Geek Girls Unite!

She had me at "hypolithic cyanobacteria detector."
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By Alexandra Weber Morales

The new-girl network is in full flourish. At a recent Bay Area Girl Geek dinner hosted by Perforce Software in Alameda, the definition of "girl geek" was more inclusive than ever. From the teenage Cal student simulating Martian life to game developers, from bloggers and new media artists to testers and user experience designers, women are finding diverse and unstereotypical ways to mold the technology of the future.

She had me at "hypolithic cyanobacteria detector." Those three words, from young Davidson Fellow Rebecca Jolitz, launched one of many conversations I had at the Girl Geek Dinner. Jolitz explained that her software simulation of how a photosynthetic organism found under rocks could survive on Mars could mean life exists there.

At the other end of the spectrum was Angie Chang, who founded Bay Area Girl Geek Dinners in 2008. "I'll never own a Kindle," she said, hefting a copy of Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco from her purse. That's not to say Chang isn't geeky.

She, like many others, embodied the themes of Perforce's dinner party: inclusivity in geekdom, the value of mentoring and the rewards of community engagement -- and partying.

Kathy Baldanza, Perforce's vice president of engineering, got loud applause during her opening remarks when she showed off her geeky, badge-encrusted girl scout sash. "What's wrong with that?" someone yelled when she confessed to falling in love with Assembler and Lisp at university. She continued, "I purchased a 3D printer, and I did not buy the preassembled version. So you know what I'll be doing over the holidays."

Laurette Cisneros, Perforce's manager of build engineering, described not only her geeky "aha moment" involving Fortran and punch cards, but also the company's corporate giving program and Perforce Foundation established in 1999. "Living in the Bay Area, we all know the rewards of diverse surroundings," she said, describing how community giving "feeds the virtuous cycle."

Lest things get too staid, Allison Banks, director of human resources, was there to put the pink in the drinks and remind attendees that Perforce is hiring. She described how her 12 years in the Perfortress have geeked her out both device-wise and in supporting thriving teams that balance work and play.

Headhunters Seek Ruby Skills

Not surprisingly, networking events like this attract seasoned networkers and head hunters. According to Queenie Kwan, a recruiter for the VonChurch job placement agency's social and mobile games divisions, "We have so many job openings, it's crazy. We have over 100 job reqs for Ruby on Rails."

Demand for Ruby has made it a developers's market, she explained -- meaning they're in a position to negotiate for higher salaries or stay put in existing positions. "VonChurch is a great company that's been around since social media took off in 2008. We're looking for developers and designers. People need to realize how much of an asset a recruiter can be."

Other notable networkers included Dorothy Santos, clinical operations associate for Genentech by day, new media art blogger by night. Santos had come with another people person, Danielle Siembieda, community engagement and special projects manager for ZER01.

"I love discussing new media arts with technologists. People ask, 'What is new media art?' It turns out a lot of these artists do this work as their day job -- they're creative coders, programmers and engineers," said Santos.

Talk turned to Ruby just a few minutes later when I met Teresa Kosinski, software configuration manager for McKesson Specialty Health and longtime Perforce fan.

"This is mind-opening. The people I'm talking to, the ideas I'm getting are great," she enthused. "This woman from Limetech was talking about a meetup, a one-day training on Ruby," she said. I mentioned the multitude of job openings I'd just learned about and her eyes lit up. I asked if this type of event was valuable for seasoned IT pros like herself.

"If you asked before tonight, I wouldn't have said there's a need. Now I'm thinking wow, if this had been around when I was younger..."

What Women Want

"I feel like there is a need for this. There aren't as many women in math and science. We need to expand women's access to those fields," said Vi Tran, who works in marketing for

"Graduating college even in 2003, it was really hard to find support as a female geek. I had a dual major, art and computer science, from the University of New Mexico. Their attitude was pretty much, 'You should stick to art,'" said Cecilia Broadaway, a quality assurance engineer for the last eight years at Oracle. "Even today people say, 'You don't look like you work in IT.' I never planned it but I fell into QA. I love it. I wake up every morning and think, how can I break the software today?"

Ali Spivak is senior manager for web at CollabNet, where she's moved among male-dominated app dev departments and more balanced web development teams. "As the user experience becomes more collaborative, the strength of female geeks are more prominent," she said, though she was quick to elaborate that she didn't necessarily buy into stereotypes about women's traditional strengths.

"Computer science is just language, and language is not male-dominated," said Broadaway.

Lynne Jolitz, who does technology due diligence for investment and is mother to Rebecca, put the need for balance in mission-critical terms: "My experience in running engineering teams and startups in Silicon Valley is that the most innovative, productive teams are those that have balance. You must be deft and flexible to adapt to new approaches, whether it's for a NASA mission or a startup.You need men and women of various ethnicities. You have cultural and regional bias -- you can't help it. If you have infinite time and money to do things, you can maintain a narrow perspective. Diversity helps you stay focused on goal. That's why women are necessary in IT."

On the Silly Side

And it's a testament to progress that a diversity of women can be seen in IT. No longer restricted to wearing 1980s power suits to be taken seriously, women today can even get silly. No one does that better than Steph Turner, lead developer for P4V, the Perforce visual client.

"Be honest: How many of you are here to get away from your kids?" she asked before diving into her demonstration of how Perforce solves that modern predicament we all face: competing file versions and confusing workflows.

"Well, you're more technical than those people out there," she said, pointing at the partiers outside the conference room, "because you're spending your Thursday night watching a technical demo. But the women who are geekier than us are still working. And the women who are even geekier than that? Right now they're playing World of Warcraft."

While Turner kept the crowd in stitches, Nellie LeMonier was upstairs quietly showing her approach to user experience design via assorted users videotaped in Perforce offices.

"I'm fascinated by user experience design," said Liz Rider, consulting member of technical staff for Oracle. "After you develop and roll out a product, you don't want to see it fail because of bad user experience."

Paying it Forward

The evening's assortment of over 200 women from various walks of IT spoke to Chang's prescient decision to start Girl Geek Dinners in the Bay Area. "In 2007, I was looking at web pages of London and Amsterdam Girl Geek Dinners and wondering why they were not having them in SF." Her first event was a gala sponsored by Google.

Chang will soon be quitting her day job to focus on monetizing her other project: Women 2.0, which is dedicated to female entrepreneurs. "Women hesitate. They don't promote themselves like men do. We have to share our stories so we learn faster," she said. "It's OK to be ambitious. This is the new-girl network."

Photos by Aaron Morris of Chrisman Studios.

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