Space-age tech mom: an interview with Linda Wendler
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At Pluralsight's 2015 Author Summit, I had the pleasure of interviewing course authors for our Women in Technology series. While chatting with author and BI expert Stacia Misner Varga, I learned an interesting fact: technology runs in her family. Yes, Stacia grew up with techie parents. In fact, her mother was a developer in the '60s before most people knew what being a “developer” meant. A mom, pioneering a career in technology? During the space-race? This was a story I had to hear. So, I reached out to Stacia's mother, Linda Wendler, who was gracious enough to share her experience.
An early pioneer
Linda began her career in tech when she left college to work for the Boeing Company. Without the option of studying computer science in school, she cut her teeth by first proving she had the right kind of mind, literally, to handle the job.
“There weren't a lot of people to give us direction. You just kind of got thrown into the pool and you had to learn how to swim,” recalls Linda. “So, what they did was they gave you an aptitude test. If you passed the aptitude test, they hired you and trained you.”
Originally a Physics major, Linda returned to school years later to finish her degree in another area that captivated her: Anthropology. “It was something that had always interested me, and when I decided that I really didn't have adequate math skills for a career in physics, I just decided, you know, to heck with this! Let's just get the degree and get it done with…This is what I enjoyed on the side, so I went ahead and did it. And, it's still something that interests me.”
Balancing career and family
Linda worked for Boeing while Stacia was young, but eventually left, remarried and had more children.
“I took 10 years off, which is kind of interesting because when I decided to stop and have some more children, I figured I was never going to be working in that field again…”
Finding your way back to the working-world after being absent for a decade in most industries is intimidating. For those in the technology field, where things change overnight, it can seem almost impossible. But, Linda found her way. Although she was worried her experience would be obsolete, she found herself with a set of skills that were sorely needed. “Well, as it happens, in the meantime, the microchip was invented, and all of the sudden, there was this proliferation of computers. And, by the time I was ready to go back to work, there was a demand for programmers and my experience was totally relevant.”
“I always say we put a man on the moon with punch cards and paper tape!”
Linda may have begun her career in, as she puts it, “the stone-age.” Still, developers back then managed to put astronauts on the moon with little more than a calculator, some elbow grease and scrappy ingenuity. During the height of the space industry, Linda found herself working at Cape Canaveral.
“We were programming at the machine language level,” she explains, “The computers that we had to work with had such tiny memories that you had to do a lot of memory management and memory overlays.” Working on projects like the Saturn V rocket and seeing launches and astronauts, she gained a reputation as someone who could get stuff done. “It was a very exciting time. The technology was totally different than today. But, I always say we put a man on the moon with punch cards and paper tape!”
Women in technology: past and present
Although Linda retained a skillset that got her foot in the door, finding work wasn't always easy. Headhunters working with companies who had never hired a woman before balked at the idea of meeting her. Remembering some of her job-hunting experience, Linda says, “Sometimes I think they would interview me just to see what kind of a woman would be applying…On the other hand, the larger companies were aware of the fact that they needed people and that women could do the job. So, you were better off working for a larger company at that point. Of course, they paid (women) less, but at least they would give you a job.”
In fact, while working at Cape Canaveral, she recalls working with a staff that consisted of roughly 30-40% women. So, how does anyone in the tech industry get ahead and build a reputation as a competent employee? According to Linda, “In my experience, if you can do the job better than other people, it will be recognized…you do have to be strong and, I mean, I think it's really discouraging at times.”
And overcoming the wage gap? “I think as long as the number of women in tech are falling, I think it's going to continue to be a problem…It has become more of a male dominated field as nearly as I can tell, and so I don't think that (the wage gap) is going to change a whole lot,” states Linda.
What's the answer to the decreasing numbers of women in tech? According to Linda, “I think not enough (young girls) are getting exposed (to technology), at least in a meaningful fashion. I mean, math, for example, has always been taught very poorly, and I don't see it has improved in my lifetime.” But, now, with so many opportunities and tools to explore your interests earnestly, Linda is hopeful. “Nowadays, you've got all these tools and all these specialized languages and…I think that's, to me, that's the most exciting part.”
Now that she's retired, Linda spends part of her time supporting organizations designed to get young kids involved in technology. She enrolled her 9-year-old granddaughter in the First Lego League, a student robotics program. Additionally, Linda supports an organization called Odyssey of the Mind. These programs are designed to expose kids to new skills they can use in the tech industry. According to Linda, it helps “get them interested in (tech) and (help them) feel like they can do it.”
Looking back at what it was like to hold a career in the tech industry in 1960 is quite a trip. Technology itself has changed tremendously, yet the same motifs are deeply embedded in our culture. Finding a career path in the present-day, while more plastic and mobile, comes with its own set of challenges. Still, though, it's hard not to be inspired by intrepid developers, like Linda, who did so much with the equipment, training and technology available at the time.