I pledged to write a blog post for today, Ada Lovelace Day, in honour of a woman in technology who I admire. Although there have been some great women in technology throughout history – Grace Hopper comes to mind, and is the subject of many blog posts today – I wanted to write about someone who I know personally, and who I feel has contributed to my personal or professional development.
I didn’t have any women mentors in the early part of my technology career. I went to a high school in suburban Toronto during the mid-70’s where I had to fight to be admitted to the technical courses, and my mentors there were two male teachers who helped get me gain entry into the courses, then taught me the right (and wrong) way to wire circuits and design mechanical gearboxes. I moved on to engineering at University of Waterloo, where I recall one female professor and one woman teaching assistant during the entire time, neither of whom had a lasting impact. I did my work terms at mines, pulp mills and oil companies in northern Ontario and Alberta: again, not many women around. I came to believe that I didn’t need to have other technical women in my life, since I was doing just fine with male mentors (a convenient belief, consider that was my only choice).
That started to change when I owned a software services company, and was growing it to its eventual size of 40 people. As CEO, CTO and chief cook and bottle-washer, I was involved with pretty much every technical hire that we did. And something completely unintentional happened: I hired a completely female technical management team, all of them talented computer scientists and engineers, and also capable of leading teams. It wasn’t about equal opportunity or any crap like that, it was about finding people who not only had mad tech skillz, but who I trusted to run some part of my company, who understood my vision for it, and who could mentor the people on their teams. They just happened to all be women. That changed something for me. I realized that although I had learned a lot from the male mentors in my life up to that point, I had a lot to learn from the technical women around me, too. These women taught me that collaboration and compassion are not at odds with technology, but enrich it: this was in the late 90’s, when technology was still hard-edged, and the word “collaboration” wasn’t a part of most of our vocabularies.
That’s a lot of preamble, but when I sat down to write this, I felt compelled to explain why my first women tech heroes didn’t come along until I was already 20 years into my technical career. Since then, there have been many more, but I want to go back to one of those first ones with whom I entrusted a huge part of my growing team, Marion Cameron. Marion is a former developer, the best project manager who I’ve ever worked with, and was a tremendously calming and mentoring influence over my growing team of (mostly male) developers. She had stopped programming before I met her, but she has a degree in computer science (also from Waterloo) and spent some amount of her younger years working on contract as a developer in other countries, including a stint in Vietnam while there was a little armed conflict going on there. When I met her, she was a project manager working for one of my customers; she moved on, but when I was later looking for someone as our first project manager hire who could grow into a much more senior position, we tracked her down. As we grew, she took on the management of all project managers and developers, although we eventually split the role so that she could focus on the project management team.
One thing that Marion taught me is that you don’t need to raise your voice to make yourself heard. Petite and soft-spoken, Marion commanded respect from our team and our customers because she knew her stuff, and because she was committed to making sure that the right thing happened. I have heard her raise her voice only once in anger the entire time that I’ve known her, and she did that in private in my office rather than in front of our team or customers. I can’t say that I’ve stopped raising my voice or saying totally inappropriate things sometime, but it certainly seems to be a lot less frequent, and I credit her with helping me to understand the value of taking a moment to think about what I’m saying before I blurt it out.
Another key thing that she showed me was how to bring collaboration into a team. She is a natural collaborator, and manages to find the right path to a solution while gaining consensus, but without that devolving into endless rounds of meetings. I know that if we had had collaborative tools such as wikis back then, she would have been the first to find a way to use them to great effect.
She also taught me a lot about managing people, particularly that strange and wonderful group of developers that made up our team at the time. Most of them were young, talented and a bit full of themselves, prone to bruised egos and always testing the limits. She nurtured them in a variety of ways depending on the individual and the circumstances: part skills mentoring, part coddling, part constructive criticism, and always a healthy dose of respect.
Marion helped me to be a better technical leader, and ultimately a better person; for that, I dedicate my Ada Lovelace Day blog post to her.