Forging Your Path as Women in Tech


Forging your path as women in tech is not without its challenges. And just because pathways have been blazed by those who came before, doesn’t mean you blindly follow. In fact, you might come to a fork in your metaphorical road and discover the road less travelled is where you want to head. Bravo. The most important thing is that you keep going.

Why are Debra Christmas and Kelley Irwin such fierce supporters not only of increasing the numbers of women in tech, but also ensuring that when they get there – they stay? Because they are two of those aforementioned trailblazers – with a combined 75 years spent working their way through the evolving world of tech.

Helping the Next Generation of Women and Girls Forge a Path in IT

Their goal in writing their book, Please Stay: How Women in Tech Survive and Thrive, was to recognize and support talented women in technology, inspire the broader community, and – perhaps most importantly – encourage the next generation of women to join them and their technology tribe.

  • To encourage girls to explore math and science and technology when young – in ways that are fun and challenging and rewarding.
  • To support women in their early technology careers, helping them stay and flourish.
  • And to not only embrace the women in tech, but also work to increase the percent of women studying computer science and joining technology careers from other avenues.

Path – A Way Beaten, Formed, or Trodden by the Feet of Persons or Animals.

How appropriate to think of a career for women in tech as a pathway that has been beaten. Beaten, or formed by blows, brings a visual image to mind that many women in tech can relate to, speak of, and feel.

Pathways are rarely straight, and can sometimes be burdensome. There might be stones to avoid lest you stumble, or overhanging foliage blocking your sightlines. For women in tech forging a career path, this analogy is bang on.

As we spoke about recently, there are many barriers that women in tech face as they set out on their journey.

It behooves the tech industry to work harder to break down those barriers. As technology continues to advance and evolve, the need for advanced programming and overall IT skills will only continue to grow. And competition will be fierce.

Companies that don’t start to invest NOW in nurturing “historically underutilized” talents – notably women – will fall behind. This isn’t rocket science – as a recent McKinsey study showed – but it does require actively creating pathways to encourage women and girls to “join the club,” so to speak:

  • Offer on-ramps for beginners.
  • Create a sense of belonging.
  • Focus on mentorship – build a community of supportive peers.
  • Ensure family, teachers, counselors, etc., are encouraging and inclusive.
  • Provide access to technology and computing experiences.

Our Stories

We spoke above about how pathways are rarely straight – and both Debra’s and Kelley’s tech pathways were strewn with risks taken, opportunities offered, and a fierce determination to make it. They feel fortunate and thankful for having taken the road less travelled. Two different people with two very different lives, and two very different paths as women in tech.

Debra: “I never intended to build a career in technology. It wasn’t even remotely on my radar. I couldn’t describe what a career in technology might have been, what types of jobs were available, what skills you needed to have, what the opportunities might be. I sort of fell into tech. So, my path was a serendipitous one; my personal yellow brick road of business and life lessons that still serve me well today. I became an assistant to a sales manager of a major window company. The job lasted six months. I made one more move that was a pivotal moment for my career into technology. I started to work for Savin, now owned by Ricoh. Photocopiers that did more than make copies. Those units were practically mini- computers and challenged my technical abilities. Then, in 1983, [I moved to] to a major high-tech solution provider. That was a career-defining move. My career with this high-tech firm spanned almost three decades, doing different things, in different cities – in between I was a Chief Information Officer in the public sector. The internet was just beginning to rear its head and we were figuring out what “online” meant. The opportunities to drive change and transformation were many, and that became my claim to fame as we transformed the public services offering with information and technology assets. And forty years later, I am still smiling to be part of this industry and an absolutely fascinating community of professionals.”

Kelley: “Numbers and patterns are a way of life for me; therefore, as I studied in school and thought of a future career, I knew I wanted to work with numbers. I decided to major in accounting. It seemed logical and aligned to my skills and interests. Then, I started taking classes. Three things happened that made me change my mind. First, I found the courses were not that interesting to me. I enjoyed the predictability of the methods but was missing joy in the process. Second, I realized all the required courses for my degree for the first two years started at 8:00 a.m., and I have been a night owl every day of my life. Third, I took a computer science course at The Ohio State University (OSU) that captivated me. The numbers, patterns, and sequences were all a part of the tools that resulted in a personal creation. I learned I could build a process or a moving object. And when it did not work, the debugging part was all about numbers and the order of things. That was my eureka moment; that sudden, unexpected realization of the solution to a problem I did not even know I was trying to solve. It was magical. I had found my path”.

Women in tech are strong, proud, and driving great change for their companies, their industries, and themselves.

If you’re considering a career in tech, but are intimidated by the many barriers you might face? Take a tip from Debra, “There are so many roads to this industry – I encourage you to put your foot on the yellow brick road and find your Oz.”

And please, come join our tribe!

Tips from the tribe:

  • Assess your natural talents and aptitude.
  • Seek opportunities to use your skills and demonstrate your competency.
  • Think about communication as a skill as it is invaluable in technology careers.
  • Understand that collaboration is a skill and working with others to solve problems and design solutions is key to useful technology outcomes.
  • Consider that technology solutions often help people, so your personal desire to make things easier and safer for people in general is a great asset in a technology career.