Portrait: Donna Dillenberger, IBM Fellow

“In the right company, working in tech is a great career”

Gabriela Motroc
Hands of woman image via Shutterstock

Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? In addition to the Women in Tech survey, we also launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Donna Dillenberger, an IBM Fellow at IBM’s Watson Research Center.

Is tech a boys-only club? So it seems. But the light of smart and powerful women is finally shining bright. We root for excellence and justice and, above all, we want meritocracy to win. This is our way of giving women in tech a shout-out.

A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Women in Tech — The Survey

We would like to get to the bottom of why gender diversity remains a challenge for the tech scene. Therefore, we invite you all to fill out our diversity survey. Share your experiences with us!

Your input will help us identify the diversity-related issues that prevent us from achieving gender equality in technology workplaces.

Without further ado, we would like to introduce Donna Dillenberger, an IBM Fellow at IBM’s Watson Research Center.

Donna Dillenberger, IBM Fellow

Donna N. Dillenberger is an IBM Fellow at The Thomas J Watson Research Center. She has worked on new features for hardware accelerators, operating systems, machine learning algorithms to provide self-tuning systems, and has redesigned and architected applications to make them scalable and available.

In 2005, she became IBM’s Chief Technology Officer of IT Optimization. One year later, she became an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Engineering. She is a Master Inventor and is currently working on financial risk, big data and enterprise systems.

Ever since she could remember, Donna liked to build and create things. When she was an infant, she would use chopsticks, socks, sheets, blankets and other materials to build houses, bridges, tents, forts, vehicles, spaceships, etc. One could say that her job fits her like a glove. 

I liked all my subjects in school, including music and swimming. I couldn’t decide what to major in in college so I asked my parents. My father listened to how I spoke about all my classes and he advised me to go into Mathematics. When I was majoring in math, our department chair advised all the math majors to also do a double major in computer science. At the time, our department chair said pure mathematics did not offer enough career positions in the field.

She soon discovered that the only obstacles she had to overcome were internal.

What I had to learn were more internal changes. For example, my parents brought us up in a culture of deep respect for learning, for senior people, for hard work for treating people with patience, giving people multiple chances and being quiet unless one really had something astounding to say. In different work environments, one has to speak up, question, offer alternate or amended solutions than what’s initially proposed to make the final result better. One has to reach out to strangers especially in meetings, before, during and after business trips to be included, not because one is purposefully being ignored but because if you don’t speak up, no one will know that you’re there. One of my first managers sent me to an assertiveness training class.  To me, that was eye popping. One of our homework assignments was to disagree with someone once a day.  So I practiced on my husband. We were just married. I’m very glad he let me practice on him!

The importance of having a role model

My role models are my siblings, people at work who are technically and/or organizationally brilliant. I admire historical figures or at least the stories or legends of what they were supposed to have done. The common trait  of people I admire is that they’re very kind, even when they’re under pressure, even when it may hurt them with their friends or constituents to do the right thing.

But doing the right thing is not without consequences

One of my managers felt as if he was doing the right thing. It wasn’t personal. We just both had a different view of where our work should be going. It took me a while but I finally was able to change managers. I’m now an IBM Fellow for Enterprise Solutions and Systems in Research. I work on blockchain, analytics, enterprise solutions and have just been introduced to Quantum Computing.

I make time to think of new ideas and to go deep into technologies I want to know more about. The best part of my day is when I get to talk and work with people I’m building new solutions with. They’re gifted and the act of creation is joyful.

“Give the ones you love wings to fly, roots to come back and reasons to stay.” — Dalai Lama

I’m proud that I’ve hired immigrants and young people and have helped their careers prosper. I have helped to create environments and projects where really talented people were freed and their imaginations and capabilities just took off.

However, American culture prizes external beauty, especially in women, and doesn’t properly admire kindness, mental stamina, persistence and inner strength. So, unless one has responsible adults/parents in one’s life, children can grow up with different values.

Women face social pressure to “be good, be quiet, be prized for what one looks like.” This isn’t just in the technology industry. Before one gets immersed in this type of culture, one needs to feel the wonder and excitement of science, math and computers, so much so that it can’t get buried. Even if I weren’t working, I’d still play with computers, I’d still read math papers. I stayed up the other night just because I couldn’t get over the amazement of entangled particles! Wow!

A world with more women working in STEM — Now that’s a view!

There would be more creativity, more innovative solutions, more diverse ideas, better teams if more women worked in STEM. This comes not just because we’re women, but because any time a group gets an infusion of new ideas, the mix is really more interesting. Economies would improve, there would be less abuse of women who didn’t have jobs and there would be less acceptance of language, movies, video games, pop culture and leaders that glorifies violence and abuse of women.

At least in the areas I’ve been in, I see the situation improving every year. Meetings and social events after meetings are including women as equals. Business people are more conscious of their language and attitudes. Policies are put in place to raise the awareness of personal behaviors. Results are occurring every day. It just takes one example to change behavior in others.

In the right company, working in tech is a great career. You’re evaluated on your code, your algorithms, your math, your science. It’s more of a meritocracy than careers that don’t have measurable, quantifiable, scientific outputs.

In the end, we are advancing the technologies that will make human lives better. Better diagnostics for cancer, health, our environment, our food supply, our climate, our energy consumption, the way we learn. Who could resist making the planet better?

Gabriela Motroc
Gabriela Motroc was editor of and JAX Magazine. Before working at Software & Support Media Group, she studied International Communication Management at the Hague University of Applied Sciences.

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