“Pursue your passion” with Penny Bauder & Dr. Rebecca Parsons

One of the biggest myths I want to completely shut down is that if you love math, science, technology, or computers you’re “weird.” It’s not true! You don’t need to apologize for pursuing your passion and you should never think twice about chasing that dream. The tech industry today is a far more acceptable place […]

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One of the biggest myths I want to completely shut down is that if you love math, science, technology, or computers you’re “weird.” It’s not true! You don’t need to apologize for pursuing your passion and you should never think twice about chasing that dream. The tech industry today is a far more acceptable place than when I started. Be willing to ask for what you want, and pursue it with everything you have.

I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Rebecca Parsons. Dr. Parsons has decades-long applications development experience across a range of industries and systems. Her technical experience includes leading the creation of large-scale distributed object applications and the integration of disparate systems. Separate from her passion for deep technology, Dr. Parsons is a strong advocate for diversity in the technology industry. Committed to increasing the number of women in coding and STEM fields, Dr. Parsons served on the board of CodeChix and acted as an advisor to Women Who Code, and she recently joined the Board of Trustees for AnitaB.org. She was also chairwoman on the Agile Alliance Board of Directors for four years, and served the organization over a total of six years.

Recognizing Dr. Parsons advocacy efforts within the tech community, in 2018 she received the prestigious Technical Leadership Abie Award, presented by AnitaB.org, celebrating a woman who led or developed a product, process, or innovation that made a notable impact on business or society.

In addition to her work advocating for more women in STEM, Dr. Parsons is a leading industry voice on AI and bias. A hot topic in recent news cycles, Dr. Parsons has been discussing the unintended consequences associated with the advancement AI, and how to fix them, for years. She was recently featured in a Forbes article on the topic, and has spoken at several events across to globe to try to educate the public on why AI bias is so dangerous.

Dr. Parsons is a sought after speaker for industry events, serving as a featured presenter at well-known conferences, including Collision Conference, Web Summit, YOW!, Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, The Economist Innovation Summit and more.

Before joining ThoughtWorks, Dr. Parsons worked as an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Central Florida where she taught courses in compilers, program optimization, distributed computation, programming languages, theory of computation, machine learning and computational biology. She also worked as a Director’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory researching issues in parallel and distributed computation, genetic algorithms, computational biology and nonlinear dynamical systems.

Dr. Parsons received a Bachelor of Science degree in Computer Science and Economics from Bradley University, a Master’s of Science in Computer Science from Rice University and her Ph.D. in Computer Science from Rice University. She is also the co-author of Domain-Specific Languages, The ThoughtWorks Anthology and Building Evolutionary Architectures.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

From a very young age, I always knew I would get my PhD in something, I just didn’t know what. When I was in the ninth grade, my algebra teacher noticed I was ahead. He suggested I study a PL-1 programming language textbook for a class he was taking. I immediately fell in love with the topic.

Eventually, I applied to university early, and attended Bradley University in Peoria. I graduated after three and a half years with degrees in computer science and economics. After, I worked full-time while pursuing my master’s degree. I eventually returned to school full-time to earn my masters and PhD from Rice University in computer science. The PhD program provided the headspace I needed to go very deep in a particular topic that was also quite broad, and I was able to study and understand it at both levels. I realized I couldn’t accomplish that type of focused research while working full-time, and I never regretted my decision to go back to school.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you joined ThoughtWorks?

In 2018 I was honored to receive the Technical Leadership Abie Award from AnitaB.org as part of the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing event — the largest gathering in the world of women technologists. As expected, many of my colleagues attended the event in Houston to show support and celebrate with me. On the second day of the event and unknown to me, several of my former students were waiting patiently for me following a presentation I delivered about Evolutionary Architecture. I walked off stage into the hallway of the George R. Brown Convention Center, and I was surprised by a swarm of old friends and new followers. I didn’t expect my former students to be there, and especially didn’t expect them to wait so patiently for me to finish up answering questions. I was surrounded by people thanking and congratulating me and was overwhelmed with the appreciation and gratitude that was showered upon me. I couldn’t help but reflect back on my earlier years in Houston, completing my Ph.D (’92) at Rice University. The journey I started so long ago, with many twists and turns along the way, had come full circle.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I have an example that isn’t from early on my career, one comes to mind that happened a few years ago. It’s not uncommon for communications to be sent out under your name when you’re an executive leader. At the time, ThoughtWorks was promoting a concept called ‘Seismic Shifts, with an ongoing series of articles, webinars, and client stories that explored the details behind radical changes in technology, specifically VR, AR, ML, AI, APIs, and robots. Unfortunately, when a new edition of our newsletter was sent to our subscribers, the Seismic Shifts’ hyperlink was incorrect. The ‘f’ was missing in the word shift, and without the ‘f’, you know what that spells. Immediately, someone picked up on our mistake and tweeted about it. They credited ThoughtWorks for providing them with a good laugh early on a Friday morning after a long work week. An apology email was quickly sent and our mistake was acknowledged. The lesson here is that we’re all human and make mistakes. But you can bet from that day forward, a second layer of review was put in place for communications going out under my name!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

At ThoughtWorks, we are firm believers that technologists play an important role in building a more equitable and socially just future. Since our founding over 25 years ago, we’ve been committed to creating positive change in the world and bettering humanity with software. It’s a lofty goal but it’s something ThoughtWorkers take to heart. I feel very proud to work with brilliant technologists who not only create great tech, but are also passionate advocates and socially conscious global citizens. One issue that is particularly important to the ThoughtWorks community is diversity and inclusion. We’ve worked hard to create an environment that welcomes everyone to come to work as themselves and we celebrate people of all backgrounds. We’re very humbled by the progress we’ve made and the recognition we’ve received for our D&I efforts but we’re the first to say that the work is never done. There will always be new threats to equality and more opportunities for companies to foster more inclusive environments for their employees.

One example program is our Women in Leadership Development program, which we call the WiLD program — to me that’s a great and apt acronym. We initially had it as a separate program, but now women in all of our leadership development programs participate in a weekend program focusing on empowering our aspiring women leaders to embrace their vision for the world and also overcome the common barriers in achieving those visions. We have expanded this program even further to our local regions and also run these for external groups. And it must help — we’ve had alumni from this program ascend to managing directors within ThoughtWorks, while others have gone off to start companies of their own, like Cyndi Williams, CEO of Quin, a company using science, engineering and design to help diabetics who take insulin better manage their conditions.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One project that I always enjoy working on is ThoughtWorks’ Technology Radar, the annual report that highlights evolving tools, processes, and trends in the software development space. The 21stst edition of the report was just released in November. This year we focused on an issue that is incredibly important to me and one that I believe everyone in the technology industry should be prioritizing, which is preventing machine learning bias. Machine learning tools are used to make life-impacting decisions, however, there’s a risk with any type of artificial intelligence that prejudice and other bias could impact the models we use.

Machine learning can help us advance as individuals and as a society, but it’s important that we address questions around bias, accountability, and liabiliaty along the way. We need to better understand how such systems come to the conclusions they do, especially given how important those conclusions are. I’m proud that ThoughtWorks is continuing to shed light on this issue. If we don’t, our society will undoubtedly face a variety of serious moral, legal, practical, and social consequences.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I believe the status quo for women in STEM has shifted a bit since I first started in the industry, in part because it’s now much less acceptable to make public comments that perpetuate gender stereotypes, which is a step in the right direction. When I was in school, I was told that women were incapable of understanding math and computer science, which is not something that you would be allowed to say today (and is clearly completely wrong!). But, no, I am not satisfied with the status quo surrounding women in tech. Right now, the majority of advocates around these issues are women and other minorities who are vocal and visible in their fight for a place in the tech industry. I applaud those that speak out, but urge those who are not experiencing these biases to do the same. That way we can all better publicly acknowledge and address the lack of diversity in the industry.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

At times it’s the more subtle biases that truly set women back. Challenges for women begin in STEM as early as the first step in the job searching process. During the recruitment phase or the hiring process many employers tend to look for someone like themselves, and that bias can then work against women who are interviewing in traditionally male-dominated industries or companies. I would encourage recruiters and hiring managers to be aware of these biases, as more often than not these are subconscious tendencies. Unfortunately, these subtle biases continue as women are considered for advancement.

Because we all have these unconscious biases, I believe it’s critical that we also start to change the stigma around bias. We all must continue to be aware of our biases and take steps to mitigate them. It’s only when we refuse to acknowledge or address bias that discrimination occurs. If individuals within the STEM industries can identify the first sign of these biases, we can work together to ensure that they don’t cloud judgement, or lead to discriminatory actions.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

One of the biggest myths I want to completely shut down is that if you love math, science, technology, or computers you’re “weird.” It’s not true! You don’t need to apologize for pursuing your passion and you should never think twice about chasing that dream. The tech industry today is a far more acceptable place than when I started. Be willing to ask for what you want, and pursue it with everything you have.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

You don’t have to be taught to learn.

Embrace learning new things as something fun, instead of a chore. Technology is changing all the time. If you don’t learn, you’ll become obsolete. I taught myself to program while still in high school. I taught myself COBOL to start my cooperative education position. There’s no reason to say “I can’t do that because I don’t know it”. Instead, say, “I don’t yet know it but I can do it.”

Ensure you, your team, and your organization are all aligned on what success looks like.

If those definitions of success are incompatible, no one wins. I was in a situation where my personal definition of success collided with that of my organization. I had two choices, to feel like a failure but be successful, or to feel successful but be seen as a failure. Neither option was a good one. I opted to find a different place where those definitions were aligned.

Once objectives are aligned, look for outcomes from your team, not implementation specifics.

By getting out of the way, the people around you can thrive. One of our heads of technology was constantly trying new things in his home country. I attended one oversight meeting for the country and recognized only one of the initiatives he was talking about. He took the outcomes we were trying to achieve and ran experiments to prove things out, and he saw no need to ask permission. I agreed with his approach, although it would have been nice to know about them. He was waiting to tell me about the successes.

Embrace failure, if it’s constructive failure.

To me, constructive failure occurs when you try something that seems like a good idea, but for some reason it goes wrong. Understanding why it went wrong allows us to learn from it. However, we have to feel comfortable enough to admit failure. Some people struggle with that, but from my perspective, people don’t set out to fail. If there was a good reason for me to believe it was a good idea, others might too. They should at least be able to learn from my mistakes. My first publication in computational biology was about why a particular representation for a problem was such a failure. The problem itself was quite similar to the one for which the representation was designed. After trying and having it fail miserably, I analyzed the differences and was able to explain the characteristics that had created the failure. Many folks said “You can’t talk about failures — you’ll kill your career!” In my mind, we must learn from each other’s mistakes so we don’t waste time.

Don’t put yourself in a box; rather, bring your entire self to a position.

I was on a management group and asked a question about how something could work. The answer I received made no sense to me, but no one else in the group objected. I assumed that because I was the geek I was missing something obvious, so I kept my mouth shut. No one ever told me I was “only the geek” and to not talk about things outside tech, I put myself in that box. Unfortunately, the thing I thought would go wrong did, in fact, happen. I blamed myself for not pushing the issue. Just because I was the geek and it was a business question, I should have pushed for an answer that made sense to me.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Learn not just about tech but the business your tech is in. And continue to be curious — embrace learning new things and keeping up with new developments. You can’t be a successful leader if you don’t keep up with the most current tech.

Additionally, trust your instincts, and don’t let team members, especially male ones, sway your decisions. Have faith in your own abilities, don’t be afraid to try something new and be confident. It’s very easy when things get tough to think you’ve made the wrong choice. Part of being a leader is challenging established norms and helping people to take risks and try new things. Learn from your mistakes, but don’t drive yourself crazy playing the “what if” game. I always say, women like to solve problems, no matter what.

Finally, as I said above, make sure your team feels that it is safe to experiment and take risks. The leader’s job is to support the experiments that make sense and protect her team if sensible experiments fail. It isn’t an interesting experiment if you’re sure the experiment will succeed.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

One of the biggest barriers for women in the field of technology is the lack of female representation in leadership positions. So women in those roles have a great responsibility to show the next generation of leaders what’s possible, and to lead by example. I’m also a strong believer in not being defined by a qualifier. I don’t consider myself a “woman technologist,” I’m just a technologist and the same goes for me as a leader. Focus on the skills that got you into this position and don’t question whether you belong in the role. Model the behaviors of inclusion that you’d like to see in your team. Finally, I’ve found that letting your passion for your work show is a great way to empower and inspire your team.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There is no one person that I can single out for helping me get where I am, but I definitely have had a lot of help from many influential people during my career journey. I have been fortunate enough to have several mentors, and each of them have affected my career in some way or another. One of the best pieces of advice I received was from a coach eight years ago, which was relatively late in my career. I realized that stating what I wanted to achieve wouldn’t close other doors. My coach helped me understand that just putting something out there wouldn’t limit my opportunities.

I’m of course also very passionate about AI and machine learning, specifically the impact potential AI bias could have on both the tech industry and general society. I did not realize this passion until joining the AI Special Interest Group that was part of DECUS (Digital Equipment Computer Users Society). By collaborating with the many intelligent people within the group, I began my exploration of knowledge representation and machine learning systems. I credit this experience for setting me up for my work in genetic algorithms and evolutionary computation, beginning at Los Alamos National Laboratory where I worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

When I was in my early 20s, I went on a medical mission to Haiti that had an enormous impact on me. I saw firsthand what life was like for people who are less privileged. The experience gave me a new sense of perspective and humility, and has impacted how I view my role in the industry. It helped me decide to use my sabbatical to spend time in Kampala, Uganda, working with UNICEF on their Technology for Development initiatives.

As a leader, I have the ability to identify and influence where ThoughtWorks focuses our efforts. I’m extremely proud of the work we’ve delivered while collaborating with a variety of organizations to improve healthcare across the world. A specific example of how technology played a critical role occurred during the 2014–2016 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. The deployment of an open source medical records system (Open MRS) improved outcomes for the people of Kerry Town village, outside of Sierra Leone.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I envision incredible opportunities stemming from an IT revolution which I call RevTech. Technology is not neutral and depending on its application, the outcomes can be positive or negative. We need a mind shift to create a future state where we get the policy and ethical decisions about technology right. This would be a movement toward a world where technology truly serves people — and where technologists can be proud of the code we create, the data we collect, and the technologies we release. We need to engage broader civic and social organizations to help us determine policies around technologies like autonomous vehicles and to help us understand the tradeoffs inherent in many emerging technologies.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

While it’s not necessarily a specific quote, I love the overall life lesson of ‘never give up’ — the theme of the children’s book “The Little Engine That Could.” Those simple yet powerful words, “I think I can, I think I can, I know I can” are ones I’ve tried to live by since I was young. For example, there’s a common misconception that once you begin working, you’ll never be able to go back to school. I knew there was more that I wanted to learn even after I had started my career, so I challenged that perception by pursuing my master’s degree while working full-time, and going back to school full-time to earn my PhD.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

That’s a tough one. There are so many inspirational leaders globally. One person who comes to mind is Angela Merkel. Her leadership of Germany is still something spoken of in the context of her being a woman leader, but not always. She’s the Chancellor of Germany, not the female Chancellor. I would love to know how she has balanced her position and how she’s evolved her thinking over her tenure.

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