Let’s all agree: the gender gap in tech is more than a pipeline problem.
Efforts to eliminate the gender gap must include supporting women who have risen above the barriers to entry and are already part of the field.
And that support must come in multiple forms. Women in our field need funding for professional development. They need guilt-free time away from work and family to invest in their professional selves. They need encouragement from colleagues, mentors, supervisors and others who play influential roles in their career paths and in the likelihood they will remain in the industry.
Women in tech need to know they are supported, they are valued, and they are part of the innovative field of tech because they are talented and capable—not because of luck or circumstance.
This year, the Women in IT Networking at SC (WINS) program brought eight women to Salt Lake City to be part of the team that builds SCinet, the high-performance network created from the ground up for the purpose of the annual Supercomputing Conference. SCinet is powered this year by 206 volunteers from 18 countries around world, and 36 of those volunteers are women.
The WINS program is funded by the National Science Foundation with supplemental funding from the Department of Energy’s Energy Sciences Network (ESnet) to enable additional participants. Both organizations award the funds as a means for addressing the prevalent gender gap that exists in information technology, network engineering and high performance computing.
The WINS program provides multiple forms of support: funding for travel to the conference, time away for a unique professional development opportunity and an abundance of support.
The 2016 WINS recipients are Angie Asmus of Colorado State University, Denise Grayson of Sandia National Labs, Indira Kassymkhanova of ESnet, Julie Locke of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Kali McLennan of the University of Oklahoma, Amber Rasche of North Dakota State University, Jessica Shaffer of the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Julia Staats of CENIC. By the conclusion of SC16, these women will have spent three weeks learning from and working with their teams to build SCinet.
Building SCinet from the ground up: ‘Grad school for network engineers’
The SCinet experience is a professional development opportunity unlike any other in the world. Some volunteers fondly refer to it as “grad school for network engineers.” Much of the learning happens on the fly as the team builds the network.
Julie Locke is a network professional at Los Alamos National Laboratory and member of the fiber and edge teams for SCinet. “Before I thought of applying for WINS, I read the description about SCinet and thought it would be awesome to be able to see this network being built from the ground up—to see it from cradle to grave,” Locke said. “The most fun I’ve had was going up on the boom lift to hang fiber from the rafters. I’m scared of heights, but the harness gave me a sense of security. It’s something I haven’t done before.”
She and the fiber team placed more than 56 miles of fiber in the Salt Palace Convention Center in preparation for SC16.
“SCinet gives you not only the ability to gain knowledge in your own field – whichever area of networking you have an experience in – but also it allows you to broaden your skills by experimenting with various equipment from competing vendors,” said Indira Kassymkhanova, network engineer at ESnet and member of the SCinet routing and devops teams. “You can compare different operating systems and collaborate with other teams, which in turn gives you the ability to see the final picture of how SCinet brings it all together.”
She added that it is an opportunity to collaborate with other professionals from the advanced networking community. In her case, many of these collaborators are people with whom she interacts virtually, but only through SCinet has she had the opportunity to meet them in person.
Julia Staats, an associate core engineer at CENIC and a member of the SCinet devops team, said her team also has held some informal training sessions to exchange information from their areas of expertise. “I work with routing, fiber and wide area networking at CENIC. I want to get more into devops, software-defined networking and network automation because that’s where the field is going,” Staats said. She said the
information exchange with her team felt like a crash course on applications, devops tools and scripting.
Jessica Shaffer is a network support engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a member of the SCinet routing team. The routing team coordinates closely with other SCinet teams to test circuits and fiber, and fine-tune network configurations in preparation for SCinet to go live. According to Shaffer, the routing team is an enthusiastic, close-knit group.
“We all come together with different experiences and backgrounds, but we share an interest in networking,” she said. “Everyone pulls their weight. We jump in and fill gaps, and we actually compete for routing tickets. We have to scan the ticketing system constantly to be able to claim one—to be able to trunk this VLAN, or go to the data rack and patch something in.”
Her team’s enthusiasm is contagious—and common among all of SCinet.
“The work is so enjoyable that it doesn’t feel taxing, even though we’re putting in long days,” said Kali McLennan. “Even problem points, which take time to resolve, are not frustrating. I feel like we’re making progress and I’m gaining a lot of knowledge and new skills working with equipment that I have not had the opportunity to work with back at my university.”
Encouragement and support are key
McLennan is a system administrator at the University of Oklahoma and member of SCinet’s WAN transport team. She said support and encouragement from leadership at her home organization was a main reason she applied for the WINS program.
Denise Grayson is a cyber security analyst at Sandia National Labs in California. A mentor in her department who has participated in SCinet for multiple years convinced her it is a unique opportunity that can expand her skillset.
“I initially thought that because high performance computing isn’t my area of focus, that was a reason not to do it. But that turned out to be my reason to apply,” Grayson said. “The research world in general is new to me. Participating with SCinet’s network security team has been a good opportunity to get experience with a variety of tools and a new perspective of network security in an environment that is different than the corporate experience.”
While Jessica Shaffer was a senior in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, she received an award for “most outstanding senior co-op.” She completed the co-op with the university’s network engineering team within the campus’s central IT department before being hired on as a full-time employee. Despite these experiences, she initially hesitated to apply for the WINS program.
“My director told me about SCinet and the WINS program, and at first I was nervous about applying because only a few women in the country are selected for WINS,” Shaffer said. “The encouragement I received from my director and manager is what got me here. If I had just seen the blurb for WINS on my own, I would have thought it was beyond my reach.”
Encouragement from mentors and supervisors can make the difference. “I don’t think I would have done it without that encouragement,” said Angie Asmus, IT security analyst at Colorado State University. Asmus added she is so grateful to the WINS program for the opportunity to be part of SCinet. “This is an immersive learning experience that you can’t get in the workplace or anywhere else. Because you get to see all aspects of a network come together, it helps you see the whole picture. Expanding your understanding and skills in networking can be helpful no matter what area of IT you’re in.” Asmus is a member of the SCinet edge team. She is also working on earning her MBA and reserves time in the evenings to stay caught up on coursework—viewing lecture recordings and completing online exams from her hotel room in Salt Lake City.
While the work is taxing, the rewards are plentiful. “This experience has already made me want to encourage another woman I work with to apply. As soon as I get back to Colorado, I will tell her she needs to do this next year,” Asmus said.
Extending the invitation to other women
When asked whether they would recommend WINS and SCinet to others, all of this year’s WINS participants beamed. They spoke words of encouragement for other women to apply for the WINS program and for anyone who is interested in networking to volunteer for SCinet.
“This is a great opportunity for you to be able to meet and learn from experts in the field—to build your network, develop your skills, and learn new things that will help your home institution,” Staats said. She applied for WINS after learning about it from a colleague who participated the 2015 WINS pilot program. While Staats joined SCinet for the first time with support from the WINS program, her colleague returned as a SCinet volunteer for SC16.
“You have everything to gain,” McLennan said. “I can’t imagine a scenario where participating in SCinet could be negative. The WINS program made it possible for me to travel to SC to be part of the SCinet team.”
They also warned against any feelings of self-doubt that might prevent someone from applying.
“Don’t sell yourself short. If you’re interested, take one step forward and apply or volunteer,” Shaffer said. “I’ve spoken with others who came in without much networking experience, but we have found that there are so many different areas to contribute to. It’s pretty amazing how we can adapt to what our team needs, and they are able to help us learn in the process. Being part of the SCinet team is such a great opportunity to see an entire network built from the ground up.”
Mentors and supervisors who have the opportunity to encourage women in their networks and organizations to apply for WINS and volunteer for SCinet can expect big returns on their investments.
“When you give someone the opportunity to go out and learn more, they bring that experience back to you,” Locke said. “If you invest in them through opportunities like WINS and SCinet, they’ll be appreciative. They’ll know you support them, and they’ll be more invested in your organization as a result.”
Women in tech – an under-tapped resource
Julia Staas has seen the gender gap in tech first-hand. “In the networking field, there are very few women. It’s very common for me to be the only woman, or one of very few women, in the group.” She said bringing more women into science, technology, engineering and math is essential for business development and economic growth. “The U.S. has a shortage of computer engineers. Encouraging women and girls to go into this field is essential if we are going to continue to be tech leaders in the world.”
“Women are a vastly under-tapped resource in IT, High Performance Computing and networking,” McLennan said. “Organizations have much to gain by adding fine-skilled candidates of either gender and encouraging them to improve their skills and knowledge to match the needs of industry. Getting involved with SCinet is a great way to do so.”
About the author
Amber Rasche is an IT communications coordinator at North Dakota State University and member of the SCinet communications team. Her role is to document the story of SCinet through photos, social media and written content.
She is a communications professional in the tech field and has strong respect and admiration for her women colleagues who are computer scientists, developers and engineers. She is an advocate for gender equality in all areas: social, political and economic. This blog post is one example of her work to raise awareness of the gender gap and the need for more diversity in STEM fields.
“By following the link to this blog post, you already made a statement about your commitment to gender diversity in tech,” Rasche said. “Take it one step further: Share this post with a colleague, mentee or member of your team who – like all of us who work in tech – is no doubt affected by the field’s gender gap. We need more voices in the conversation about how to eliminate the gap. Join us and be part of the change.”