Ada Lovelace is known as the first computer programmer. Mainly known for her work with Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine in the 1800s, she was the first to recognize that the machine could do more than simple calculation — that it could follow a set of instructions (a program) to perform tasks. While Babbage’s computer was never built, Lovelace is credited with writing up an algorithm to be carried out by such a machine. Now, every year in mid-October, we celebrate women tech pioneers on Ada Lovelace Day.
Red Hat is proud to have women in leadership roles in quality assurance, engineering, diversity and inclusion and more, who are continuing to pave the way for future generations of technology professionals. And while we’ve made strides in creating more gender equality within Red Hat, we know there is still work to be done. Part of that work comes from having open conversations.
During Red Hat Summit this year, four Red Hatters led a conversation on "Women in leadership in open source and technology." The panel was moderated by Margaret Dawson, vice president of Diversity & Inclusion and chief of staff to the Office of the CEO. Dawson was joined by chief architect Emily Brand, senior principal software engineer, Jessica Forrester and senior application developer, Koren Townsend.
Let’s lean into some important lessons they shared on getting started in tech, practicing allyship and overcoming the imposter syndrome.
Lesson 1: Start young, and help others get started early too
As longtime Red Hatters, our panelists are in roles that involve helping users integrate their products more easily and building complex solutions for a variety of our customers across the globe. While they didn’t know exactly what they wanted to do in technology, they attribute the early exposure their parents gave them to computers to piquing their interest in the field.
Forrester recalls, "I have memories of hanging out with my dad, with the desktop computer opened, guts hanging out open, replacing the ram, replacing the video cards and stuff."
It wasn’t just the hardware that interested our speakers. "I really started to love the logic and the problem-solving, the puzzle-solving side of doing the programming," Forrester says.
Brand found an early interest in building websites and found work in high school building websites for family and friends before going to undergraduate and graduate school to study software engineering. "But what I wanted to do with that, I had no idea," she says. "Being at Red Hat really helped me try out different roles to understand what it is I really wanted to do."
With early exposure being so instrumental to developing their interest in the field, the panelists also discussed the importance of giving back to help young people in the next generation gain exposure to technology.
Townsend is vice chair of Blacks United in Leadership and Diversity (B.U.I.L.D.), a Red Hat Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) community. As a part of its outreach initiatives, B.U.I.L.D. hosts coding classes with students in the community.
"I think it's important to start early. I had that opportunity early," Townsend says. "There are programs like Black Girls CODE. For students who don't have the accessibility at home, they put them and engage them into these opportunities to code a little bit."
She also points to the Scratch programming language website as a resource—it’s a free online coding opportunity for anybody who wants to learn how to code (or at least understand the methodology behind coding). "If there's a will there is a way, and there are opportunities and a lot of good organizations are reaching back," says Townsend.
Lesson 2: Overcome imposter syndrome with a strong support network
Getting involved in the community is one way to start building your network, which Brand says is an important component of learning how to code. She explains, "No one learned how to code in a vacuum—or if they did, it was a very minimal vacuum because everyone uses Google, everyone uses open source communities."
The panelists also credit their strong support networks in battling imposter syndrome. You might feel imposter syndrome when thoughts of "I'm not good enough" or "I don't belong here" kick in and prevent you from taking risks to move ahead. It’s not uncommon to feel this way as a woman in technology.
As Townsend recalls, "When I went to NC State—my freshman year, mid-90s, first computer class (C++)—I walked into about 100 people in the room and could count on two hands how many females I saw. I could count on two fingers how many black people I saw." She says, "At that point, I realized either I could walk out of here and be afraid and not try to go forward or take a chance—it might actually work out."
Brand calls her closest confidants her "board of directors," a group of four women that she reaches out to when she’s feeling in over her head or unsure about an opportunity. Forrester has a similar network of champions and mentors. And sometimes, all you need is a little push from your network to go for it. She says that inevitably, their advice always turns out to be, "Well of course you can do it. You learned how to do that thing, you can learn how to do this other thing."
A piece of advice Dawson often offers women she mentors is that all of us have 50% of our core skills that we can move anywhere. She says, "I think sometimes women think we have to have 70 or 80 or 90 or 100 for that next job, but that 50 can take you almost anywhere, and you can learn the rest."
Townsend shares similar sentiments as she says, "So you may think that your skill set’s not deserving of where you are, but it actually is. You got hired for a reason. Just step into your gift and know that you're there for a reason."
Lesson 3: Being a good ally means listening and being intentional
Similar to mentors and peers, allies can play an instrumental role in encouraging women leaders in IT and open source. Several questions were raised during the session’s live chat about the importance of men being involved as allies.
One step toward being a strong ally is to be a part of the conversation. Listen in to conversations to get a pulse of what’s really going on. "Whether that's three months or six months, or whatever that might be, just take some time to start by listening," says Forrester.
Getting a pulse on the issues that concern women in technology (or whatever group you’re hoping to be an ally of) can help you put programs in place that really make a difference. Townsend says, "It's not like, I hope it happens. I hope I can hire a female. I hope the diversity on my team will grow. It has to be kind of an intentional effort, and you have to be able to put the work behind your intentions."
Allyship doesn’t necessarily need to be at enterprise-scale. Brand says, "Become a sponsor of someone, which doesn't require that much work besides saying, ‘Wow, this woman is so good. I'm gonna put her name in the hat for these big opportunities.’" She adds, "Sponsorship takes almost no effort from you, except for putting your reputation out there a little bit."
Make an effort to reach out to someone who is up and coming in their career to see if they need a mentor. "It is not extremely common for women to ask for male mentors. So really, you need to put yourself out there as well to really be a strong ally," Brand notes.
Lesson 4: There are ways to get into tech at all stages in your career
While Brand, Forrester, and Townsend reminisced on their early exposure to computers in paving the way for their technical careers, what if you have a performing arts or writing background? Our panelists encourage women with non-technical backgrounds to not be afraid of entering the tech industry too.
At Red Hat, you might find finance professionals who were once on the nursing path and blog editors who spent the early part of their career in consumer goods (ahem). There are video production, event planning (hello, Summit), and consulting functions that also keep the business running and drive it forward too.
If you’ve got a liberal arts background but want to make the switch to programming or another technical role? Brand points out that she’s seen adults find non-traditional ways to get into tech through boot camps, associate’s degrees, or self-taught methods.
"Those types of people come in with so many different life experiences, and that diversity is so strong within the technical field that we need a lot more people to come in at different ages, different skill sets, different talents, different backgrounds," she says. "And that will really be what changes to the tech industry for the better."
In case you missed it
The four panelists represent different areas where you can have jobs in technology, from DEI to engineering—but there are countless other places within the industry where technical, artistic, and managerial skills can be applied to drive innovation.
We covered a lot more great career lessons during this Ask the Experts session at Red Hat Summit 2021, and you can still catch the recording on-demand to learn more.
About the author
As the Managing Editor of the Red Hat Blog, Thanh Wong works with technical subject matter experts to develop and edit content for publication. She is fascinated with learning about new technologies and processes, and she's vested in sharing how they can help solve problems for enterprise environments. Outside of Red Hat, Wong hears a lot about the command line from her system administrator husband. Together, they're raising a young daughter and live in Maryland.