It’s no secret that the underrepresentation of women in tech is a perennial concern. While the wheels are in motion to facilitate greater diversity across the world (with varying levels of success), there are still misconceptions about the industry’s ability to support female talent and produce role models in leadership positions. With responsibility for education and evangelism across F5's entire product suite, Lori MacVittie from F5’s Office of the CTO certainly bucks the latter trend. This year, she was (again) listed as a top 100 cloud influencer by Onalytica, and she been named as one of the most influential women in DevOps.
In advance of International Women’s Day on March 8, and to coincide with Women’s History Month, Lori took time to discuss her career to date, tips for women looking to get into tech, and why there are some green shoots of optimism on the horizon (particularly in the cloud computing space).
How did you get into tech?
My mother was actually a programmer in the 70s, so I wasn’t the first female in my family to pursue a career in technology. She often brought work home with her and I found it fascinating. Once we got a computer I was hooked, and this is where my love for technology started. As quite an introverted person, given the choice, I would often rather talk to a computer than people, because it listened to me.
I then went on to achieve Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Computer Science. Following my studies, I worked as a developer and architect, and after a few years moved over to the publishing industry. It was different, but still related to my passion for technology, as it was my job to make complex technologies more accessible by reporting on them in a way that almost anyone could understand.
In 2006 I joined F5, and this was where my two different careers paths came together. In my current role, I’m responsible for education and evangelism of application services across the business’ product suite. In other words, I distil technical concepts into something that most people can understand. This includes authoring technical articles about a variety of topics including architectures and application security to cloud computing and DevOps. I also attend a lot of industry events and community-based meetups to join panel discussions.
What obstacles did/do you face in your career?
I have been lucky in the Midwest as I have not come across many roadblocks in my career based on my gender. The area is full of insurance companies in which the majority of programmers have often been female. It just seemed to be part of our culture to have women in these kinds of positions.
Despite this, throughout my career I have experienced male colleagues who wouldn’t take direction from a woman, and also men at conferences who are completely taken aback when they realise I know what I am talking about. My question is: What made you assume I didn’t? It’s frustrating but something I try to move past quickly—you can’t let people like that bring you down!”
What are the challenges a young woman aiming to make progress in the industry faces compared to a more established, senior individual?
The challenge in early stages is to establish yourself in your field of expertise and figure out how to build a reputation that will help you later when you start planning more strategically.
Choosing a company that best suits your priorities for your career and life is an important factor in balancing both and being able to steadily progress in your career. If your priority is family, you don’t want to work for a company that doesn’t respect that. If your priority is your career, you want to make sure there are according opportunities where you work.
Have cultural attitudes to female professionals changed as the technology itself evolves?
Whether it’s coincidental or not, the rise of cloud was accompanied by a significant drive to recognize and support women “in cloud”. The culture of the cloud industry is very welcoming and cloud as a technology is often credited as democratizing the resources needed for women to take their place as entrepreneurs.
I don’t see the range of opportunities being any different except within the start-up space. Cloud does make it easy for anyone to drive an idea to fruition thanks to the wide range of options cloud offers, and we’ve seen an explosion of women-led start-ups that are based in and on cloud.
The adoption of cloud-based solutions in the workplace have also meant that it’s easier to balance work-life because the tools you need to work are always accessible from anywhere—even home. I see that accessibility as broadening corporate acceptance of remote work when it’s necessary and alleviating stress on women who struggle with work-life balance.
Anecdotally, I think the cloud industry has been more welcoming and less challenging to establish credibility in than other technology industries.
What advice would you give to your younger self, and what advice did you receive that you wished you had ignored?
Advice I would give my younger self: Don’t back away from leadership opportunities; you can’t just code forever. Advice I received I wish I’d ignored: Finishing my comp sci degree without taking the last few classes I needed to also finish an undergrad degree in philosophy. I took the advice just get out in the “real world” and I wish I’d taken the time to finish that degree.
Would you recommend that women struggling to make headway in tech pursue careers in the cloud industry instead?
It depends on why a woman is struggling to make headway in tech. Some issues aren’t about the industry or technology itself; it might be an issue with company culture or location.
While I don’t think “cloud” is a panacea for career challenges, it is certainly expanding at a phenomenal rate so that lends itself to more open opportunities should women find it difficult in their existing industry.
The most important thing for me is that data and computers don’t care about gender, so we shouldn’t either. My advice would be, if you’re interested in a technology career, fly right at it!
Wherever you find yourself, it’s likely that you’ll end up in a male dominated environment and if that makes you uncomfortable then that’s OK. Make sure you find a mentor or friend who you can vent to, and a business or educational body that will provide the right support to help you be successful in your career. STEM industries have a reputation for women struggling to be successful. Don’t be put off—if we want change, we need to be the forerunners.”
There is a tendency to dismiss women in technology that aren’t in a hands-on role, but my belief is that we need to support and promote all women in the technology industry because—as hinted at earlier—ultimately not everyone that wants a slice of the technology world wants to sit and code all day.
Fundamentally, STEM has a brand problem and there is a stereotype around the type of women who work in these roles. We might think of introverts and people that wear all black and no heels, but that’s just not the case! Whatever kind of woman you are, what you wear or what personality you have, is irrelevant. There’s a role for you. And this is a message I am trying to promote amongst my peers.
For additional perspective from F5: