Women in Tech: “A cultural problem exists that needs to be addressed”
Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Three years ago, we 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 Kat Cosgrove, Developer Advocate at JFrog.
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?
Three years ago, we 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 Kat Cosgrove, Developer Advocate at JFrog.
Today’s Woman in Tech: Kat Cosgrove, Developer Advocate at JFrog
Kat Cosgrove is a Developer Advocate at JFrog, a CNCF Ambassador, and an experienced conference speaker. This year, she has spoken at dozens of conferences, but the highlights include Kubecon EU, the world’s first DevOps conference to be held in Animal Crossing, and All Day DevOps, as well as multiple workshops from her DevOps 101 series. Her professional background has run the gamut from bartender, to video store clerk, to teacher, to software developer. She credits this wide-ranging experience for her success as a speaker, developer, and advocate for DevOps. Her specialty is approachable 101-level DevOps content for junior developers or anyone else who considers themselves a newbie, to make DevOps practices and tooling more approachable and adoptable for everyone. She also talks about DevOps for IoT, a rapidly growing, increasingly important, and technologically challenging space for innovation. In her time as an engineer on JFrog’s IoT team, she built a proof of concept demonstrating how a robust DevOps pipeline could enable fast over-the-air updates for cars.
When did you become interested in technology?
My dad is a software engineer, so I grew up around tech. He was always very encouraging about anything I did that looked like even a vague interest in what he did.
My first foray into actually doing tech, though, was probably when he decided to add some parental control software to the family computer. I was really into a type of text-based role playing game that happened in chat rooms, and the new parental control software prevented me from accessing those, so I was very motivated to find a way around it.
I also grew up in a time when having a personal website on Geocities or Angelfire was considered very cool, and we didn’t have visual what you see is what you get (WYSIWYG) editors at the time, so learning HTML was necessary.
How did you end up in your career path?
I actually rebelled against having a career in tech instead of keeping it as a hobby for a long time. I spent some time working as a bartender, and then as a database administrator and genre expert at a large independent video rental store, freelancing on the side building WordPress sites for people. I was self-taught, and knew I was limited in some ways — my experience was broad, but not particularly deep in anything.
So after a few years of that, I quit working to attend a coding bootcamp in Seattle. I immediately went to work as a teaching assistant at that same bootcamp, but a few months later, I accepted a position as an embedded Linux software developer at JFrog. My team built a really cool proof-of-concept that solved a fairly difficult real-world problem, and when we got requests to attend conferences and talk about what we did, I was the only one particularly interested in being on stage. The new head of the Developer Relations team at JFrog liked what he saw, I guess, because he quickly approached me about moving to his team.
The specific requirements of being a developer advocate varies from company to company, but in my case, it offered me the opportunity to spend some of my time still writing code and building demos, but the rest of my time teaching people things, which I desperately missed. The only real downside is that now my position is extremely public, so everything I do and say is scrutinized to an extent I wasn’t entirely prepared to deal with at first.
Did you receive support from your family and friends? Do you have a role model?
Within reason, the job of your friends is to be supportive of your goals and dreams. Friends I had who already worked in the industry were invaluable to me then, and continue to be now. If any of them had told me that I couldn’t, or shouldn’t, move into a more development-heavy position than I was already in, they were not my friends. My husband in particular was very supportive, since I had to stop working to go back to school.
I have more role models than I could possibly name here, and I’ve been extremely fortunate to become friends with some of them since I moved into a more public-facing position.
Did someone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?
I had a short stint doing some back-end app integration for a small business. My boss, the owner of the company, was big on micromanaging and gave very explicit instructions for how to complete even mundane tasks. I was not so much an engineer as I was a machine following directions he wrote.
It wasn’t possible to win with him — if the directions weren’t followed exactly, you got yelled at. If you deviated from them because his instructions didn’t actually work, you got yelled at. He controlled his employees by gaslighting them into believing that they were the ones who were incompetent, and he was doing them a favor by keeping them employed when no one else would have them. There was zero opportunity to learn or grow.
When he found out I was looking for a job somewhere else, he insisted that anyone who hired me would fire me within a year. He was incorrect.
Within reason, the job of your friends is to be supportive of your goals and dreams.
A day in Kat’s life
I work as a Developer Advocate at JFrog. My job is to build demos using JFrog’s products, and then talk about those demos at conferences and online through webinars, blogs, and tutorials.
Since I work in the DevOps space and Artifactory supports so many different package types, I have a lot of flexibility in the different technologies and languages I can use in my demos. I love learning new things, so I often use this as an opportunity to teach myself something new. This is a plus for me both personally and professionally — learning is fun, but it also allows me an opportunity to struggle, which I often use as content for talks. Most of my content is geared heavily towards beginners as a result.
There isn’t really a “typical” workday for me — I could be writing the outline for a new talk, building slides, giving a talk, appearing on a panel, participating in a brainstorming session with R&D, or building some app for a new demo.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I’m carving out a pretty nice corner for myself as an authority on DevOps and adjacent concepts for absolute beginners. That content is more time-consuming and difficult to write, but it’s slowly eliminating an unnecessary struggle I went through myself. When someone attends one of my workshops and tells me that they finally understand the “why” of DevOps or some related tool, the work that went into the content is worth it.
Why aren’t there more women in tech?
This is a difficult question to answer, and I’m not an expert on the subject, but there are multiple factors in play and a lot of actual research on the subject that should be regarded much more highly than the opinion and anecdotal experience of an individual engineer.
Instead, I’ll talk about why so many women leave tech, since those anecdotal experiences are directly relevant. If a male colleague does or says something even mildly stupid or incorrect in a public way, the extreme end of the public response will be calling him an incompetent moron. If I make that same mistake, the criticism is frequently gendered immediately — I’m an incompetent moron, because I’m a woman. This is absolutely exhausting.
If you’re on a bad team, or you deal with the public a lot, even constructive criticism can carry an air of “you made a mistake, which is expected, because you’re a woman and women aren’t built for tech.” After enough of that, just leaving the industry starts to look pretty appealing for some.
Could you name a few challenges (or obstacles) women in tech face?
Everything we do has to be More. In order to be seen as technically equivalent to a male colleague, women have to be better than them. People are far more comfortable interrupting me, asking “gotcha” questions, or outright ignoring me than they are with my male colleagues. We’re also frequently encouraged to be more assertive, more aggressive, more demanding, more loud — essentially, more stereotypically male.
On the surface, this idea of raising girls to be more self-assured sounds like a good goal, but it still moves the needle in the direction of masculinity as the accepted default. I won’t get into the constant sexualization of women in the industry and the problems I’ve run into as a result of that, but suffice it to say that if you wouldn’t say it to your male boss, you shouldn’t be saying it to me at a conference either.
Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?
It’s a well-established fact that a more educated, financially-stable population is a healthier, more prosperous population, including to the benefit of those who are disadvantaged or otherwise less personally prosperous. STEM is currently a very popular and relatively low-effort route to being more financially stable. Roughly half of the population is born female. There is no question as to whether or not getting closer to gender parity would be beneficial from a socio-economical standpoint.
On the surface, this idea of raising girls to be more self-assured sounds like a good goal, but it still moves the needle in the direction of masculinity as the accepted default.
The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current debate?
It isn’t a debate. The diversity issue in tech, whether we’re discussing gender identity or race, is a thing that exists to the detriment of everyone except the people in power who benefit from it. We’re seeing “results,” in that more companies are actively acknowledging that they have a problem and executing real actions to address it, but a cultural problem exists that needs to be addressed and that has to come from the top, not the marginalized groups you hire from to address your diversity problem.
What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career? What should they know about this industry?
Do it, but be aware that you may face some adversity that you don’t recognize as gendered at first. Have role models, and seek them out — some of them will be very approachable, and very willing to provide you with guidance or advice. A social support system and a good mentor are both extremely helpful to succeeding with the minimum amount of struggle. Be quick to ask for help.
More Women in Tech:
- Women in Tech: “Women have been able to bring a new perspective to the tech industry”
- Women in Tech: “Take responsibility and ownership for your own growth”
- Women in Tech: “Celebrate your wins, big and little”
- Women in Tech: “Experiment, deliver, retrospect, and keep learning!”
- Women in Tech: “You are the best author of your own career path”