Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to draw attention to women who are successful in technology.
Ada Lovelace was one of the world’s first computer programmers. She wrote programs for Charles Babbage’s analytical engine, a general-purpose computing machine. She also wrote the very first description of a computer and of software.
I’m lucky to have worked in a place where women in technology are not rare, though their contributions were perhaps little seen by the wider world. My Ada Lovelace Day pledge was to write about one woman who excels in technology. I found at least three who serve as role models for me, and now you.
So today, to acknowledge the great contributions women are making in technology, especially in traditional media, here’s a Q&A with three women I admire and hold as role models.
The three are Jytte Stavnsgaard Nielsen, a product manager with CCI Europe, a company that provides pagination and content management systems to newspapers; Salem Macknee, an IT worker at the Southeastern group of IT for McClatchy newspapers, based in Charlotte; and Jackie Gruber, regional infrastructure manager for the Southeastern IT group of McClatchy, also based in Charlotte. I used Facebook to share questions with them, and I’m publishing their answers mostly unedited.
How exactly did you get into this technology thing anyway?
Jytte: In the beginning of the 80’s I finalized my Master of Arts in Danish and French from The University of Århus. The normal next step would have been teaching at a college. But helas, not only were there no jobs to get, I was also a bit scared about getting into that career after trying it out for a couple of months at a college at the westcoast in Jutland. The people there were so buttoned up and seemed to lack any enthusiasm about their work.
But as I was not the only one in Denmark with a long education and no job I was lucky enough to get into a special course targeting exactly that group of people. This was an 8 month course at RECAU (The regional IT center of the University of Århus). We were 18 students: psychologists, social workers, research librarians, architects you name it… The course was a big success. We all had jobs and I have been working in IT ever since. My first jobs were in programming, but I quickly moved into supporting, installing, training, documenting, selling, doing proposals etc. In many years I did most of these at the same time. Currently my main function is product management.
Salem: I drifted into it at several jobs because I was one of those people who could figure out computer problems. People get used to asking you (in the help desk industry this is called peer-to-peer and is considered a wasteful and expensive way to provide computer help) and when the time comes for someone to be an official computer geek, your name comes up.
Jackie: I was in accounting for years and just had an aptitude for geek stuff. I like gadgets.
How big is (are) your monitors?
Jytte: I have one and it is not very big.
Salem: Um, 19 inches I think? I have two on my main machine at work and I always feel crippled with just one.
Jackie: Home 24 inch flat panel…Work 19 inch flat panel.
Do you know who Ada Lovelace is? Have you ever heard of her before?
Jytte: Wasn’t she the Worlds first programmer? I think she did a program for a weaving machine or something like that. She also had a programming language named after her: ADA. As far as I remember she also did a not-very-successful program that would predict race results.
Jackie: No…I should know but I do not.
Hardware or software?
Salem: Software, definitely.
Do you have to do tech. support for all your friends and relatives?
Jytte: No, they finally found out that I am hopeless. This doesn’t bother me at all as I read a very sensible article years ago about how women actually get the most out of technology because we let men deal with all the bothering technicalities and just use technology to help us do our ‘core’ work and pursue our main goals. Kind of having the use of a car but not needing to repair it.
Salem: Only my husband. My children and my parents are at least as tech-savvy as I am.
Have you ever been in a tech. meeting and looked around and realized you were the only woman?
Jytte: Many times. I still am almost every day. I enjoy working with men so it does not bother me. I am also sometimes in meetings where we are only women. These are strangely different from mixed meetings. We often start with jokes and laughter, then quickly get down to business and then we are much more focused and efficient and agree easily on decisions and plans. This keeps surprising me. Another thing that is nice about women is that they most of the time actually carry out the tasks that they take on. Maybe I am being sexist now?
Salem: I may have been the only woman in some meetings, but I’m not sure I ever noticed. I’ve also been the only woman in other kinds of meetings, like a dinner of circulation directors, which was probably the most offensive crowd I ever had to endure.
Mac or PC?
Salem: PC! Macs are SO visual. I’m a word person.
What new tech. thing are you learning?
Jytte: I want to learn more about photo manipulation. Mostly for private needs. I do art work in my spare time and I love to integrate old and new photos in my work.
Salem: I have handed off direct user support to a very talented team of people who do the floor support I used to do and understand our new editorial system much better than I do. My new role calls for deeper server skills, and as someone who has spent her whole tech career operating intuitively instead of taking classes to get certifications, I’m definitely feeling brain strain. So far I have managed to do most of what’s asked of me, but I’m breaking a sweat for sure, because my unix skills are all learned on the job and pretty superficial. Also, with the layoffs and cutbacks I find that when people are desperate for help, they still tend to turn to me because they know I’ll find them the help they need if I can’t provide it myself. And troubleshooting is still what I’m best at, so I do tend to let myself get sidetracked just for the joy of flexing those muscles again.
Would you suggest to your daughter(s) that they go into technology?
Jytte: Definitely. They are both very talented in this respect.
Salem: I’m glad my kids all grew up with technology and understand how to use it. I wouldn’t suggest they go into it as a profession because it changes so fast you need to really love it to keep up. But I know being tech-savvy will help them do whatever job they end up in. I’m just glad none of them inherited their father’s total bewilderment about computers.
What’s the hardest challenge you’ve faced in technical work?
Jytte: The hardest challenge is to get credibility.
Salem: It changes so fast and I’m not a live-breathe-eat-sleep geek; I am never just studying the newest scripting language for fun; I don’t track tech trends, I manage to keep up with my own little apps, but then I go home and have a life outside technology. So I had to accept a while back that the true geeks will always just be tolerating me as a necessary evil. (That is, someone who can bridge the gap between them and regular people.) Getting the help I need from them and not minding if they think I’m a moron is probably my biggest challenge. And being able to admit what I don’t know.
Jackie: People. (with a smiley emoticon).
To what do you credit your success? (I know for you, Salem: a magnetic field.)
Jytte: As I am working mostly with workflows I think it is a natural interest. When I started learning housecraft in school in my teens I found most of it extremely boring, as my mother already taught me how to cook, bake, clean, do laundry etc. But then we had a new teacher and she taught us how important it is to plan house work, menus, kitchen layout etc carefully not only to save time and raw material but also to save resources. We even calculated all meals in respect to nutrition and cost. Finally something that I could relate to.
Salem: 1. Being able to listen to a regular person and translate what they’re saying into tech language has been one of my top skills. Both sides get so frustrated over these language gaps.
2. Intuition plays a big part, and you need an analytical approach when troubleshooting; change one thing and try again, so you know which thing ends up working.
3. Having the kind of mind that enjoys puzzles. Computer programming is very much like solving a puzzle.
4. Defining success so that it matches my current circumstances!
Jackie: Dumb luck…seriously, I can geek speak in non-threatening terms.
What didn’t I ask that I should have?
Salem: I think it’s important to have a focus besides tech; the folks I work with all have a comfort zone — newsroom, production, circulation. Knowing how the newsroom works is a huge part of my being able to help them do their jobs. So don’t be a computer expert; have another profession on top of which your computer knowledge sits.
For more on Ada Lovelace Day, follow @findingada on Twitter.
Note: Images are provided by Jytte, Salem and Jackie.