Insight from a Woman in Tech

Date posted: June 12, 2013

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In celebration of Women in Technology month, Bridge sat down with Jen Kramer – web developer, author, instructor, and lynda.com contributor – to hear about the journey of a woman in tech to seek her insight for young people considering a career in technology.

1.  Tell us about yourself.

I have a BS in Biology and a MS in Internet Strategy Management.  I’ve been running my own company and/or freelancing for the past 13 years.  I love web design and development, and I love teaching it to others.

In April 2012, I moved to the Boston area, having lived in Vermont and New Hampshire for the last 15 years.  My goal was to pick up more teaching work, create more videos for lynda.com, and write another book, while not working as much with clients.  I also wanted to catch up on a bunch of new technologies I’d been neglecting since I’d been busy running my business, like HTML5, responsive design, and JavaScript.

Fourteen months later, I’m pleased to report that I’ve met those goals, and I’m setting new ones!  This year, I taught for Harvard Extension School, National University, the Community College of Vermont, and the Center for Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University.  I’ll be teaching at Harvard again this coming fall and spring.  I created 5 more video titles for lynda.com, with two more under contract.  Many of these videos teach skills I learned over the past year, like responsive design, HTML5, Twitter Bootstrap, and Zurb Foundation.  Finally, I recently signed a contract to write a book on Twitter Bootstrap.

As for my new goals, I want to speak at more conferences, and I want to meet new kinds of geeks.  I just returned from the Fluent 2013 O’Reilly conference in San Francisco, which focused on JavaScript.  I’ve been in the process of learning JavaScript and jQuery this year, and my goal is to figure out the best way to teach non-programmers their first programming language using JavaScript.  I’m also working on how to teach responsive design to students from the very beginning, just as they’re learning HTML and CSS.  After all, how can we teach students to think about mobile devices when they don’t know a line of code?

As for hobbies and interests outside of technology, I’m a musician – I play classical flute with the Nashua Flute Choir, Willow Flute Ensemble, and with Flootissimo, a flute quartet.  Previously, I’ve played in bands, orchestras, and other small ensembles.  There’s something about music and computer programming that goes together in the brain.  Many of my web development friends are also great musicians.

2.  How did you become interested in technology, and when did you decide that it was what you wanted to do for a career?

I blame it all on my grandparents on my dad’s side.  Both of my grandparents took up computer programming as a second career, my grandfather after a successful Navy career and my grandmother after raising two children.  They both worked on programming satellites in the early 1970’s.

My grandfather built a Heathkit computer in 1976, when I was 6 years old.  When they came to visit us, they would bring this massive home-built computer, and it fascinated my brothers and me.

Jen and her brother with the Heathkit computer

My grandmother would show us how to write little programs in BASIC, like one that would write our names on the screen over and over in an endless loop, which thrilled us.  Keep in mind that the most interactive electronic in our lives at this point was the color TV!

I majored in Biology in college, the result of an awesome AP Biology course I took in high school.  All of my jobs in biology required some computer time, which I always enjoyed.  Eventually, one of my jobs included updating the company website as part of my responsibilities, and I realized I had more fun doing that than anything else.  So I quit my job, went to graduate school, got my Master’s degree, and I’ve never looked back!

3.  What was the most useful technology class you took while getting your tech degree?

In graduate school, my web design class was extremely helpful, mostly because the instructor didn’t teach us Dreamweaver and Photoshop.  Instead, he taught us strategic thinking, how to approach building a website, great questions to ask while doing so, client management, and more.  These are the kinds of things you can’t read about in a book, and they are as relevant today as they were when I had the class in 2000.

4.  What are the biggest challenges you face as you work to advance your career in technology, and how are you handling them?

As someone who freelances and runs my own company, I always need to make sure that others hear about what I’m doing and accomplishing.  It’s very hard for women to “toot their own horn” like this.  However, I’ve come to realize that it’s critical, it matters, and most people I know are interested in hearing about what I’m working on.  I make sure to have a strong presence on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn; I try to post on my blog regularly (something I need to improve); and I contribute guest posts for other blogs (like Bridge!).

5.  What’s an accomplishment that you are most proud of?

I am most proud of my students, where they’ve gone, and who they’ve become.

I was a faculty member at the Marlboro College Graduate School for 10 years, and the program director for the Masters of Science in Information Technology program for 6 years.  The atmosphere at Marlboro was always collaborative rather than competitive.  Students helped each other with assignments, and they stayed in touch after graduation and continued to help each other.  And guess what?  We had a lot of women in that program, maybe 50% women, both students and faculty.  Was the nurturing, collaborative environment in the presence of so many female students and faculty a coincidence?  I think not, and I think that all students benefited from learning from one another.

Many of these students went on to achieve leadership roles, as instructors and in industry, establishing their own businesses, leading local user groups, and even leading open source projects.  They carry that collaborative attitude toward web design and development with them, and these student friendships continue years later.

I’m so proud of my former students.  I passed on to them my philosophy that you can do anything you set your mind to do, that computers are awesome, and to “fail fast and iterate often.”  I can’t wait to see what they will do next.

I’m equally proud of my students from this past year.  I’m teaching at more schools, but I’m still trying to foster a sense of collaboration, not competition.  It’s always gratifying to get a message from a student who is thankful for being pushed to try something new or risky.

6.  What core messages have you received from your mentors?

My parents always told me that I could do anything I set my mind to do.

My grandmother showed me how cool computers are.

My web design teacher in grad school taught me the importance of failing fast and then trying something new.  I’ve so internalized this philosophy, and I pass it along to all of my students.

7.  What would you say to young women looking to pursue careers in technology?  What obstacles do you think exist between women and tech careers?

Women in IT need strong self-esteem, a strong internal compass, and excellent critical thinking skills.

Unfortunately, women get a message in high school that computers aren’t cool, that they’re a “guy thing,” that you don’t get dates by working on a computer, and that math is hard.  Those messages are often reinforced in college.  It doesn’t help if you’re the only woman in a classroom full of men with mostly male instructors.

Young women need more female role models who show them that computer work is most certainly for women, too.

I think women need to lead the IT world toward collaborative solutions.  Rather than competing with male colleagues to see who knows more about a topic, collaborate instead.  Create something bigger than both of you.  Lead the attitude, give credit where it’s due, and you’ll find people will follow.

8.  Why do you think enrollment numbers in higher educational tech programs are dwindling?

There are several big factors at play here.

First of all, most tech programs – at least on the web development side – are horribly out of date.

It’s 2013.  Cell phones are everywhere, and the iPad and iPhone have revolutionized the web landscape.  Smartphone usage was up 81% in 2012, tablets will outsell notebooks in 2013, and 40% of time spent on the Internet is being spent on mobile devices.

Yet colleges and universities still teach Dreamweaver for building static websites and Flash for creating animation on the Web.  We’re not teaching much in the way of content management systems, like WordPress, Joomla!, and Drupal, when there’s no excuse for not building a site within this kind of framework.  We’re barely scratching the surface of mobile, if at all.  HTML5 and responsive design have not yet made it into the classroom.  Graphic designers are still predominantly being taught the world of print, even in the face of the dying newspaper, book, and magazine publishing industries.

Why should students enroll in these degree programs for an astronomical amount of money, only to be taught tech skills that are years out of date?  When they graduate, they don’t even have the skills they need to get the job.  Employers wind up teaching them the skills they really need to know, at a cost to the employer.  With so many great tutorials online, including free tutorials on blogs or on YouTube, and those behind a pay-wall like lynda.com, why wouldn’t people just opt to learn on their own?

Colleges and universities must do a better job of offering curricula that are up-to-date, relevant, and immediately applicable to a job after graduation.  Tech curricula can’t be treated like the curricula of the history department, for example.  Sure, history is always being made, but how often do you need to revisit the curriculum for teaching students about World War II?

Schools need to revise their timelines for reviewing curricula and find ways to add exciting, cutting-edge classes as required.  Schools can’t take a year or two to develop a new class.  After all, it’s possible that, by that point, technology has come and gone, has changed radically, or has expanded to new areas.

I’ve been thinking about this problem quite a bit, contemplating the best ways to teach college students cutting-edge skills straight off their arrival on campus.  Remember, they have 4 years to work on a degree, so what’s bleeding edge today is likely mainstream by graduation (or even out of date, which is another problem to work on!).

9.  How can we get young people excited about working with technology and pursuing careers in tech?

Science, engineering, and technology majors (I’ll just call them “techies”) suffer from an image problem.  Techies are poor dressers, lack social skills, have no idea what’s happening in pop culture, can’t get a date, wear thick glasses . . . the list goes on and on.  We don’t have a spokesperson to express that we aren’t all necessarily this way!

Consider Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and head of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City.  Dr. Tyson has made astronomy accessible to millions through his books and TV shows.  Dr. Tyson has a grounded speaking style, a terrific sense of humor, a love of science fiction, and an uncanny ability to frame astronomy in an interesting and exciting way, captivating the imagination of his audiences.

IT is something that happens mostly behind the scenes.  It’s mostly magical, and very few people ever consider how it works.  You plug a wire from the wall into the back of your computer, and web pages appear.  But where does that signal come from?  How does your page get delivered to your computer, and not delivered elsewhere?  How is it that a web page looks different on your phone versus your desktop computer?  Most people outside of the field never consider these questions, and many people don’t even find them interesting.  But others are intrigued by the magic of IT and want to know more about it.

How would Neil deGrasse Tyson talk about IT?  How would he make it exciting, interesting, and give audiences the irresistible urge to know more?  I think the answer lies there – in the marketing and presentation of IT to young people.

– Bridge Interview with Jen Kramer

For over twelve years, Jen Kramer has been educating clients, colleagues, friends and graduate students about the meaning of a “quality website.”  Jen develops sites that are functional, usable, accessible, and supportive of business and marketing goals.  She has built highly customized Joomla websites since 2005.

Jen is a lynda.com author with fourteen published titles, including the popular “Up and Running with Bootstrap” and “Web Site Strategy and Planning.”  She has written two books published by Wrox Press (a division of Wiley) – Joomla! Start to Finish: How to Plan, Execute, and Maintain Your Web Site and Joomla! 24-Hour Trainer.

Jen currently offers courses through Harvard Extension, Community College of Vermont, and the Center for Digital Imaging Arts at Boston University.  Jen earned a BS in Biology at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an MS in Internet Strategy Management at the Marlboro College Graduate School.

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