My dad was an uber-hobbyist. I grew up in a house filled with the latest technology — hi-fi and reel-to-reel audio, Citizens’ Band radio, a darkroom, cars and motorcycles, Heathkit electronics kits (first a color television, then a computer). NOBODY in my family or my neighborhood had a home computer then … except us. It had an eight-inch black and white screen, homemade circuit boards, and a cassette player for storage. There were computer chips and bits of solder caught in the shag carpeting, and they *hurt* my bare feet.
I was *tired* of technology by junior high.
I wanted to be a microbiologist, so I went to see my high school guidance counselor. When I asked her to help me apply for college financial aid, she told me that girls couldn’t be scientists. Girls, she told me, were better off aspiring to be teachers, nurses, or administrators. To a fifteen year old, that had the finality of a bolted door.
By the time I was 18, I was married and out of my parents’ house. Surprise! it’s not so easy to find work when you have no qualifications! Soon came a recession, my husband lost his job, and so he joined the Air Force and went away to training. I took that training time as an opportunity to build up my own earning ability. I applied for Federal student aid and completed a business college certificate in office management.
OF COURSE we were immediately sent overseas, where jobs were even harder to find. So I spent two years volunteering in an American Red Cross office to keep my skills up before I found work in a DoD day care and then “on the economy” for a multi-national staffing company. And I went back to school with the University of Maryland.
Over our next three assignments, which spanned seven years and three continents, I worked at office and management jobs in a variety of industries: insurance, real estate development, government, and contractor. Throughout that time, I snapped up any computer-related projects I could on the job, and continued going to school in my spare time. I had some breaks — an excellent math professor in South Korea, a fantastic Computer Science professor in England, and the ability to earn money to pay for tuition and books. I also had the free time to work and study because it was just my husband and me — which may have made all the difference.
In England in 1994, I finally completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer and Information Science, which allowed me to switch to a technical job (junior software engineer/librarian–“grunt” work!) for a year until we returned Stateside.
When we returned to Maryland in 1995, a friend sent me to Bob Miller and Ray Gomes at Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), and I promptly went to work. Tuition assistance at CSC paid for a Master of Science in Computer Science (Artificial Intelligence and Machine Graphics), which I completed in 1999.
The nature of STEM careers (maybe of all careers) is that you have to continue to invest your own time if you want to stay up-to-date. I continue to request and complete training whenever I can. I have a personal budget for that, which I use to supplement employer assistance. I belong to three professional organizations — as a Senior member of the IEEE, a professional member of the ACM, and a member of the ISC^2 — which also help me maintain technical “chops.” Active participation in professional organizations can have significant perks, also; I have travelled internationally for the IEEE Computer Society, reviewed technical articles, and written sections of one of their Body of Knowledge publications.
Each moment of participation has brought lessons. I’m sure we all have similar lists, but in the interest of helping and sharing, I’ll include some of my most-helpful ones here:
1. Identify the principles and priorities that are important to you.
2. Be flexible. Don’t expect everyone to change just because you arrived.
3. Give others fair treatment and respect, and expect those in return.
4. Work little issues out before they become big ones. Don’t try to hide from them.
5. Handle confrontation as calmly and discreetly as possible. Don’t get into public firefights (nobody wins those).
6. There is usually a person who has the ability to resolve a situation. If you can’t fix something alone, put together your case, find that person, and respectfully ask for help.
7. Make sure you can back up categorical statements before you make them.
8. Work hard; we’re lucky to have work to do.
– Aura, Software Engineer with ESi for 14 years.