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An inspiring thank you letter all women in tech should read

(OPINION EDITORIAL) “We owe it to ourselves and future generations to disrupt and shift the culture, and create a more inclusive environment.”

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Bringing positivity into the world

Fellow AG writers Jennifer Walpole and Taylor Leddin shared last month their UNFUCD assignment of thanking a teacher (here and here). Now, I would like to offer mine:

Dear Mary Dorman,

I feel that I should open this letter with an apology – for not comprehending your efforts to instill confidence in a 16 year old girl, and for not making more of the opportunities you opened up to me.

I owe you a lifetime of gratitude for recognizing and fueling the undying fascination I had for science and technology.

What was it that you saw? You may have realized that high school didn’t start out all that exciting for me. I vaguely recall signing up for a Computer Math class in ninth grade at John Foster Dulles Senior High, which was quite innovative in 1979. There was a teleprinter and an IBM card punch machine in the corner of the classroom, and I was fascinated how the cards and paper tape could contain information.

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That next year I was moved to a brand new and smaller high school – Willowridge Senior High School – as Dulles was overcrowded. At first I was disappointed, as there was no computer class or science club established at Willowridge.

However, as one of my science teachers, you encouraged me not only to join – but also preside over — the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS), which was dedicated to promoting engineering and technology careers.

You encouraged me to take on my first true leadership role.

I had no interest in engineering, but the desire to please a teacher who time and time again demonstrated confidence in me was invigorating.

Choosing the right path

While my other tenth grade teachers would just give me extra work because there weren’t enough eligible students to have an honors program or computer class, you went beyond. You gave me special assignments that I would complete on the school’s Commodore computer – I think I was the only student who ever used that computer its first year in-house. I learned how to create flowcharts, as well as how to use Microsoft BASIC.

“You can be a big fish in a little pond, or a little fish in a big pond.”

The school administration notified my parents that they were having trouble accommodating me. I could continue at Willowridge, and be given extra advanced coursework. There just simply weren’t enough students to justify an honors program.

I was offered the choice to transfer back to my old school, where there was an honors program. After much debate and trepidation, I chose to transfer back to Dulles. I was sad to leave behind many friends and my favorite teacher – who encouraged me to spread my wings — but thought it was the best decision at the time.

You were truly a gem amongst teachers in a time when young girls and women weren’t encouraged to pursue careers in STEM.

Had I known that, I might’ve chosen differently and stayed in that positive microcosm. You would’ve been disappointed to hear that I spent most of eleventh grade struggling to adjust. I was from “the wrong side of the tracks,” a lower middle class student who wasn’t from the more affluent neighborhoods surrounding Dulles.

The backlash

I disengaged and became withdrawn as I felt bullied in Chemistry class, by boys scoffing at any girls who showed an interest, being told that I should go back to Willowridge. Discouraged by my eleventh grade Honors English teacher who essentially said, “I set the “A” by Mary A.’s test score, and then distribute grades below that accordingly.” Even if in jest, that statement implied that the rest of the class would never excel or meet the highest standard. I rebelled – why bother trying?

You’d probably be even more disappointed to learn that although I enrolled in a Physics class taught by a female teacher — who had even received several “Teacher of the Year” awards — it was not a learning experience for me. I would raise my hand to answer a question – and never be called on. Instead, the same boys were always called on, the ones who huddled around the new Apple III while the rest of us were pushed out of the way, returning to our seats in the back of the room.

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I transferred over to Newspaper Journalism for the final semester, as my enthusiasm for science and technology dwindled.

Or so I thought. For you see, this letter is truly about UNFUCD, and finding the good where there’s been bad.

It’s okay to be a “late bloomer,” and you can have multiple or concurrent careers in your lifetime.

After high school, I floundered a bit through a couple of years at college, and ultimately dropped out, but I did do well in an Introduction to Microcomputers course. I received an 89 in that 8 am class that I barely recall taking, simply from what I’d learned from you.

Rising up

Later I took a few classes at the Houston Area League of PC Users (HAL-PC) campus just for the fun of it, learning how to work with DOS, Lotus 123, and dBase III. I was encouraged by my Uncle Ronnie, who was a founding member of HAL-PC in 1982. He later helped me set up my first personal email account, and educated me about chain e-mail hoaxes and to vet on this site called “Snopes” in 1995. HAL-PC is the world’s largest PC user group.

I won’t bore you with the details, but you’ll be glad to know that I found other mentors when I went back to college ten years later, who encouraged and helped me and many other students focus our passion for biological sciences – and data.

I received a Bachelor of Sciences in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology from UT Austin at the tender young age of 33 years old, and even spent a month in Costa Rica for entomology field research.

Since then I’ve been an aquatic taxonomist, an environmental educator, a web developer, a water operator, and a drinking water quality specialist.

I now own my own water consulting business, partner in a data firm, and advocate for open source software development.

The ripple effect

Most importantly, I’ve been an environmental educator, an afterschool program leader for Girlstart, and I currently serve on the Advisory Board for ChickTech Austin. Girlstart and ChickTech are wonderful non-profit organizations dedicated to engaging girls in STEM through education programs.

Because that’s the greatest lesson that you ever taught me — that young girls as well as under-represented socioeconomic groups need positive role models to guide and empower them to pursue their passions in science and technology.

We owe it to ourselves and future generations to disrupt and shift the culture, and create a more inclusive environment.

You also taught me that I can be a leader in that mission. For that, I thank you immensely.

ibm-card-punch-machine

#UNFUCD

Debbie Cerda is a seasoned writer and consultant, running Debra Cerda Consulting as well as handling business development at data-driven app development company, Blue Treble Solutions. She's a proud and active member of Austin Film Critics Association and the American Homebrewers Association, and Outreach Director for science fiction film festival, Other Worlds Austin. She has been very involved in the tech scene in Austin for over 15 years, so whether you meet her at Sundance Film Festival, SXSWi, Austin Women in Technology, or BASHH, she'll have a connection or idea to help you achieve business success. At the very least, she can recommend a film to watch and a great local craft beer to drink.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Danny Brown

    September 13, 2016 at 11:52 am

    Hi there Debbie, and thanks so much for writing this letter – what a powerful statement about encouragement, and sticking to your beliefs! So thankful for Mary Dorman and all she meant to you, and others like you!

    #unfucd

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Opinion Editorials

How to sound more confident in your next interview or office email

(OPINION/EDITORIAL) After COVID, collectively, our social skills need a little TLC. What words and phrases can you use to sound more confident at work?

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Interview with woman and a man opposite as they each sound more confident/

In-person work communications are on the rise, and it’s no surprise that, collectively, our social skills need a little bit of work. CNBC shares some examples of common phrases people tend to use when uncomfortable – and what you should use to replace them to sound more confident in your next interview or office email.

After explaining a personal philosophy or situation, it’s all too common to say, “Does that make sense?” Aside from occasionally sounding patronizing, this question more or less implies that you believe your worldview or lived experiences to require validation. CNBC suggests saying “I’d like to hear your input” or – if you’re in an inquisitive mood – asking “What are your thoughts?” instead.

This invites the interviewer to give feedback or continue the conversation without devaluing your own perspective.

CNBC also recommends getting rid of weak introductions, listing examples like “For what it’s worth” and “In my opinion” in order to sound more confident. Certainly, most of us have used these phrases to recuse ourselves from perceived criticism in meetings or emails; the problem is that they become an indicator of lacking self-confidence, at least for employers.

Simply jumping straight into whatever it is you have to say without the soft-paws introduction is sure to be appreciated by higher-ups and colleagues alike.

Passive voice is another thing you should remove from your communication when trying to sound more confident. For example, saying “I performed this action because…” instead of “This action was performed because…” shows ownership; whether you’re taking credit for an innovative decision or copping to a mistake, taking responsibility with the language you use is always better than removing yourself from the narrative.

“I’m not positive, but…” is yet another common phrase that CNBC eschews, opting instead to start with whatever comes after the “but”. It’s always good to maintain a certain amount of humility, but that’s not what this phrase is doing – it’s getting out in front of your own process and undermining it before anyone else has a chance to evaluate it. Regardless of your position or responsibilities, you should always give your thoughts the credit they deserve.

Finally, CNBC suggests removing perhaps the most undervalued phrase on this list: “I’m sorry.” There is absolutely a time and place to apologize, but “sorry” gets thrown around the office when a simple “excuse me” would suffice. Apologizing in these situations belies confidence, and it makes actual apologies – when they’re necessary – seem hollow.

The language people use is powerful, and as arbitrarily contrite as the workplace may inspire many to feel, humility can absolutely coexist with confidence.

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Opinion Editorials

10 tips for anyone looking to up their professional work game

(OPINION / EDITORIAL) It’s easy to get bogged down by the details, procrastinate, and feel unproductive. Here are a few tips to help you crush your work goals.

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work productivity

Self-reflection is critical to a growth mindset, which you must have if you want to grow and improve. If you are ready to take your professional game to the next level, here are some stories and tips to help you remain focused on killing your work goals.

1. Don’t compare yourself to others. Comparison is the thief of joy, as the quote goes. And, in the workplace it’s bound to make you second guess yourself and your abilities. This story explains when comparison can be useful, when to avoid it, and how to change your focus if it’s sucking the life out of you.

2. Burnout is real and the harder you work, the less productive you are. It’s an inverse relationship. But, there are ways to work smarter and have better life balance. Here are some tips to prioritize your workload and find more ease.

3. Stop procrastinating and start getting sh@t done. The reason we procrastinate may be less about not wanting to do something and more about the emotions underlying the task. Ready to get going and stop hemming and hawing, you got this and here’s the way to push through.

4. Perfection is impossible and if you seek this in your work and life, it’s likely you are very frustrated. Let that desire go and learn to be happy with excellence over perfection.

5. If you think you’re really awesome and seriously deserve more money, more responsibility, more of anything and are ready to drop the knowledge on your supervisor or boss, you may want to check this story out to see if your spinning in the right direction.

6. Technology makes it so easy to get answers so quickly, it’s hard to wait around for things to happen. We like instant gratification. Yet, that is another reason procrastination is a problem for some of us, but every person has a different way/reason for procrastinating. Learn what’s up with that.

7. Making choices can be a challenge for some of us (me included) who worry we are making the wrong choice. If you’ve ever struggled with decision making, you know it can be paralyzing and then you either make no decision or choose the safest option. What we have here is the Ambiguity Effect and it can be a real time suck. Kick ambiguity to the curb.

8. If you are having trouble interacting with colleagues or wondering why you don’t hear back from contacts it could be you are creeping folks out unintentionally (we hope). Here’s how to #belesscreepy.

9. In the social media era building your brand and marketing are critical, yet, if you’re posting to the usual suspects and seeing very little engagement, you’ve got a problem. Wharton Business School even did a study on how to fix the situation and be more shareable.

10. Every time you do a presentation that one co-worker butts in and calls you out. Dang. If you aren’t earning respect on the job, you will be limited in your ability to get to the next level. Respect is critical to any leadership position, as well as to making a difference in any role you may have within an organization, but actions can be misconstrued. There are ways to take what may be negative situations and use them to your advantage, building mutual respect.

You have the tools you need, now get out there, work hard, play hard, and make sh*t happen. Oh, and remember, growth requires continual reflection and action, but you got this.

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Opinion Editorials

The actual reasons people choose to work at startups

(EDITORIAL) Startups have a lot going for them, environment, communication, visible growth. But why else would you work for one?

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leadership Startups meeting led by Black woman.

Startups are perpetually viewed as the quintessential millennial paradise with all of the accompanying perks: Flexible hours, in-house table tennis, and long holidays. With this reputation so massively ingrained in the popular perception of startups, is it foolish to think that their employees actually care about the work that startup companies accomplish?

Well, yes and no.

The average startup has a few benefits that traditional business models can’t touch. These benefits often include things like open communication, a relaxed social hierarchy, and proximity to the startup’s mission. That last one is especially important: While larger businesses keep several degrees of separation between their employees and their end goals, startups put the stakes out in the open, allowing employees to find personal motivation to succeed.

When employees find themselves personally fulfilled by their work, that work reaps many of the benefits in the employee’s dedication, which in turn helps the startup propagate. Many aspiring startup employees know this and are eager to “find themselves” through their work.

Nevertheless, the allure of your average startup doesn’t always come from the opportunity to work on “something that matters.”

Tiffany Philippou touches on this concept by pointing out that “People come to work for you because they need money to live… [s]tartups actually offer pretty decent salaries these days.”

It’s true that many employees in their early to late twenties will likely take any available job, so assuming that your startup’s 25-and-under employee base is as committed to finding new uses for plastic as you are maybe a bit naïve—indeed, this is a notion that holds true for any business, regardless of size or persuasion.

However, startup experience can color a young employee’s perception of their own self-worth. This allows them to pursue more personally tailored employment opportunities down the road—and that’s not a bad legacy to have.

Additionally, startups often offer—and even encourage—a level of personal connection and interactivity that employees simply won’t find in larger, more established workplaces. That isn’t symptomatic of startups being too laid-back or operating under loosely defined parameters. Instead, it’s a clue that work environments that facilitate personalities rather than rote productivity may stand to get more out of their employees.

Finally, your average startup has a limited number of spots, each of which has a clearly defined role and a possibility for massive growth. An employee of a startup doesn’t typically have to question their purpose in the company—it’s laid out for them; who are we to question their dedication to fulfilling it?

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