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How My Role Models Led Me to a Career in IT and Helped Me Create Work-Life Balance

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Susan Bligh shares how the roles models in her life—male and female, good and bad—helped her make the decisions that have enabled her to flourish in both her professional career and her personal life.
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If I ask my seven-year-old daughter what she wants to be when she grows up, she will tell me one of many answers, but it’s always the same theme – a nurse, a ballerina, a teacher, an artist. If she chooses to be any of those, I will swell with pride, but I also want her to know there are other choices. My answers were similar when I was seven too, until I turned eight and realized there were others doors I could open. This happened because of my first role model in IT – my mother.

When I was in third grade, my mother announced to my sister and me that she was going to get a university degree. This was relatively unheard of: a stay-at-home mother of two in her thirties, going back to university. What was even more astonishing was that she had decided to get a degree in Computing Sciences. This was a time when few families had home computers, and Computing Sciences was about as real to the average person as Star Trek.

I saw my mother put in countless hours in front of a computer, creating lines of code that would eventually make something as simple as a dot flash on and off on the monitor. I was hooked from the first time I saw the “Game of Life” run from something as simple as a combination of 0's and 1's. I also saw her organizing carpools so my sister and I could still take part in our competitive sports, helping us with our homework and teaching us valuable skills such as how to make our own healthy lunches.

My mother always told my sister and me that anything was possible if you work hard enough and make speed bumps out of any obstacles put in your way. When I was 16 and my girlfriends were spending their summers at the lake, I got a summer job working for a company that created software for realtors. I spent the summer learning about graphical interfaces, databases and coding. I took as many courses in high school as I could in computer programming; often I was the only female in the room. I always felt I had something extra to prove. The boys in my class expected me to ask them for help, but I wanted to show them they should be asking me for help.

As soon as I finished high school, I followed in my mother's footsteps and started my Bachelor of Science in Computing Sciences. Through my mother’s journey, I knew it would be difficult but possible.

After my first year in university, I got a summer student position at a company that created software for Stock Exchanges. I went in as a receptionist/file clerk, but as soon as they learned I could code, I was quickly moved to the programming department. As a 19-year-old blonde girl in the cube-land of male programmers, I had to prove to them I had something more to offer other than just being a young female that could check if their GUI was “pretty”. My first assignment was to make all the text boxes a consistent height and width for the entire software application. I spent months doing similar repetitive work before I decided I needed a way to show my company I had more to offer.

Other Role Models
My mother introduced me to a couple of women she thought I could learn from. One woman in particular gave me some incredible insight into the life of a female in a company that was 75% male. Although she was not a programmer, she was what I desired to become; she was a woman in a lead position who was also the mother to three wonderful children. I gleaned all I could from her, not just about her work but about how to balance being a female, wife, mother, employer and employee.

I asked her opinion on how to move past the monotonous work I was being given. She told me I needed to show them I had skills that were being overlooked and that I could add value to the team. She also gave me guidance on how to do this without coming across as someone who wasn’t willing to “pay their dues.” She encouraged me to find a problem my team had been trying to solve and think outside the box to come up with a solution. I reached out to my classmates and co-workers and worked through a few lunch hours. I managed to solve a coding problem that had been puzzling our team for a while. I gave credit to those who helped me and proved to my manager I was ready for more responsibility. At the same time, I gained respect with my co-workers, and since I shared credit I was not considered a threat.

I worked anywhere from 25-40 hour work weeks through my entire time in school. This was an incredible opportunity to learn from professionals, as well as start my resume early.

All my co-workers were men, and at school there was one female to every 15 males. Even 15 years after my mother took her degree, the field was predominantly male. In my second year, I had a female Teacher’s Assistant for one of my classes. She had finished her Computing Science degree and was working toward her masters. I developed a mentoring relationship with her. She shared techniques with me that she used during her degree to navigate through the male-dominated environment. One technique in particular was difficult for me, but proved to be quite valuable. She encouraged me to learn to love some of the social activities my male peers were involved with. Even if I would rather go home and read a novel, I should spend some time playing Nintendo and Playstation with my peers. At work, I learned how to play pool and foosball. By engaging in shared activities with my peers and coworkers I became a team player. I was invited more frequently in on discussions and my opinion seemed to hold more weight.

I also discovered being female meant that I was not threatening, and the men did not feel they had the need to compete against me. They were thrilled to share their knowledge with me and every chance I got, I asked questions .

After graduating with a degree in Computing Sciences and five years working as a programmer, I was ready for my next challenge. I got married and wanted to move into a field that allowed me to leverage my passion for technology and my skills as a communicator. I wanted to be a business analyst; the bridge between the technology and business worlds.

I asked a friend’s father who was a hiring manager for a large company to review my resume. He said to me, “If you get an interview and they notice your wedding ring make sure you make it clear to them that you will NOT be having babies anytime soon. You’re the prime age to be taking maternity leave.” I had a new challenge; I now had to compete for jobs as a newly married woman, and apparently that could be viewed as a hindrance in my career.

Again, my role models gave me great advice. I spoke to my mentors and my mother. I was told that being a wife and a mother added to my skillset, rather than taking away from it. I went into my interviews with that thought bolstering everything I said.  At one interview, I noticed the interviewer’s gaze sweep over my left hand. Instead of trying to hide the fact that I was newly married, I used my wedding as an example when asked if I had any project management experience. At the end of the interview, he told me that was the first time he’d ever thought of planning a wedding as project management experience. He then spent twenty minutes discussing his daughter’s upcoming wedding and all the issues he was experiencing. I had made a personal connection with him and in the end was offered the job.

I soon got hired in at a Health Care provider as an analyst. During my time at this company, I had my first child. My next challenge had started--the challenge of being a working mother. When I first went back to work, I struggled with working reduced days and how I felt it looked to my coworkers. I needed to pick up my daughter from day care so I was no longer free to work until 6 or 7pm if I wanted to. I felt that I would be overlooked for interesting projects and that the perception of my new time table was that I couldn’t pull my weight. After talking through my fears with a female colleague who had teenage children, I understood that these were just that – my fears. I feared these things, and until I actually let my new timetable affect my capability no one else shared my perceptions. As soon as I realized no one was actually treating me differently my fears subsided.  

After five years with that company, I made the move to the oil and gas as a business analyst, and I had a second child. Along with the skills from my previous jobs, as a mother I now have a tool belt full of other useful skills: time management, financial management, communication, scheduling, and patience. I knew my value to my company, and after my second maternity leave, I requested the option to work from home on Fridays so that I could see my children to school and meet the other parents and teachers.

The world has changed since I first started working, and men are much more involved in parenting. My male manager was supportive of my request, and with that one small change in my work week my life felt much more balanced. I no longer have to say no to play dates because I don’t know who the children or parents are, and my children look forward to each Friday when mommy does the drops off/ pick up from school.

My team supports SAP software used for oil and gas plant maintenance. This means that my co-workers are 90% male. The first day I started this job I was the only female in a room of twenty men, and about twenty years younger than most of them. When they started to talk about pigging pipes, compressors and isolation valves, I knew I had to leverage the skills I had learned earlier to my advantage. I put my pride aside and asked questions--lots of them. I showed vulnerability in my lack of knowledge, and the men were eager to teach me. Once again, I had a role model to help me navigate this mostly male environment—my father.

My father is a humorous man and taught me from a young age how to talk with men. He taught me how to understand sarcasm and jokes, and how not to bring emotion into heated conversations. I once needed to have an important conversation with a male co-worker about a project he and I were working on. I asked my father for advice on how to approach him about a sensitive topic. He advised me to stick to the facts and listen more than I speak. He knew me well, so the advice was well-suited; I needed to reign in my feelings and open myself up to his ideas. The approach worked and the conversation was very successful. It is important to me to have male mentors as they too have a lot to offer.

Being a Role Model to Others
I have taken a special interest in mentoring young women and encouraging others to find mentors. I get so much out of my mentors that I want to give back to the next generation. At work, I let senior managers know that mentorship relationships are important to me through my yearly goals. By making it part of my goals, I get buy-in from my management that it is important to them too and the relationship is supported. I’ve had several managers approach me asking if I would consider mentoring one of their new staff members. I’ve also helped co-workers find mentors for their teenage children.

Having a mother in the field as a role model has been a huge benefit. If you don’t have someone in your life that can be a mentor for you, find someone else. It is important to find mentors who have done something with their life that you are in awe of. In the days of social media, finding someone who is doing something interesting is easy enough. Find a blog that interests you or traverse through LinkedIn and ask for introductions. They don’t have to be triathletes, vice presidents or the city’s most frequent volunteer. They just need to be someone you admire, for any reason at all. They need to be someone you can learn from, and sometimes the people you least expect can be the person you learn the most from. One of the people I’ve learned the most from is a friend and old coworker who works in the Human Resources field. Her skillset and passions are about as far from mine as possible, yet I’ve learned so much about human nature from her. In workshops when I’m facilitating many people at one time, I’ve leveraged so many of the “soft skills” that our relationship has brought out in me.

Don’t forget to learn from people you may not admire as well. I once had a manager who was incredibly respected at work and was moving up the ladder at a rapid pace. However, she once told me in order to get ahead I should never talk about my family at work and should always be the first one in and the last one out of the door. She had no work/life balance, and her role as a mother was obviously not an asset to her but something that was to be hidden. I learned a lot from her about the person I knew I did not want to be.

I hope, if my daughter’s interests lie with technology, to provide the same guidance to her one day as my many role models have to me. Being a wife and mother and working full time is certainly a balancing act, but if you open yourself up to learning from others (including your children) it is a very rewarding and fulfilling experience. Navigating the waters of a career in technology and the challenges of being a working mother in a predominately male field has been a journey I would never trade.

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