Women in Tech & Leadership Series (Part 2)

Behind the scenes at CU: Women in Technology

When we saw Mother's Day coming up, it seemed like the perfect time to learn from our women doing great work. Here in Part 2, we'll gain insight and inspirations from some of our women working in tech:

— If you missed it, check out Part 1 of this 3-part series, "Behind the scenes at CU: Women in Leadership." 

Kelli | UX/UI Developer, Emerging Technologies

Kelli has been coding since she was a kid, “just on my own, playing with it. I’d never done it professionally.” Not until she landed her current position, that is. “I do a lot of comping things out for new applications so we can plan them out well ahead of time. Then I come back around and code them into reality in the backend. So it’s one of those rare jobs in programming that gives me the opportunity to be really creative as well as technical.” 

Though she didn’t expect a career in tech, Kelli laughs as she tells me, “I just kept getting the tech job.” She would start elsewhere in a company and then be moved to IT. With her background in tech support, she initially started at CU as a tester. But when the UI Programmer position opened up, she decided to take a leap and apply. “I decided to apply for it even though I didn’t think I had a chance at getting it, because I didn’t have any professional programming experience. I guess nothing ventured, nothing gained.” 

Kelli said she’s glad she overcame her self-doubt and took the chance, having now worked in programming for almost 6 years. “It was scary. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it and it took a lot of self-motivation. But it’s turned out to be a great experience.”

Megan | Product Owner, Emerging Technologies

“I did not expect to end up in this industry at all,” laughs Megan, who earned her bachelor's degree in psychology with a philosophy minor. More than a decade ago, she started here as a receptionist in what she thought was a temporary position. “I liked the company, so I ended up staying.” 

When she moved to the Project Management Department, where she worked as a medical implementer, she worked closely with another woman a few years ahead of her who became a sort of professional mentor. “She really set a high bar for me. She showed me what was possible and how to succeed. She definitely made me better at my job. She moved [to development] for the Product Owner position a year before me, and then encouraged me to apply when this position came open.”

Megan expressed her belief that “the reason we have so many women in management roles is because we don’t penalize you when you become a mother, I think better perhaps than some other companies.” And it would seem she’s not off; despite the Pregnancy Discrimination Act having been passed in 1978, stories of being pushed out or other negative shifts after pregnancy abound. As a new mother, she reflected on how she sees the environment here as friendly, and the wider impact this has on the whole company. “You hear the stereotype of the tech industry and it’s definitely male-dominated, but seeing women in these leadership roles is very encouraging for everyone.”

Crystal | Digital Marketing Specialist

Over in the marketing department, Crystal is affectionately referred to as our “Data Hamster” and is a self-proclaimed computer geek. Her family got a their first computer when she was 8, and she embarked on constant learning, answering her family member’s questions. She’s been in love with computers ever since. 

“The best part about hardware and software is that human brains are behind all of it. Computers never do anything they weren’t programmed to do.” With this in mind, Crystal suggests putting yourself in the shoes of the creator when running into issues, asking yourself “‘why might they have done it this way?’ Usually, you can puzzle out an explanation and move on. And sometimes, you have a better idea that you can share with the creator.”

Regarding making workplaces female-friendly, Crystal discussed the important role of active listening and the need for men to "make space" in conversations. "At other workplaces, there’s always been a few men who will actively listen and not brush off what I said, but here at CU, the percentage who do this is very high. The men make eye contact, listen with intention and then ask insightful questions.”

Shiena | Lead Software Tester, Mobile Development

Before moving to Montana with her husband, Shiena lived in the Philippines where she worked in data analysis. “I always wanted to mess with computers,” she said. And she has for her whole career, having worked with our mobile software ever since the move.

Shiena said the tech industry is similarly male-dominated in the Philippines as it is here, though her company there was more so than CU currently is, at least company-wide. “It was maybe 10% women” (compared to our 40%), “so it was a little intimidating." However, she said it's common there for companies to have organized employee groups. Her company sponsored one for women, to provide mutual support and aid in their advancement. While Shiena acknowledged missing her group, she feels there isn’t the same need here. “As a woman, you don’t feel left out. I’ve heard horror stories from other places, but I think here we are involved.”

Having just recently become a mother, Shiena felt she couldn’t speak much yet on the often discussed issues of balance and sacrifice between parenting and career. But she noted the crucial support she has felt in her department so far. “My manager really worked with me, like, ‘what do you think will work best for you and the baby?’” Together they formulated a plan that included part-remote working, along with a backup in case it didn’t work well. “It felt like CU has your back.”

Dawn | Senior Application Support Representative

When Dawn started college, she thought she would be a teacher. “But then I took a programming class and it blew me away! I thought ‘this is what I’m gonna do. This is it.’” But when she moved to Billings for her husband’s job and switched colleges, there was no longer a programming major for her to pursue. “I became a math major and a computer science minor, so I never did get to become a programmer.” After earning that degree, Dawn started here as a tester 25 years ago and now installs and supports our credit card service for customers.

A common topic when speaking to women about their careers is sacrifices they make as mothers, either at home or in their careers. “My goal was always to become a programmer, and I knew when I started here if I took some classes and worked with [one of our development directors], I could have gotten there.” But after having kids, Dawn never felt like she could spend the additional time on classes, apart from her family. 

But Dawn also talked about balance and expressed how she felt the two—mothering and career building—both contributed to her success in the other. “I have a ton of patience. I wasn’t always this way and that’s why it’s such a big deal to me! I learned to slow down and really listen. Parenting made me a better person, so it made me a better worker.”

June & Marlene | Software Quality Analysts

June and Marlene are self-proclaimed best-work-buddies and laughed as they warned me they tend to talk over each other. “We sat together for many years. I’m not sure everybody loved that,” Marlene said. June chimed in, “but we loved it!” as they chuckled again. June has been with CU for over 30 years and Marlene has been here almost 30 years.

Echoing what came out in other interviews about CU’s attitude of capacity building, both arrived with business degrees, but back then those didn't include as much training in computers or software. Marlene said, “when I started, they were like, ‘if you can learn, you can succeed. We’ll teach you.’” 

It seems like that empowerment has paid off with intelligent, dedicated teams. As a tester and quality analyst, June described how she adjusts her tests based on who may have coded the program. “If I have a programmer that's been in that code for many years, it's invaluable. My testing is totally different for that programmer, whereas for a new person, I'm going to change my test entirely.”

Speaking to what this work has given them personally, Marlene said being a software tester taught her to research and look at things differently. “It has taught me to learn, to try lots of things and see what the results are, and how to go about something methodically.”

— Hear more special insights and encouragement in Part 3 of our Women in Tech and Leadership Series, coming soon! —

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This article was originally written by Computers Unlimited. Last modified 2021-05-07.