Portrait: Heather Kirksey, Vice President of NFV, Linux Foundation & Director of OPNFV

How to avoid the culture of male programmers

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 Heather Kirksey, Vice President of NFV, Linux Foundation & Director of OPNFV.

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 Heather Kirksey, Vice President of NFV, Linux Foundation & Director of OPNFV.

Heather Kirksey, Vice President of NFV, Linux Foundation & Director of OPNFV

As OPNFV Director, Heather Kirksey works with the community to advance the adoption and implementation of open source NFV platform. She oversees and provides guidance for all aspects of the project, from technology to community and marketing and reports to OPNFV board of directors. Before Joining the Linux Foundation, Kirksey led strategic technology alliances for MongoDB. Earlier in her career, she held various leadership positions in the telecom industry including running a partner program for CPE, doing solutions marketing for the IP Division at Alcatel-Lucent, business development, and participating in numerous standards activities. She received her master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Texas, Austin.

As a child, Heather was always interested in space and astronomy and had planned to have a career in scientific research. About the time she realized that wasn’t for her, the dot com boom came along. She had many of friends and acquaintances working in software and saw how dynamic, cutting-edge and full of smart people that industry was, and she wanted to be a part of it. The general excitement around the tech industry was growing and infectious, so she jumped in.

When the [dot com] bust came along, I had to figure out my next move: do I stay and chose to view the boom as an anomaly? Or treat my time in tech as just a brief foray?

I stayed. A position came up in at a telecom software start-up to manage a partner program for devices in the home. I quickly realized that to have an appropriate partner program, it was also necessary to have a uniform way to integrate with all the myriad devices from different vendors. So this led me into standardization within the telecom industry. As that started evolving, residential broadband was on an upswing, and while devices weren’t quite connected the way they are now, home networking was becoming a reality and we began to see what the power of connectivity in our daily lives could do. And that power of connection was very compelling. I enjoyed both the fun nerdiness of how networks are actually connected from a technical level and the actual application/ UI layer of that connection with others across the globe (via the power of the Internet). It was compelling.

“And what is it that you do for the project?” *condescending tone*

Most of the issues I’ve encountered were more casual sexism/unconscious bias. For example, people assume(d) I wasn’t in the position I was in or did not have the knowledge/background that I did. No one tried to keep me from doing things specifically, but I’ve experienced being a woman in the room who has to prove and reprove her stuff.

And I’ve witnessed men having to re-adjust themselves and their assumptions when they first meet me and realize I have the leadership role that I do.  I’ve gotten the question, “And what is it that you do for the project” asked in a condescending tone more times than I’d like to count before I’ve answered them that I head it up.

A day in Heather Kirksey’s life

I now lead the Open Platform for Network Virtualization (OPNFV) project, an open source project for facilitating NFV deployments. It’s a Collaborative  Project hosted by The Linux Foundation focusing on next-generation networks.

I don’t really have a typical day; it’s a mixture of engaging with the tech community, organizing events, speaking at events, evangelizing, looking at operational health, interacting with leadership and board members, recruiting folks to projects, as well as larger strategic issues like understanding what we’re doing technically and how it impacts the market, and understanding and removing barriers. I also do things like pick out swag, brainstorm what pavilion walls need to look like, or how to order my slides for a keynote presentation. Sometimes it’s big picture; sometimes it’s down in the weeds.

I faced many obstacles, primarily because telecoms was outside of my field of study (during University, I left scientific research and graduated with an English major and then  Master’s in Feminist Theory).  I had to learn things in real time (technical, industry, ecosystem) and learn enough to gain some credibility and make good decisions. Peppered in all of this, of course, were (often mis-) perceptions due to my gender.

“Sexism remains alive and well in tech”

A homogenous group perpetuates homogeneity. For example, things like recruiting: tech companies tend to recruit from similar talent pools that women, minorities, or those with lower-class backgrounds are not traditionally a part of (e.g., big-league CS programs at expensive, elite universities). People also tend to hire people who are like them; not just in what they look like, but in backgrounds, viewpoints, and experiences. I’m actually a great example of someone who sort of fell into tech; I have a degree in feminist theory, not CS, and I wasn’t bred in Silicon Valley.

There isn’t really a conscious effort to keep women out of tech.

And of course, sexism remains alive and well in the industry. As a woman, it gets tiring; after a few bad experiences, opting out of the industry may be a far more sensible option for many than staying to fight. The number of women graduating with STEM degrees is growing (according to the National Girls Collaborative Project, over 50% of all STEM degrees in 2013 were awarded to women; 18% in CS). However, the number of women in STEM positions is closer to 29% (and only about 25% of those women are in CS fields). We also see many women unable to re-enter the workforce after taking a break to raise small children.

The road to success is paved with challenges

Unconscious bias is a huge obstacle… men aren’t necessarily “the enemy,” there isn’t really a conscious effort to keep women out of tech. But things are very baked in and it often requires a great deal of self-awareness to see that playing out in action. And given the realities of our world, if you’re not making a conscious effort to include women in tech, it can have almost the same effect as excluding them.

Other obstacles include company cultures that promote a frat boy atmosphere (we see this a lot with startups). Replicating a college dorm culture as company culture does not do women, or other minorities, or honestly anyone looking to be a grown, mature leader, any favors.

Actually, there is a movement to change STEM’s acronym to “STEAM” where “A” stands for “Arts.” The reasoning here is that it has become too much of a humanities versus science/tech battle when there should actually be a lot of overlap. For example, introducing more design-oriented talent can benefit product design and approach (among other things). And a larger diversity of viewpoints –encompassing different life experiences and perspectives of those with different socioeconomic backgrounds — has been shown to be productive to an organization’s bottom line.

How long will it take to see results from the current debate?

I was hoping there’d be results already from debates I heard 19 years ago!

What gives me the most hope, though, is that big, important companies are beginning to measure diversity in their workforce and make concerted efforts to diversify (and these efforts are increasingly tied to compensation).

Initiatives like that are more likely to have the most impact, though I can’t say how long it will take. And it’s encouraging to see the recent groundswell of energy against the current administration, where people are becoming less complacent in general. That will likely have a larger impact that affects more than just the political sector.

Tips & tricks to make it in tech

First and foremost, working in tech is very fun, exciting and dynamic.

Also know that it is not perfect, and you will encounter issues of sexism and bias and that is not something you can change just because you are passionate.

There are actually a lot of different avenues and opportunities in tech (aside from coding) you might not be aware of that could be fun, interesting and cool. Things that go beyond traditional marketing if you are looking to avoid the traditional culture of male programmers that often comes with coding jobs. Things like tech marketing are places where you can bring coding skills and do additional technical work.

You can also use the challenges that exist to your advantage; because options for “fitting in” are cut off to you, you’ll have a certain freedom to bring your whole self to what you do. That presents an opportunity to stand out and bring leadership and visibility to what you do. Just look around at any tech conference…. while you will see too few women, you will also see many with blue hair or wearing funky clothes. As a woman in tech, you have freedom to push the envelope and forge your own path, and that can be very empowering.

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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