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Profile: Kristen Foster-Marks, Director of Engineering - Value Delivery, Pluralsight

Women in Tech: “Remember to ask for a lot of help along the way”

Sarah Schlothauer

Four 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 Kristen Foster-Marks, Director of Engineering – Value Delivery, Pluralsight.

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?

Four 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 Kristen Foster-Marks, Director of Engineering – Value Delivery, Pluralsight.

Today’s Woman in Tech: Kristen Foster-Marks, Director of Engineering – Value Delivery, Pluralsight

Kristen is the Director of Engineering for the Value Delivery team at Pluralsight Flow. She is a former ESL/EFL instructor who spent her early career teaching Academic English and Composition at Colorado State University. She transitioned into a career in software development in 2016, and through learning programming languages, has been delighted to observe the many similarities between learning human and computer languages.

When did you become interested in technology? What first got you interested in tech?

Two things really drew me to Software Engineering: The creative nature of programming, and the security offered via the overwhelming ratio of available jobs to available engineers to do those jobs.

How did you end up in your career path? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

For most of my life, I was an utter luddite; I’d always thought that I was going to be a writer. By my late-twenties, I had found myself teaching Academic Writing and Composition at a state university with little room for professional growth. At that time, my husband had just completed a degree in Computer Science, and he was doing really creative work – problem-solving and learning constantly. I quickly found myself intrigued, and ended up learning a little web development on my own – basic HTML, CSS and Javascript – and loved it. Before long, I had committed to a 6-month immersive bootcamp, and five years later, I can say without hesitation that it was the best decision I ever made.

If anything, I think the only roadblock I’ve faced in pursuing this career was not understanding as a young woman that computer programming was absolutely something I could do. I had subscribed to the common stereotype that programming was a job done by uber-intellectual men. Once I decided this was the route I wanted to go, I buckled down to study, learn and practice. The resources are there for learning, the mentors are there for helping, and the jobs are absolutely there – oftentimes our biggest roadblocks are the ones we imagine up, or those imposed through a lack of exposure to role models in the field.

Did you receive support from your family and friends when choosing your career path? Do you have a role model?

I did. When I decided to enroll in a coding bootcamp, my husband had recently gone through the experience of learning how to code as an adult, and he was extremely supportive and encouraging. I remember him telling me that if he could learn how to code, then I could learn how to code.

My mother is my professional role model. She never had the opportunity to attend college, and had no real professional experience until the age of 30, when I was six and entering the first grade. She took a job in income processing at an international nonprofit organization. Almost thirty years later, she’s preparing to retire from that same organization, where – with hard work, strong ethics, and some great people skills – she rose high in the ranks of the Human Resources department. When I struggled with the decision to move into the technology world at the age of 30, she was there to assure me that I was nowhere near too old to make a career change, and that with hard work and a growth mindset, I could learn how to do anything, and I could excel in any field. She also convinced me that with all of my teaching experience, potential employers would salivate over my resume, which ended up being true!

I’m most proud of having embraced a growth mindset around professional development, which includes adopting a “fail fast” philosophy.

Did anyone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?

Not directly or explicitly, but there were certainly extended family members who openly questioned the value of my educational pursuits. A few attempted to dissuade me from certain paths early in life, and I’m glad that I didn’t allow myself to be influenced by them, because while the things that I’ve chosen to study formally (for example, psychology, writing, language teaching and linguistics) haven’t explicitly led to high-paying jobs, the skills and knowledge that I’ve collected through those pursuits make me unique from many of my current tech colleagues, and allow me to make unique contributions to the technical teams and products that I’ve been a part of.

A day in Kristen’s life

I’m currently the Director of Engineering for the Value Delivery team for Pluralsight Flow. Pluralsight Flow is an engineering insights solution that enables organizations to build and maintain high impact engineering culture. My team builds a suite of reports to arm engineering teams and leaders with delivery metrics that they can use to improve their workflows, with the overall goal of optimizing flow efficiency. I applied to Pluralsight right around two years ago even though I didn’t have any professional experience with the programming language the team used. However, I loved and was curious about the product. I still feel really lucky that they took a chance on me and allowed me to learn Python on the job.

As the Director of our team, my typical workday involves lots of meetings, my favorites of which are one-on-one with engineers and our Product Manager and Product Designer. We all collaborate closely as a tight-knit Product Team to deliver value to our customers.

As an advocate for Pluralsight Flow, I also do a fair number of current- and prospective-customer demos, as well as product walk-throughs for anyone wanting to use the product. I love talking to customers about how I use the product that I help build, in order to better build the product that they then get to use on their teams – there’s something incredibly fun and rewarding about that.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I’m most proud of having embraced a growth mindset around professional development, which includes adopting a “fail fast” philosophy. In my first couple years as a software developer, I was terrified of failing, especially in front of others. Gradually – and with the help of some really stellar mentors – I’ve come to recognise the immense learning value of failure, as well as the benefits of publicly owning your failures. One of my favorite activities as a leader has been making note of my failures (and successes) and reflecting on the causes and effects of those with a mind toward continuous improvement.

Why aren’t there more women in tech? What’s your take on that?

I think we still have serious societal issues around defining what kinds of jobs are suited for men, and what kinds of jobs are suited for women. And I think we still do not communicate to women on a large enough scale that they are first and foremost valuable for what they can do with their brains, rather than the state of their bodies, and that they should reach for the intellectual stars with those brains, because they’re no less capable than a man of intellectual achievement.

Could you name a few challenges (or obstacles) women in tech face?

Lack of role models and allies are a huge obstacle that we women face in tech, and specifically in technical roles. My current engineering leader is a woman, and not only is she the first female engineering leader I’ve seen across any of the companies I’ve worked for, she is also hands-down the best leader that I’ve ever had. I don’t know that I would have considered myself engineering-leadership material if I hadn’t been able to observe her successfully and effectively lead in ways that don’t fit the stereotypes we hold about what makes a good tech leader.

Implicit discrimination also continues to be an issue. I’m thinking about things like microaggressions. For example, I once suffered through an engineering leader who more-than-once lectured me in public to not be afraid of asking for help, which always left me a bit flabbergasted; asking for help does not scare me, and thus, I don’t think anyone at work had ever heard me express that it scares me. I never heard this leader deliver the same exhortation to a male engineer.

How would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?

In the case of computer science education, I think that the earlier a child is exposed to programming computers and the associated technical concepts, the greater that child’s ultimate attainment of programming languages and technical skills will be. Learning programming languages is quite analogous to learning foreign or second languages, in my experience, and the earlier children are exposed to either, the better. As for career exposure, I think it’s important to teach children what these skills can allow them to do in the world – who they can be, with these powers. As a computer programmer, you truly can follow your dreams and your passions – today, every company has a software team, and wherever one’s passions lie, there’s likely room and need for software engineers to contribute.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of diversity in STEM fields. In all fields, I would argue. Every individual who decides not to pursue a career because they don’t see people like them doing that job introduces a loss to themselves as individuals, and a potential (even likely) loss to the success or advancement of ideas in that field.

All of those little, inevitable failures add up to ultimate success, given enough time.

The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current discussion?

I think it’s impossible to predict when we’ll begin seeing serious diversity shifts in the technology and engineering world. On the one hand, companies seem to be doing a better job of identifying and training up talent internally, which theoretically should result in us seeing more under-represented groups in tech roles, but we’re also somehow seeing declines in the number of under-represented folks pursuing technical degrees at universities, which is puzzling and disconcerting.

What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career? What should they know about this industry?

If you have any interest in doing it, but are doubting your ability, just do it. Believe in yourself. Know that it will be challenging, and know that you will need help and mentors, and be ready to fail a thousand times a day as you learn, and then every day of your career, but remember that with focus and dedication, you can learn these skills. All of those little, inevitable failures add up to ultimate success, given enough time. And this advice doesn’t change, depending on age. Are you a seventeen-year-old young woman, deciding if you can handle a computer science curriculum? Just do it. Are you a 40-year-old adjunct English instructor who needs to make a change? Just do it. And remember to ask for a lot of help along the way.

More Women in Tech:

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Author
Sarah Schlothauer

Sarah Schlothauer

All Posts by Sarah Schlothauer

Sarah Schlothauer is the editor for JAXenter.com. She received her Bachelor's degree from Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey. She currently lives in Frankfurt, Germany with her husband and cat where she enjoys reading, writing, and medieval reenactment. She is also the editor for Conditio Humana, an online magazine about ethics, AI, and technology.

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