Burlap or Tapestry? Educational Diversity

Posted by Tracy Bannon on Thursday, January 13, 2022

My personal journey has taught me the absolute value in diversity; our many varied paths provide a broad set of experiences transforming the fabric of our creative problem solving from burlap to a rich tapestry. With my mental map in mind, how do you think I responded to this question posed to me a few days ago: “I see your undergraduate degree is a BA, why would I listen to you about anything related to software?”

This was not an interview and was not the first time we had spoken. While trying to view it as simply an innocent/ignorant question, being face-to-face (by video), it was evident that it was not. I am not often at a loss for words. Did you not read my CV ? Did you miss the decades of experience leading successful massive multi-million dollar software delivery for government and commercial domains? Have you attended a mentoring session, webinar, or class that I have taught? Have we ever spoken one-to-one?

First hand, I experienced someone who is an education bigot. There, I said it. I have spent my career as a hands-on technologist who could always see the big picture and that catapulted me to become an architect. In my current focus to solve complex problems, I had not updated my resume with my recent grad school accomplishment. The degree did not suddenly make me a software engineer. I earned those stripes in the trenches AS an engineer.

Understanding one another is more than recognizing “a difference”; it is diving a little deeper to understand points of views and experience that moulded us.

I AM PROUD that I have an undergraduate degree that I designed and negotiated to create. My undergrad career started off with 2 years as a 4.0 CompSci major with a Math concentration at Indiana University. A summer living with my big brother set my creative mind on fire! Vern was a building architecture major and we often discussed how to help the architect handle more complex systems and apply broader thinking. Computers could help elevate the art of rendering by mixing with the underlying model: the blueprint.

Computer integration and graphics! I went searching for classes and programs but at that time, none existed in the Northeastern US. So I improvised. I met with Penn State and negotiated my own major before the advent of “interdisciplinary” or “design your own major” efforts by current higher education. I had two faculty advisors: the first from the CompSci department and the second from the Architecture department. At that time, Penn State would not grant any Bachelor of Science degrees for a self-initiated major. I intentionally chose my degree and charted my own course.

It was exactly what I wanted and needed! The architecture department had just invested in an Evans & Sutherland computer and I spent every waking moment in the lab: fine tuning algorithms, assigning Z measurements to the 2D (x,y) coordinates. counting polygons so the 24-48 hour rendering process would not crash. I interned with an architecture firm where I designed and implemented their first CAD systems and integrated it with a 3D extrusion package and applied rendering algorithms. Helping draftsmen and architects who had primarily used bumwad for sketching was my first experience with culture building and upskilling.

What if AccuWeather had sought out CompSci majors? Through a series of chance conversations, I was invited to apply for a role in their engineering department as an “associate programmer”. Thank you to folks like Tony Canike and Skip Hunsberger for their vision and ability to leverage diversity.

We are at a critical point in our industry and as a nation. We cannot cast aside highly motivated and intelligent people because they lack an academic title. I am not saying that higher education is not important and doesn’t play a critical role; what I am saying is that job requisitions need qualifiers that say “or relevant experience”.

I respect academia and theory AND I seek out the experienced.

My husband has a tremendously varied story as well (including being a soccer coach in his spare time). He often says, “Give me a willing and energetic newbie anytime over a negative, exclusive, overtrained player.” The pedigree does not guarantee success by any means. This applies to many life situations including software and software intensive systems.

We must look for experiences, for essence, and for intersections. What associations or guilds might they be a part of? IEEE, CNCF, DevOps Institute? A friend and fellow educational diversity advocate, Rosalind Radcliffe, shared a term that IBM has begun using as they embrace educational diversity: new-collar worker. Former CEO, Ginni Rometty coined the phrase and IBM is all in.

“new collar” roles in technology […] prioritize skills and capabilities over degrees or having a traditional career path. What matters most in these roles is having the right mix of skills and a commitment to lifelong learning.

How brilliant! How appropriate! Can we all begin to embrace the possibilities? There are many folks in the US Government that are supportive including our many in the US Services.

Educational diversity is more than allowing someone with only “x” degree or “y” diploma to be hired. It is endorsing the experiences of others and accepting the value. Solving problems with software takes more than tools and technology; it takes theory wrapped in experience. Get to know the strengths and personal development areas of your pod, your teams, your colleagues, your workmates, and those you seek to hire.

Remember that you will often see what you look for; change your mental map. If you are hiring or staffing, go beyond the hashtags and GitHub repository search. Add “or relevant experience” to the posted description and be willing to be creative.

My answer to the gent who posed the question about my degree was simple: “It’s your choice. I have experience, passion, a proven track record, and seek diversity of thought to get to the best solutions.” I will continue to ignore the small minded and foster excellence in myself and others.

Let’s make a real and lasting impact.

Feature Photo by Eric Prouzet