Transcription M Interview
Interviewer Jenna Gretsch
July 2009
 PDF Version

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are solely those of the interviewee and interviewer and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of any employers.

M is a senior system administrator who has worked in the industry for over 20 years. Her work has always involved Unix/Linux servers and open source software. She's shy about the printed word and prefers to remain anonymous for this interview.

JG:  Welcome M let's start with talking about what you currently do for work.

M:  I'm a Unix System Administrator.

JG:  What does it mean to be a System Administrator?

M:  It's taking care of machines specifically running the Unix operating system, multi-user operating system. It's always kind of amazing to me that it employs many people in full time work, being busy all day everyday, five days a week-plus, just to keep the machines running, but it actually does. It's kind of a catch-all job -- building physical machines, like everything from the setup, to installing the operating system and the software and keeping it up to date, and automating things that need to be automated, and improving processes, and just anything needed to keep the machines working.

JG:  What might a typical day be for you, if you have such a thing?

M:  Yeah, well it depends on if it's one of those days where stuff breaks or a more routine day. First of all there's always catching up with email because there's tons of email. And then some people who are a little bit better at this than me, catch up with their mailing lists and websites as well, I try to keep that to a minimum because it's just too much information overload. Then, I usually just have a long queue of things I need to get done. We have a trouble ticketing system at work so there are always lots of trouble tickets and then I have my own to-do list that may or may not be in the tickets. A typical day is just kind of trying to make progress on various projects. Usually the projects are just trouble shooting a problem, or building a server, or building the software on it.

JG:  How did you get started in computers?

M:  When I was in my second year of college my housemate told me that the computer lab at the business school was hiring and she had worked there, or maybe a friend of hers had worked there, and they were hiring people to work part time in the computer lab and help the business students get their computer lab work done. I needed a job, I was working at the library and that was ok, but it wasn't great and I applied and that was that. I worked there the whole rest of my time at college and they offered me a full-time job when I graduated.

JG:  Was it helping in all kinds of OS's or were you specifically in Unix right off the bat?

M:  No it wasn't Unix in the computer lab, it was definitely Windows machines. I can't remember if there were Macs, it might have been all Windows. So it was just helping people with printer jams and telling them how to bold something in, WordPerfect, or helping them figure out how to do something in Excel -- it was just supporting --

JG:  User front-end applications?

M:  Yeah just user front-end applications. And then I also got a part time job at the business school computer lab in their actual data center. That was total old-school tape operator work. They did have a mainframe, so it was a vax/vms mainframe and I was changing nine-inch tape reels and watching the backup console and all of that stuff.

JG:  Do you think that was what led you to becoming a system administrator?

M:  Yeah that was definitely what led on to more advanced work because that was a multi-user operating system. But I think it was a combination of the two because I enjoyed both parts.

JG:  So in the data center were there Unix machines?

M:  No that was a Vax. I guess maybe it was a little behind the times, I'm not really sure, but Unix was kind of a new thing then. There was a guy that brought in a Unix box on the staff and it was like a new newfangled thing.

JG:  What were your earliest childhood experiences that would have pointed you in the direction of computing? Or do you think there were such things, either language acquisition or?

M:  I did actually have experience with computers earlier because we had a computer lab in my high school and we got to learn BASIC.

JG:  Was that a requirement or you did it as an elective?

M:  I don't remember but I remember liking it. I don't think we had too many requirements in my high school so I probably took it because I wanted to. I know I took a summer class, and I don't remember why anymore but I took a summer class in Fortran at the local -- I don't remember what it was -- I think it was like a career center or something. It was very outdated because I got to learn Fortran on a punch-card machine and that was antique at the time and I'm really glad I had that experience. I enjoyed that class a lot too. But I didn't have a personal computer until I went to college. I had always done my work on a typewriter.

JG:  What was that first personal computer?

M:  Well I didn't buy one but I got to use a personal computer in the labs. I'm sure it was a Windows machine, I don't really remember.

JG:   But it wasn't Unix, it wasn't command-line based?

M:  No, I didn't see that until I started working in the computer lab.

JG:   So was it this happenstance that made you fall into computers as a career path or what do you think was the reason? Because you didn't study computers right?

M:  Yeah, I was a history major although I didn't really know what I wanted to study; I just sort of took a lot of different classes and enjoyed myself in college and wound up in history as a sort of catch-all major. But I definitely thought I was a humanities person. I liked science and math but I didn't feel very good at it. I took some biology and math classes but I felt I was only going to get so far with that. I never expected to try and go into that field.

I feel like it was luck. I got the job, I got exposure to computers and I really enjoyed it. I hadn't expected to follow it as a career trajectory but it just worked out and as long as I was enjoying myself I was going to keep doing it.

JG:  Do you think that's a large part of what keeps you there, your enjoyment?

M:  Yeah absolutely. I mean it has other practical benefits now that I'm an adult. It's a good job. It's relatively easy to find a job in the field compared to some other fields, it pays well, but I also enjoy it.

JG:  Do you think if it didn't have those other aspects you'd stay in it?

M:  Well I really enjoy having a mentally challenging job. It would take a lot for me to not want to do it. I mean, if it paid really horribly and it was really hard to find a job and there were plentiful jobs available in something else that was reasonably fun and challenging work, then yeah of course I might consider something else. But generally I think it's a really good thing to do for a living so it would have to be alot less appealing for me to think that I want to do something else. I've thought about doing something else but it's mostly because I would rather not have to work so many hours. I've thought about finding something else to do that was just less time consuming because one thing about system administrator type jobs is they're pretty much 24/7, so it's not like you can ever stop worrying about it.

JG:  What do you think is the most demanding aspect of your job?

M:  Trying to keep up with new technology -- keep learning.

JG:   That's also a driving force though right because you say you're interested in having a mentally challenging job so I assume that's part of the mental challenge?

M:  Yes, it's the good and bad thing about the job.

JG:   What do you love most about the job -- besides the mental challenge are there other aspects?

M:  I'm trying to think of how to put this into words succinctly. The computer world is kind of a fun little world. I've been lucky and always worked for places where I think what the company is doing is really great. It's a fun area to work in, and it's an area over my work trajectory that's been growing, so that's fun too. It's kind of a cool work culture. I can't really speak to other work cultures because that's what I've done for my whole working life, but it's generally pretty smart people who --- what's the right buzz word -- it's sort of a knowledge-based economy, for lack of a better way to put it. If you contribute people can see that you're contributing, and that can be a burden but it's a good thing too.

JG:  Do you contribute to the overall computer community outside of your work in terms of coding projects or things like that?

M:  No I don't do that kind of thing, it's just been through my job.

JG:  Have you ever had a desire to do that?

M:  Yeah I thought about it and my boss at my previous job suggested that I might want to consider open sourcing the programming project that I was working on. I've never really wanted to do that and I don't know exactly why. I guess some people might be interested in the community part but since I'm not an active participant in that it doesn't really draw me. And honestly I've always felt like I have enough on my plate with work.

JG:  Was it a conscious decision when you were looking for jobs and as you were progressing through your career to stay in open source or can you talk about your commitment to open source and what that means to you?

M:  I don't know how much I chose it or --

JG:  Well it sounds like you fell into it by luck but then you must have made some decisions along the way because you could have become a system administrator on the Microsoft platform.

M:  Well as you're probably aware there does tend to be a lot of -- I mean I'm not super religious, it's not like I don't ever want to touch a closed source system or don't ever want to use close sourced software, I'm not extremely dogmatic about it. But I do think that even if it was just a historical accident that allowed for open source software to be able to happen, I think it's a great thing. I do think in general that if it's open it allows for more people to kind of do Q-C on the code. I guess I have a prejudice that it's often going to lead to a better product. So I'm happy to be a part of that.

It also has the whole community aspect of not being about making a profit which is wonderful if it can happen. I understand also that there's the reality out there of people trying to make a living, but there have been a lot of success stories of people actually being able to survive on open source and I think it's great that people have been proven right that it's possible to do.

JG:  Do you think there's a particularly male-dominated community with open source?

M:  I don't know if I can be really authoritative about that or not since I'm not a real strong participant in the open source community, I mean I'm a consumer and supporter of open source software and products. So I can sort of generalize and handwave but I can't speak from personal experience deeply. But yes, like the rest of the computer industry it seems to be pretty male dominated. I don't really know why that is. It's hard to say. I mean in general I don't know why there are more men than women in the computer industry. I think there are various different things going on. I think there used to be more women and the numbers are actually dropping.

JG:  Yes and that's actually something that is particularly occurring inside open source.

M:  Yeah, I don't know why there's the disparity with open source. I think when the computer industry got going it was a new thing. I mean you couldn't get a computer science degree, the major didn't exist. It had the reputation, especially I guess for sort of open source homebrew-style, "grow your own" situations -- where it had the reputation of being somewhat of a freak and outsider culture, which I really appreciate. And I think that made room for women. My impression is that as it became more standardized and something with money associated with it, that corporations wanted a part in -- companies started getting their own webpages and software became big business -- I think it naturally started to mirror the mainstream business worlds as well and be a little bit less freakish and probably a little less welcoming to women and any other kind of outsiders. Other than that I don't know. I don't want to put too much weight on differences between men and women. A lot of that is social and cultural but it is an interesting thing. I mean I'm involved in sports and I see the physiological differences so I don't know if there are also brain differences. I mean I'm willing to believe that statistically overall there might be a male aptitude for some of the skills that come in handy in the computer field but I think the computer industry is big enough and there are enough different types of jobs in there that require enough different types of skills that even if there was some brain aptitude difference that doesn't really explain it.

I was thinking about this before the interview and I do know a lot of guys in the computer industry that were interested in computers early on. They were definitely into setting up their own stuff as kids or young adults. Most of the women I know in the computer industry got into it kind of late and kind of sideways, the same way I did. I don't think it's a difference that you can't recover from, but it's definitely a difference in how people get into it. One thing about the computer industry, well it's probably true about any skilled occupation, there's no substitute for time and experience and people who start playing around with it really early, if nothing else just have a sense of the history of the evolution of the field that's hard to replace.

JG:  That's obviously very true for the pressure socially for bearing children and the weight of that falling on women. If one does it in the usual biological timeframe that puts a lag on one's ability to participate in the computer industry. There's a lot of theory that says that open source requires a lot of free time on top of one's career in order to be able to participate.

M:  You know that might be true but I don't know. Most of the people I know seem to be having children kinda late and programming, if you're specifically talking about the open source software programmers -- it's a young person's skill. Not that people can't keep doing it as they get older but it's a really high intensity brain thing that I think kicks in early. So I think a lot of the people that are participating in open source programming are probably before the age where they might be thinking about having kids. But that's a huge generalization and like I said I'm not the best person to make statements about that.

JG:  So then for your field, what do you think is the biggest impediment for women entering system administration?

M:  Are you talking about entry level, like entering early on in their career?

JG:  I would say the more advanced level is what I'm getting at because you're at a higher level of system administration. So like what are the impediments for moving up the chain?

M:  Yeah I think it's just a hard field to break into late. I don't know if that's specifically true for women, like I've said I've just seen a lot of women on the trajectory where they don't get into it early and it's hard to make up for lost time. I don't know what to say about the impediments to women getting into it early, just to get into it early at the entry level so that they can move up and become senior administrators.

JG:  In the groups that you've been in have you been a major part of the decision making process in the technical aspects?

M:  I think I've had the opportunity. I don't think my personality lends itself to that. Like I'm happy to be an implementer. I don't tend to enjoy the design architect role as much. I've done some of that, and in certain spheres I really enjoy it but I haven't been really strongly driven by wanting to be in that position.

JG:  There is sometimes a tendency in groups for the women to be relegated to the role of mediator versus technical lead and a lot of that can be the group dynamic assumptions about the social role of women. Do you think you've ever fallen under that or do you think it's of your own volition that you've chosen a less technical lead.

M:  Well first of all let me back up, I don't think I've chosen the less technical role. I was making the distinction between the architectural design, vendor choice decision role. You know like those industry questionnaires that you get from vendors where they say "do you have the decision making role in designing your infrastructure and purchasing equipment". I haven't always had that architectural role. But I've always wanted and tried and generally had a highly technical role. So those are different things in my mind.

In terms of the stereotypical idea that women are better at mediating and communicating -- I have done various tech support jobs, I've had job duties that involve going and talking to end users and bringing their feedback back to the rest of the technical team. And I don't know, I've never thought that was because it was a stereotypical female thing. I mean when I did high level tech support there were plenty of guys in the group as well and there didn't seem to be a really strong distinction there. I think what it is, is that in the computer industry generally it's a more scarce skill than you might expect to find people that can talk about technology in an understandable way to people that are not technical. That's kind of a treasured skill.

JG:  It is a treasured skill and it's a more interdisciplinary skill which computers doesn't seem to be but the problem with it is that a lot of times that role is relegated to women because of the stereotype that they're expected to be able to interface with an end-user, where on the other hand there's the "too clever" male programmer who can't have any contact with the user.

M:  Right. Well what I was going to say was that it's a treasured skill and a hard skill to find but the hard to find part is finding somebody who has very strong technical chops and is able to do that. I think the relegation part is that people tend to specialize or they'll find their specialty in their area of expertise and it's very hard to find somebody who can keep a foot in both camps. And maybe it's a stereotypical thing but also because women maybe come into a computer career later or from another field, they're more likely to have the multidisciplinary skills which is great and a valuable thing but then also counts against them in terms of being able to be a technical heavy hitter, it's very hard to do both. The computer industry is a knowledge job so it's very much merit based in terms of your technical contributions and so I think it is a tricky dynamic where -- I mean I can see the dynamic where somebody that is good at the soft skills, if that pulls them away from being a technical contributor, say like in the open source world, say like somebody who takes on the marketing aspect, if that's going to pull them away from sitting there writing code at three in the morning then it's going to devalue them in the sphere of people who do focus on that.

JG:  Where I'm stumbling though is the sort of essentialized quality that's being given by what you're saying because then you have the assumption being reinforced that there are less technical roles. Like being a technical writer or something. I mean I question the ideas that surround what being a "technical heavy hitter" is. That it's less technical to be a writer than to be a frontline programmer or something like that.

M:  Well I feel that it's maybe a terminology thing, maybe technical isn't the right word. I was using technical very specifically like programming or database design. And it sounds like you're using it in terms of, is the job highly skilled. Like I'm not trying to say that being a technical writer or even a marketer is not highly skilled, like they all involve skill. But if you're speaking specifically to computer skills like programming skills for example, those are separate areas of expertise and somebody is not necessarily going to have both. Or, if they spend time on one it's going to take time away from the other.

JG:  Have you experienced gender discrimination in your job?

M:  I feel like I've been really lucky. I don't think I've ever experienced like unfriendly discrimination. I don't think I've ever gotten ill-will or "this isn't your area you don't belong here" -- this is a guys thing or we don't want women involved. I've never had that level of problems. Probably the closest thing I've ever seen -- and this has only happened to me once or twice in my career -- some very friendly, very nice, well meaning, probably older or middle aged guy who is just surprised. Like "wow you know how to open a piece of hardware". It's not in their experience so it's a surprising thing to them. It's hard for me to take offense at that because I don't feel that it's with malicious intent and if any thing their reaction is kind of meant as a compliment, but it's a little bit clueless because they're surprised and admiring that I or some other woman has the skills. I feel like it's a lack of experience, but they're not trying to make a unfriendly environment for me or push me out of a job.

JG:  Yeah I've had other discussions about that, and we've always labeled that as a "when they discover you're a woman" moment. It can be just a reflection of reality because they're just not accustomed to having skilled women in their presence but it can also become very demoralizing if you run up against it again and again.

Do you have an awareness of needing to ask for help at work?

M:  I actually think about not asking for help too much. I think more so in this job than other jobs because I feel a bit more junior compared to my coworkers at this job than I have at some of my previous jobs. So some of it is specific to this job. I mean I think since I am an anomaly as a female system administrator I do feel pressure to try and be on equal footing with my co-workers and of course everybody feels that pressure whether they're male or female, but it's just an additional little wrinkle there personally because to some degree I represent an unusual statistic. But in general it's a very independent, stubbornly trouble-shooting kind of job and so people do pride themselves on being able to track down the problem, so I want to be able to hold my own and not just default to asking for somebody else to fix the problem for me. So I am conscious of that. There's definitely a little bit of a balance there because a lot of times it's helpful to be collaborative and I don't know if that's -- I mean honestly I haven't worked with enough women versus men to be able to generalize whether women are going to tend to be more collaborative on a typical problem versus men. But I think it's savvy to recognize that the overall culture of the job description is that you can get your own work done without having to -- well this is true for any job -- you don't want to put all of the burden on your coworkers.

JG:  Are you the only woman in your group now?

M:  Yes

JG:  Out of a group of how many?

M:  Well my group is only five or six people. But within all of the technical classifications within the company, there is only one other technical woman.

JG:  Do you think within this context it affects either gender, the discrepancy between either your awareness of needing to ask for help or their awareness of providing the answer or advice?

M:  I don't know if it matters. I don't know if people are going to evaluate me more negatively or stringently because I'm a female. And honestly I can't worry about that because it's not under my control and I can't really know. And that's a subset of generally not really being able to know how your co-workers feel about you. I try to do what I think is appropriate for my job so I don't want to excessively be asking for help because I want to be a strong contributor to my team. I guess that's my little extra point of pressure and pride, that I want to be an equally strong contributor so that's there's no question as to whether gender plays into it, but I don't think that I -- I mean when I'm worrying about whether I'm a strong contributor or whether I'm asking for help or being too collaborative, I don't usually think about whether it's because I'm female because it's counterproductive for me and I don't really want to go there, trying to second guess what my co-workers might be thinking because it's kind of not my problem.

JG:  One thing I've noticed among high tech women is to have a very strong idea of individual autonomy and the idea that gender doesn't really have anything to do with their individual choices, do you have any thoughts about this?

M:  Well it's a tricky thing, it's hard -- there's definitely a disparity there, women are still more rare than men in most areas of computers and I definitely see it. There are times when I look around and see that I'm the only woman and it in some ways matters and in some ways doesn't. Since it's a skilled job there's part of it where "if you have the skills, you have the skills" and it doesn't matter, but then of course the frustrating part about that is that if it's just all about the skills then why is there this huge disparity? I'm not trying to say that gender doesn't make a difference. I feel like you have to have a strong personality and be comfortable with not being part of the typical case, or typical situation, to make it in a field where you are going to be the anomaly. I'm not saying there's no barrier. You have to be able to overcome that. I don't know what it is about me or the other technical women that have let them do that. I can deal with being the anomaly in other areas of my life; whether it's because I'm female or some other situation in my life, I think I have a strong enough personality or tough enough skin or whatever it might be that I'm willing to deal with that level of adversity. And there are different adversities and different challenges in various job situations and other life situations, and I can deal with these ones for this job and I don't think that's going to be true for all women. I'm not trying to say that it's not a challenge, it's just really hard to say where the difference comes from. Since I've generally had a good experience and haven't felt like I've experienced unfriendly discrimination -- I mean the only thing that I've experienced is being unusual, which is a challenge you know. I mean that's a challenge right there. I'm trying to answer your question. I don't think gender hasn't had any affect on me, I just feel like it's been something I've dealt with as an aspect of the career.

JG:  What do you think about the funnier aspects, I don't know if it's really funny because I never know when to stop laughing and start crying, but the gendered idea of the end user in language. Stuff like user's jargon being written with "poor aunt sally" or some other older female, some woman who is completely technically inept. Or something like when they're talking and they say "this guy sends an ack to that guy".

M:  Oh you mean referring to the computer as the guy?

JG:  Yeah or other examples of gendered language usage.

M:  Yeah well I think I was telling you the story of one of my co-workers describing the protocol exchange or the application flow of control between one computer and another and referring to it as "this guy sends a packet to this guy and this guy replies to this packet" and I found it kind of funny, but it's not like it would have necessarily been better to refer to the computers as "she" like they do with ships. I guess what is funny is that they bother to use a gendered pronoun at all since there is an "it" in the English language. And I think it's sort of like personalizing the exchange as a conversation so they want to use a person- gendered pronoun. I mean that, I just found kind of funny. It's not specific to the computer job it's more the whole gendered-english-language phenomenon. That doesn't bother me so much. What bothers me more is the condescending "mom with her computer" or "grandmom with her computer" -- and there's definitely a lot of that. I mean, not as much of it with the people I've worked with just because like I said I think I've been lucky to work with fairly progressive open-minded guys for the most part that will tend to catch themselves on that kind of thing -- either by not saying it or saying it and realizing that it's wrong. -- Again it's one of those tricky things where stereotypes are stereotypes because they're based on people's statistical experience of reality, so it wouldn't be a common stereotype if people hadn't experienced it as true. But the problem I have with it is first of all people are quick to jump to the stereotype and forget that there are a lot of exceptions and when they jump to the stereotype it reinforces it. I try not to participate in that kind of thing. I only go so far in trying to change people, because it's hard to change people.

JG:  Have you ever had any women technical managers?

M:  Once

JG:  Has the feedback you've received from any of your managers tended to be more process oriented or technical?

M:  You mean compared to the feedback my co-workers might get?

JG:  No just in general.

M:  I actually think I have gotten a lot of feedback about the type of help I would like in becoming more technically skilled. There have been times where I've gotten the feedback that I would do well at a job that was -- you know, like "if you wanted to go into management or technical sales I think you'd be great" -- but I don't think I was getting that type of feedback because they were steering me away or because they were not seeing me as a technical person. It's always been my personal choice that I wanted to take the more technical fork in the road if possible.

JG:  Do you have any ideas about how to improve the ratio of women to men in the field? Earlier you were talking about getting them in earlier, is there anything else?

M:  Well I was lucky enough to be able to apprentice my way in, I've learned what I needed to learn on the job for all of my jobs. I think there should be more of that, you know giving people a chance. If they can step up to the plate and work really hard and learn it's a great thing. I mean, that's tough. We recently made the decision to not hire somebody in that circumstance because we needed somebody who was beyond the stage of still needing to apprentice, but I think there are a lot of jobs and a lot of companies where there is the possibility to let somebody grow. I think that's a good idea in general and a great idea for women.

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