Why Tech Was — And Is — In The Good Hands Of Women
It's not just history; it’s also her story.
In the field of computer science, it began in 1843 with a woman named Ada Lovelace.
Born in 1815 as the daughter of Lord Byron and his wife, Anne Isabella Milbanke, Lovelace received an elite education in mathematics and music. But it didn’t take long for her to realize her passion sat with numbers, not notes.
At the age of 13, she produced a design for a flying machine, and in 1843, she programmed the world’s first "analytical engine," known as the modern-day computer.
Flash forward one century to the 1940s, and the women of NASA were deemed “human computers.” They crunched everything by hand, using only a pencil and graph paper. Their calculations included figuring how many rockets were needed to make a plane airborne and figuring out what kind of rocket propellants were required to lift a spacecraft.
In the 1950s, most male engineers and scientists didn’t trust what we know now as computers, believing them to be unreliable and dismissed computer programming as “women’s work.” This mindset gave women the unique opportunity to learn how to code. A fascinating movie made about the first moon landing highlighted the African-American “computers” that helped make it happen.
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Later that decade, computer pioneering legend, Grace Hopper, came up with the radical idea of using words as a programming structure instead of digits. Her belief that programming languages should be as easy to understand as English influenced one of the first programming languages called COBOL. Thanks to Hopper, programmers use “if/then” instead of 1s and 0s.
Despite their hardships at the time, including pay inequality, lack of progression and leadership roles, harassment and stereotypes by male leadership, these women laid the groundwork and opened the door for future generations of women to build careers in computer science and technology.
In the 1970s and ’80s, however, respect for computer programming rose, and more men started training as computer programmers. With this shift, educational requirements rose along with discouraging the hiring of women. Ad campaigns even began criticizing women for being error-prone, time-wasters and gossipers.
Throughout the 1990s to today, women continue to be significantly under-represented in the classroom and office.
At the university level, women who take an undergraduate computer science course are often outnumbered by men 8 to 2. And it doesn’t get much better from there. According to the National Center for Women in Technology, in 2017 just 26% of the computing workforce in the United States was occupied by females.
Nevertheless, she persists.
From positive reinforcement and self-learning to career advice and mentorship opportunities, women at Zappos are raising the bar within their technical roles.
Nothing is impossible
Product Manager Danielle Salisbury started in the tech industry 12 years ago, redlining assets in UX design which enabled the programmer to see dimensions and visual specs. Before starting her tech career, she got a master’s degree in publishing and advertising.
“I think the result of hearing the ‘math and science isn’t for you’ message from a very early age was that I never thought about pursuing an education in [science and math]. Because of this, I faced tremendous challenges later in my career, because my educational background did not look like that of many of my peers.”
Despite not owning a degree in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — known as STEM — Salisbury found that she enjoyed solving problems and working on solutions that didn’t yet exist, but she knew someday could.
“What first sparked my interest in this notion of solving problems that were ‘unsolvable’ was looking at the e-reader industry back in the early 2000s. Popular opinion was that digital books were never going to take off, and the publishing industry wasn’t doing much to address this new medium,” explains Salisbury.
“In graduate school, I studied past and current publishing trends but noticed a gap in what the future of publishing could be. This whole experience got me very interested in thinking about disruption in other very traditional paradigms.”
“I did a lot of research into this, diving deep into Marshall McLuhan’s theories of global villages and the relationship between content and medium. This was probably the first time I had thought that a traditional medium, such as printed word, could undergo a revolution powered by technology.”
Salisbury currently works with a team of developers, UX designers and project managers to create new customer service experiences. She’s finding updated ways to use Amazon’s software as a platform to build upon and deliver more “WOW through Service” to customers.
“We continue to have a lot of learning we can share across Amazon and Zappos, and we value the ability to partner so closely,” states Salisbury. “But I think we are at an exciting time where we can figure out how to have our software and tools reflect what makes Zappos unique.”
Salisbury also uses her knowledge and skills to coach others.
Earlier this year, she attended ChickTech Seattle, a nonprofit organization designed to support women and girls in tech. Salisbury mentored participants on the topics of breaking into the industry, gaining confidence in the workplace, negotiating equal pay, and the importance of advocating for each other.
“The whole mindset of tech is that nothing is impossible,” says Salisbury. “It’s so important to find someone who will support you and advocate for you, and to surround yourself with people who want to see you succeed.”
Mentoring is crucial
Melissa Druzdzel, a senior technical program manager who works in Digital Customer Experience, handles Zappos’ external-facing platforms. She credits a female mentor for her professional success.
A former treasury analyst, Druzdzel was encouraged by a Zappos colleague, Molly Kettle, to pursue a career in project management. She thought Druzdzel could learn tools, methods and strategies that would make her a more valuable employee.
“Molly still uses her project management skillset in her current role with Zappos Adaptive, although her domain expands well beyond technical project management,” says Druzdzel. “Many people in the organization admire her for her passion and determination, and I believe there are others in the organization who also consider her a mentor.”
Thinking back to her experience, Druzdzel believes that having a mentor is a critical component to success. For her, this support system helped boost her confidence, open up network opportunities, and set and achieve goals.
Not every woman, especially those at smaller organizations, are fortunate to have a female colleague to confide in like Druzdzel. However, there are many places to find mentors.
Connecting with friends or browsing social media, such as LinkedIn, are great places to start, as are websites like techwomen.org and womenintechnology.org, or participating in a local technology incubator, coworking lab or accelerator space.
“In general, I think technology is pretty sexy. It’s always changing and the problem set is never the same. It’s fun to be on the cutting edge of the industry, and tech presents that,” says Druzdzel. “I hope that as we encourage women to become involved at a young age, they will grow into really strong tech employees.”
Thanks to Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper and all of the “human computers” over the decades, today's tech industry can credit its success to these women. And Danielle Salisbury and Melissa Druzdzel are just two of the many women at Zappos who are carrying on their legacy while writing their own story — in code.