Ada Lovelace Day 2009: Sherri Montgomery

In January, I signed a pledge to participate in Ada Lovelace day by “publish[ing] a blog post on Tuesday 24th March about a woman in technology whom I admire.”

Early on I decided to write about my girlfriend, Sherri Montgomery. Perhaps picking my girlfriend is “cheating” a bit, but I wanted to highlight and make public her accomplishments in a way I know they haven’t.

Sherri is a true renaissance geek. She’s been involved in technology since her college days and has done a bit of everything: Perl hacking, shell scripting, NOC setup and management, *nix administration, project management, etc. Additionally, Sherri a gifted teacher and synthesizer of information. These two skills have served her well in her current System Analyst position at Qwest, where she facilitates communication between non-technical end-users a technical programming staff. Sherri is also a Yoga teacher and Zen practitioner, the effects of which she brings to her interactions in the tech world.

Below is a brief interview that I conducted with Sherri earlier this week.

How did you get your start in technology? What different positions led you to you current job?

I would say I was drawn to technology as a kid. I was generally fascinated with the way things worked, the history of places & things, and knowing the names of things like stars and rocks. I remember asking for a chemistry set as a kid and wanting books about astronauts.

When computers started to show up at school I enjoyed learning a little bit here and there. In college I finally tried out a computer science course and enjoyed it a lot. After college various jobs in secretarial positions gave me greater access to computers, eventually ending up with a group that developed GIS software. It was a small group and they wanted to have me help test so I was encouraged to learn about unix since the software was developed for various implementations of this operating system. The office had systems from Sun, SGI, and HP, among others and I really interested in how unix worked.

By now I had my own computer at home, a very early Macintosh I bought used from an employee. It had no hard drive, but I had an extra floppy drive and could run most stuff that way. I also had a dial-up modem by this time and was investigating the world of BBSes. As the Internet began to shape up I spent a lot of time on MUDs. I began to pick up both HTML as it was emerging and simple C programming for creating things for an AberMUD based in Sweden. I also took community college classes on networking technology and unix shell scripting at night.

I finally made a jump in technology in 1997, joining a small, local call center where I did telephone support for ISPs and a company manufacturing network hardware. After a few months there I was hired by Metro One Telecommunications to work in their NOC. I moved onto managing the NOC for a while then on to the senior sysadmin team where I did 6 hardware (Sun) upgrades at call centers around the country.

I left Metro One to work for Amdocs as a support engineer for the Sleuth Fraud Management System. I performed hardware, OS (Solaris), and database support to customers across the US. Eventually I also took on setting up web servers and configuring business intelligence reporting platforms for clients. When Amdocs closed their Oregon office I was hired by Qwest, one the clients I had previously supported.

You work as a Systems Analyst at Quest. What does that job entail?

I am the “subject matter expert” for the Business Objects Enterprise/Crystal Reports business information area. This covers a few hundred report objects providing automated data to over 100 users. I implement standardization of data connectivity, compliance issues, and report schema. During upgrades I act as project manager for teams that span across IT, Technical Clients, and Business Clients. I also help test, release and write user documentation for upgrades.

I am also the subject matter expert on the unix operating system and a suite of web trouble ticket tools developing using DB-MAN. When I joined Qwest in 2002 I began learning Perl to help support these tools. I’ve since implemented a simple back-up process using unix shell scripts to keep a second production server in sync with a primary product server. I managed both the project and primary development of migrating tools and scripts from Sun/Solaris to Linux Red Hat. Currently I’m learning basics of PHP.

I also work across teams to help identify processes clearly, define requirements for both client and technical audiences, write technical documentation for teams, and coach people on unix, business intelligence, and other tools such as HP Quality Center, Caliber from Borland, and Sharepoint. I am a primary tester for emerging releases for the Windows laptops and desktops used by my team as well as coordinator for hardware upgrades.

I understand you are also a Yoga instructor and Zen practitioner. How do you think this informs or affects your role in the technology field?

When I am frustrated, because that happens when you have teams unable to understand one another, both practices help me contain the frustration. I am able to more clearly understand why I get frustrated and am able to maintain a calmer perspective. Yoga & Zen have really developed my compassion for all beings, I think this helps me to listen to people more carefully since I want to clearly hear what needs they are trying to meet. When I am stuck on a project (flow of documentation, defining business requirements precisely, some troublesome bit of Perl…) sometimes just stopping and stretching mindfully will help. I move around, increase my breath, feel my body and let my mind settle. Sometimes this will help me get unstuck!

What do you see as the biggest barrier to women succeeding in technology? What can/should the tech community do to lower these barriers?

When I was getting into technology in my 20s I had to present a fairly tough persona. Not just “one of the boys”, but showing I could be just as hard and competitive, mentally and physically (since I was on the hardware side of things, moving around 250 servers). I always felt like I was on my guard, at times even more so with women co-workers or superiors. I can recall in 1999 finding out I was being paid $20K less than my male co-workers (with less than 6 months on the job) after 2 years with the company I worked for. When I brought this disparity to the attention of my male superiors, citing it for entertaining a job offer, they essentially shrugged and wished me luck.

The barriers have improved over the years, grown shorter, but there still are so many more men in technology than women. I see and hear men in the community trying to work to reach out to and include more women. I hear the voices of women in the community doing all they can as well. There are so many more programs now to encourage women and girls into technology than ever before. It seems like there shouldn’t be as great a difference now, but for some reason the ratio hasn’t shifted hugely.

I personally would like to see more collaborative projects and less competitions. Events that encouraged people to foster and share their strengths and differences, creating synergy.

Where do you see yourself in the future in regards to tech?

Programming less, managing more — something I would not have thought I’d have said 5 years ago. I have come to see that my knack with seeing how things fit together, finding patterns, and understanding flow is best suited to helping projects run smoothly through to implementation and beyond. I have come to enjoy the “people” side of things more and find especially rewarding helping seemingly disparate teams communicate in a way that they can find understanding and the ability to work together. Because of my technology background I know I would be valuable in managing technology projects since I understand the both the technical and business sides.

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