Making a Difference - Interview with Melissa Zgola, MS, MA

BlogHer Original Post


Many of you, my dear peeps, already know that I'm in the technology field in my "real world" job.  So when BlogHer approached me with a chance to interview a fellow woman in the IT world and write about it, I jumped at the chance.  I absolutely love my career, my job, and the IT field, but it boggles my mind just how male-dominant this field is.

I think I'll start this off with a little story of my own.

About four years ago, long before Jon and I decided to have a little Peanut, but always knew that we'd have kids, I attended a conference for work.  This wasn't a conference for my business, but it was a conference in the IT field.  The conference had about eight thousand attendees from all over the U.S.  Eagerly, I signed up-- not only was this a perfect event to plan the next couple of years of our business infrastructure, but it was a great networking opportunity.

The day of the conference I arrived toward the end of the sign-up time, and as I was registering, I looked over to a clipboard that had a special event for the "women in IT" to sign up for a private lunch meet and greet.  The list had about four names on it.  I looked down the row of the registration desk and a handful more clipboards with the same sign-up sheet were staring back at me, with an equally low number on each one.  In a conference of eight thousand people, about forty of us were women.  The ratio hit me like a ton of bricks.

The following day, I attended the private luncheon with other women in IT.  They sat around the table, eating their sandwiches, and discussing just how difficult it was choosing a career in the IT field as a woman.  And I sat there, staring, mouth practically open.  Why?  Why was it so hard?  We had desk jobs, for the most part.  A lot of the skills required are very strategic or tactical.  The demand in our field isn't much different than others-- in fact, there are many other fields that are much more demanding and easily male-oriented.  IT offers such a wide variety of career opportunities that it was hard for me to generalize them so quickly and easily.

They talked about childcare, the sometimes odd hours, the hard deadlines, the tough demands of their bosses.  And I sat there, wondering how exactly was this any different than other jobs?  I have friends, none of whom are in the IT field, that have the same concerns as these women.  We are all concerned about our maternity leave, about coming back to work, about not being judged for being working moms, about keeping decent hours and spending time at home, about childcare, about being treated equally now that we were also someone's parent.  Was IT really so different?

As I sat there, boggled by the conversation taking place and the astounding ratios, I thought back to my experience in this IT path I've chosen.  I went to college as a comp sci major and attended classes with 350 other students, about four of whom were women.  Even back in those college days I saw, although did not clearly identify, the separation in the IT field.  With every class that I took I noticed that there were few, if any, women.  And not just the programming classes – the math, the sciences.  With every level the numbers continues to diminish.

As I spoke with Melissa Zgola, MS, MA, a professor at Capella University, I started to notice a very similar pattern.  Not only did she face the same issues within education, but she was discouraged from pursuing a career in IT.  And let me tell ya, IT isn’t exactly a field where you can pick up skills as you go along.  Most of the knowledge that one has in the field has to come from education, as well as trial and error.  There is a real math and science to most things and without the proper education, it’s hard if not impossible to succeed.

By sophomore year I decided to leave the comp sci major and concentrate on marketing, a degree I graduated with.  In my "real world" job I started off as an analyst but changed to the IT career within the first year.  In order to make the change, I had to go back and take a lot of classes- most of them strongly concentrated on the tasks that I needed to accomplish. Since then, I've had an amazing career, a ton of learning curves, and all male colleagues.   What was it about the technology world?!  And further-- what can I tell you today to encourage you to take a chance on it?

Today I'm still in a technology career, with a kid and one more on the way and I have to tell you-- it's a wonderful place to be.  I find that not only am I completely satisfied and intrigued by the challenges that I face at work every day, but I find that it provides me with the balance that I need.  My life isn't without its challenges, those faced by any working mom (and some faced by stay-at-home moms), but I wouldn't change it or choose a different path.

Melissa Zgola, MS, MA, a professor at Capella University, was kind enough to take the time to answer a lot of questions that I had.  

What led you to choose your career in IT?  

I know that this sounds cliché, but I was always fascinated by technology. From as far back as I can remember I loved the promise that technology offered.  I can remember being around eight years old and amazed with the Atari game console. The idea that someone could build a machine that allowed people to bring arcade games into our home, it was truly amazing to me. While most children my age would have been engrossed in playing the game, I was more interested in the mechanics that made it possible. I spent more time prying open the Atari game cartridges than I did actually playing the Atari.

I obtained my first computer at around eleven; it was a Commodore 64. It came with a telephone book-sized instructional guide, and although my mother couldn't get me to read my textbooks at that time, she couldn't drag me away from this enormous dictionary of computer commands. I read every single page of it and spent countless hours writing lines of code and analyzing the computer's reaction to them.

So I was naturally drawn to technology early in life, but I didn't choose a career in IT until I was nearing mid-twenties.  This was because I understood technology more as a hobby and less as a career option for me. Being a woman, not so inclined in mathematics, there wasn't much job security in IT.  I guess you could say that I really did buy into the notion that it was a world for men and that as a woman it offered very little job security.

Years later, the technology world's career paths began to broaden, positions in IT jobs became more varied and secure, and I realized my ability to make a real living in the field and so I went back to school

Why do you think you were coached out of this path? What were some barriers that you've had to cross in order to have a successful path in IT?  What other barriers did you meet during your education and afterwards when you were out in the "real world" as a female in the IT field?

Although I can't pinpoint the exact moment in which I obtained the courage to go back to school and completely change my career, I can say that if it were left up to societal ideology at that time, I would not be here today. As I explored the idea of making the major career change from Therapist to IT Specialist,  I spoke with friends, family, coworkers, and even my boss (who was a woman that I admired for her strength and tenacity), asking for their advice. They all, not completely to my surprise, discouraged me from going into the IT field. Still holding on to the fallacy that women could not compete in the male-dominated world of IT, and ignorant to the variety of opportunities that the field had to offer, not a single individual that I knew at that time supported this decision. Lucky for me, I am pretty competitive in nature and so when someone says "you can't," I need to prove that "I do". 

My two years of attending school to obtain my master’s degree in Information Sciences were much more valuable than all seven of my previous years of college combined. More important than introducing me to the complex language and concepts of IT, those years made me aware of the barriers that I was certain to be faced with, in my efforts navigating this male-dominated world. It was through these years that I learned most of the strategies that I would later have to apply in the real world in order to be successful as a woman in IT.

My instructors, my advisors, and most of my peers were men, and so the first barriers that I had to overcome were my feelings of fear and isolation. I felt anxious and alone beginning a new career in a new school, and although this is typical (especially on the first day of the class), one aspect of my schooling that I hadn't expected was the terrifying reality that I also represented the very small minority in the class. Being a woman in this sea full of men felt terribly isolating. This is a feeling that I would later be challenged with again in the "real world" as so many IT positions are male-dominated as well.

I learned to cope, by talking to as many women as I could find. I actively searched for female managers and mentors in my field. It was difficult, but it was something that I knew I needed to do to survive. From these women I gained such valuable insight, and this is actually how I obtained my first job in IT. I sent an e-mail to a woman who had worked for the school in an IT management position and explained my situation. I asked her if she would be willing to give me advice. Not only did she offer me great insight over the years such as "learn to communicate as men do," but she also hired me in her work-study program and mentored me throughout my education. After I graduated, she hired me into my first full-time job in IT and this is not the only job that I have obtained through networking with other women in my career!  So for me, I just can't express how important it is to network and to reach out to other women in IT for insight, guidance, and support.

I also searched and participated in female student and leadership groups that were offered at the school. These groups were always empowering and informative. In fact, even now at Capella we have a Women in Leadership panel that meets and discusses different topics on a regular basis, and so I still participate in these empowering and insightful activities today.

Another barrier that I experienced in school that mirrored real life and offered a valuable lesson for me was that men and women communicate differently.

This is something that I often heard, but didn't truly understand until I was forced to collaborate on projects where I was the only woman on a team full of men. I learned very early in my education and still apply this concept today, that in order to be effective in a male-dominated environment, a woman's communication needs to be adaptable. I have learned to listen and pay close attention to how a person communicates and adapt my communication to meet the needs of that other individual. This is a good rule of thumb for anyone, but particularly important when working in a male-dominated environment. This is also where my counseling degree comes in handy. If I find myself frustrated or overwhelmed with a particular dialogue, I take a break and take time to examine what is being said to determine the motivations and agendas behind the words.

In my experience, these circumstances have been much less prominent than the many rewarding experiences that I have had in my career.  Through these challenges, the key for me has been to remain confident and educate my peers to help pave an easier path for women in IT.

You mentioned that there were no female students in your classes, but that you had a female advisor that walked you through the experience. Could you offer any guidance to other females battling this male-dominant field?  Kind of some survival tips, if you would, to get through it.

My first career choice was a safe one. Psychology was a field that offered many opportunities for women and I knew that I could remain in that comfortable field for many years. Although I was generally satisfied working as a therapist, it wasn't until I started to take risks (and dismiss the gender role stereotypes) that I found success in my career. 

So with that... I say take risks! Don't just settle for a career because of gender stereotypes.

If you feel isolated, reach out to others. Find support in a peer or in other women in the industry.

Attend women-in-leadership special topic groups, panels, and conferences.

Use your uniqueness to your advantage. Often, you will be remembered for being the only woman in a group of men. Make it count!

Empower yourself with knowledge. Learn how and why males communicate differently than women and apply this understanding to develop adaptive communication.

Have faith in your skills and knowledge. Remain strong.

I'm SURE that you feel that education plays a huge role in succeeding in this field-- could you give some more information on this?  If I were considering the IT field as a student (early on or to change a career), what advice would you offer? 

Yes, I do feel that education plays a large role in succeeding in IT, but not just because I am a faculty member. ;)  When I ask my students to explain their motivations for obtaining a degree, one of the most common answers that I get is "I want to ensure myself opportunity for advancement in my company."

The IT industry is no longer limited to just three areas of expertise: computers, programming, and network.  As technology advances, more complex layers are being added to our existing infrastructures and new sophisticated areas of expertise are being introduced to our field.

Therefore, to be competitive in today's industry, IT individuals require a breadth of knowledge expanding several areas of specialization, and a comprehensive and vast set of skills. 

For example, mobile application development is an area that is fairly new to the IT world and high in demand. In order to be able to develop the most effective mobile application, an individual must have an understanding of mobile application development, mobile network infrastructures, security infrastructures, and the business goals which this application is intended to address.

Also, specific business goals are driving the development of IT systems and infrastructures more than they ever have in the past. As IT specialists you are likely to find yourself interacting with stakeholders, training users, and motivating change. Because of this, companies are searching for individuals who can display a strong set of soft skills (e.g. communication and team collaboration) as well.

In our ever-changing IT world, achieving advanced levels of education also displays that you have a drive and commitment to learn and grow.

What are some paths in IT? I know that there are MANY options in IT these days, but I feel like a lot of people think that IT = fixing computers or programming.  Could you offer some options?

Today’s IT industry focuses on leveraging technology to meet business agendas.  We are identifying business problems and determining the collaboration of people necessary to develop systems and processes to act as solutions.  The focus for IT employees has shifted greatly. Although knowledge of technology is still of vital importance, softer skills such as communication and collaboration are weighted much heavier than ever before.  The current IT employee is involved in more than just fixing, administrating, and developing systems. They can be found within virtually any area of the business, gathering requirements from users, managing projects, negotiating contracts, conducting risk analyses, training staff, creating policies, and participating in the development of the business architecture. Even our system technicians require sophisticated communication skills, as they have become the front line for empowering users to embrace change.

This means that there are many more opportunities for women in the industry.

Those who are considered IT specialists are those individuals who analyze, architect/plan, consult, design, develop, manage, program, support, engineer, or administrate a variety of different systems, people, processes, and technology.

As you can see, this is quite a broad list of skills!

These IT specialists can be found under a broad range of titles including Project Manager, Product Manager, Business Analyst,  Quality System Assurance Analyst, Chief Information Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Information Technology Manager, Information System Director, Computer Technician, Software Architect, Software Engineer, Programmer, Database Developer, Database Administrator, Computer Security Specialist, Web Administrator, Web Developer, Mobile Application Engineer, Mobile Application Architect,  Network Administrator, Network Engineer, System Administrator, and System Analyst.

Again, women have many more options to choose from today.

Why do you feel that IT is so male-dominant?  What can we, as women already in IT, do to change that for the future?

The options for women in IT today are endless and women of all types and experiences have a place in IT. IT is business and business is IT, and we need to educate more women on this.

Back when I considered entering this field, there was a perception that you couldn't be a sweet, personable girl and succeed in technology, and today, this just isn't the case. We need to educate more women on the many faces of IT. 

Capella University is a rigorous and supportive learning community with award-winning programs in healthcare, education, counseling, business, and IT. 

At Capella, you will develop the knowledge to go further in your career and to help others reach their potential.

To see what Capella University has to offer, visit www.capella.edu

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