3 Generations of Women In IT – Volume 1
Reflecting back on your career can elicit a mixture of emotions. For many, our interactions with colleagues evoke the strongest emotions. Because of this, many of our memories stem from events that revolve around people; whether this is our clients, peers or managers.
In this two part blog, Annette, Bharti and Sukh – 3 generations of highly successful women – to talk candidly about their experience of working within the IT sector. We ask them to share how they first entered the industry, memories of their early experiences and how these influenced decisions on three very different pathways on the career ladder.
Q1: What was your first exposure to computers?
“My earliest exposure to the world of computers came from my father who was a Patent Office Examiner. In the early 1960s, when many patent applications were being made for inventions related to computers, he was assigned to the team reviewing them.
“Sadly, much as the technology fascinated him as an electrical engineer, it also overwhelmed him as he wanted to understand it all. Even in the early 60s, this was too much for one person and so he transferred to electronic switchgear.
“But I think he always regretted giving up on computers and remained fascinated by them. He did pass his enthusiasm for them to my brother Neil though, who’s been a software engineer for most of his career.”
“My first exposure to the world of computers was when I was quite young and had a Sinclair ZX spectrum to play games on.
“Later on, when my Dad started his own business, I had access to a desktop PC that ran DOS. We had a few games on there so I would play them when the computer wasn’t being used by my dad.
I had my first experience of the Windows operating system back in the early 90s when I was still in primary school. I didn’t realise at the time that not many people had desktop computers at home.”
“My exposure to computers started out in school during the late 90’s. It was mainly using them for basic Microsoft applications.
Over the next few years, I had a desktop computer at home and I started using it for learning, research, gaming and social media, like MSN and Myspace.”
Q2: When did you decide to work in IT?
“I’m not sure it was a conscious decision. I just found myself accepting a position in my mid-20s with Andersen Consulting – the forerunner to Accenture.
When I left school in the early 70s, and was undecided about what to do, I did a “computer aptitude test” for the engineering consultancy WS Atkins. I failed their test and was dogged for some time by the belief that the world of computing was not for me.
But I was an ambitious young woman. Indeed, for my 18th birthday, a supposedly good friend gave me Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and inscribed it with the dedication: “To Annette – on the start of her career as one!” I was also determined to show my doubting mother that I could be more than a housewife and mother.
Working in the computer industry – the term IT industry came later – seemed an attractive option for women like me in the 1970s, especially as it was not seen then as a particularly male dominated industry. But dogged by my perceived lack of “aptitude” I pursued my ambitions elsewhere.
Many years after leaving school, and after a year at Warwick Business School studying for an MSc in Management Science and Operational Research, I accepted an offer from Andersen Consulting.
Consequently, I found myself on 2nd October 1979, in a room in 1 Surrey Street, WC1 with 10 men and 1 other woman, with no clue what lay ahead!”
“Because I was exposed to a PC from quite a young age, when the A-level option to do Computing came up at school, I decided it would be something I would be good at. We were one of the 1st schools to have the Computing A-Level being taught as a subject, as part of a pilot scheme.
“Ironically, I didn’t think I was particularly good at computing and had decided not to pursue it after A-levels, but as I worked though my coursework every evening I realised I really enjoyed investigating the possibilities that computing offered.
“I did much better in my A-level Computing exam than expected, and my teachers told me that I should have more belief in my abilities.
“Following this, I decided to do a U-turn on my chosen degree and to apply for a Computing degree course instead. I wasn’t great at programming, nor did I enjoy it, so I decided to do a degree that focused on networks and communication.
“During my degree I had the option to select certain modules and I chose security. Choosing that module determined the route my career would take, as I was fascinated by security. In particular, the rapid changes needed, how clever the hackers were and how important it was to stay ahead of them. I always did love a good challenge!”
“Working in IT wasn’t a career I had considered initially. In my senior school there was a compulsory course on IT. This focussed mainly on Microsoft Excel and there was little or nothing taught about IT or Computing. After completing my A-levels, I started training to be a dental nurse.
As I had some free time (my working hours were 09:00 – 15:00), I decided to find a course to fill in the free hours and attended an open evening looking for a suitable course.
I remember walking past the computing stand and thinking it looked new and interesting. After a chat with a few of the people on the stand, I abandoned the idea of becoming a dental nurse and enrolled in a BSc in Computing.”
Q3: What was your early experience of working in IT?
“During my early years I acquired a set of analytical/IT skills and work habits that have stood me in good stead throughout my career.
“Our first few weeks were spent learning to program in Assembler. Back in the 70s this low, almost machine level, language was considered the only one that would give us a sufficiently good grounding in programming to enable us to be thrown into any client situation.
“As part of our training, we were sent for 3 weeks to either their main training headquarters near Chicago, or to the newly established World headquarters in Geneva.
“The Firm had the concept of a worldwide workforce all trained, developed and managed according to a consistent set of standards. This meant that, as project sizes grew, the project teams could be staffed from anywhere in the world The Firm had an office. Imagine my disappointment to discover that my first project was for a company on the Slough Trading Estate. There, after very little exposure to COBOL, I was given an assignment to build a stock control program in IMS DB/DC, a database and an online system I’d had prior exposure to.
“I was given 5 days to complete task, 3 days to code and 2 to test. I did deliver the program but, unsurprisingly, it took me rather longer than 5 days to complete it. Hardly a surprise as, in those days, we were allowed just one compile a day.”
“The experience from my first couple of jobs was not great, to put it mildly. I had to deal with sexist comments, with my peers thinking it was not my place to do such technical work. One male colleague decided I was ‘one of the boys’, and therefore much more acceptable than a female.
“But I also had men who were fighting my corner. Their support included helping me to progress my career, providing me with new opportunities to learn and giving me advice.
“I started in IT in a support role and was told by the owner of the small business I worked for that I would never have any issues progressing my career in IT if I could do the basics. Fix a computer, fix software issues, know Exchange and Active Directory, etc.
“He was right, and I took that advice with me to my next job where I learnt more about networks. I became a network support engineer, I did my server exams, my CCNA, and learnt how servers work and are managed. I then moved into security and for some time did both a network and security role in support.
“During the first few years of my career I did consider quitting IT because I realised it was going to be a battle to reach my full potential. I wasn’t sure it was one I would ever succeed in winning. I am glad I never gave up and luckily for me, I always had great supporters which helped to balance out those people that just wanted to hold me back.”
“My experience in IT really began in college where I was one of only two girls in my class. It was definitely an odd experience but, as the rest of my (male) peers were welcoming, I didn’t feel out of place. During my studies I was often called ‘one of the lads.’ I also overheard someone shouting from the class next door ‘they have girls in their class’, as if this was something worth noting!
“My first experience of the extent of male dominance in the IT sector happened about 3 months into my first year when I was offered an opportunity to work for an IT support centre. I politely declined, as I already had a part-time job, but was then informed that the employer was looking for women for this role.
“I asked why this was and the response was that ‘hearing a woman’s voice on the phone, especially when someone is angry, is believed to help defuse a situation’. I laughed it off but was left disappointed that my gender was the main focus, rather than the hard work and effort I had dedicated to gain my IT skills.
“This experience had a huge impact and made me realise there will always be stereotypes in this industry and occasions where I would have to prove myself in a way my male counterparts would not have to. But the experience just made me more determined to succeed.
“I have been lucky to have peers, teachers and friends who have supported my journey and made the overall experience positive.
“I’m still fairly new in my IT career and, reading Annette’s and Bharti’s stories, I’d say I’ve been pretty fortunate to enjoy a positive experience of working in the IT industry.”
Come back soon for part two of this blog, which will continue the story of 3 Generations of Women in IT and bring you up to date with where they currently are in their careers.