech, and…it [offered] incredibly valuable networking and learning opportunities for me, but I was the only woman a lot of times.
That inspired me to organize the Tech Lady Hackathon. We had over a hundred women at the first one. The idea was that it was a hackathon plus training day.
It also sent the message that this isn't a competitive, tough environment. This is meant to be a learning environment, whether you're in the hackathon or in the training phase.… Then I organized it again at 18F [in November] because we were trying to build a more diverse team and...encourage more networking among tech women at the younger group.
Bringing in the next generation
When it came to drawing more women into the federal IT workforce, the participants agreed: Understanding millennials might be the most important part.
Burns: I think there's an impatience because [millennials] want more faster. Somehow the bureaucracy...can't see their way to get stuff done fast.
Graves: It's not the technology because they're pretty antiquated. But trying to get them to understand it's OK to be a public servant, but we have no intention of you staying here for 30 years. That's not the new model. Talking to them, opening up the venue and letting them know they have a voice -- that sometimes gets lost because of those curmudgeons. There are a lot of them.
Bannon: I would love if we could get away from this notion that it's a failure if your government service [is not a career-long commitment].
Evans: I don't think anybody views service in the federal government for two to three years, especially in the IT world, as failure.... When I was recruiting IT staff, that's how we recruited. I always thought I'd be lucky if a person came in and stayed three years in any of the IT jobs.
We specifically targeted people with the intention that they were only going to be there two to three years so that we could then build that into the structure...because the opportunities are so vast for people to be able to go out and do different things.
Ho: I think the federal government does, in the hiring phase, have to have some reform in order to retain the talent that we want to retain.
Martin: We do the best at our senior level to take care of those [new employees], so that when people come in, they come in with a purpose and with a window of opportunity to see where they can make that impact and make it in a shorter period of time.
Conrad: I think we're fortunate in federal IT because there are so many opportunities for mentoring and collaboration that aren't centered necessarily around being women but that provide that sort of cross-sector forum for sharing ideas and learning from each other.