Thought Leadership: A Woman’s Perspective on Working in IT

By Anne Caluori, SumThinking

Anne Caluori has spent more than 30 years working in IT. Her travels in the IT environment saw her through a multi-faceted career with the U.S. Army Computer Systems Command to her current company, SumThinking. She’s served SHARE, Inc. as president, secretary, vice president, director, deputy project manager and volunteered on numerous committees. Caluori has nearly seen it all when it comes to the IT ecosystem, and oftentimes, as the only woman in the room. In her interview, she shares her experiences with how far IT has come — and has yet to go — in opening its doors to diversity.

What has your experience as woman in a technology industry been like?

Talk about being in the right place at the right time  I completed my degree in Music/Music Education in 1974, only to find that the local school systems were slashing fine arts budgets, so I had no hope of finding myself leading a children’s choir or coaching the marching band. Happily, shortly thereafter, I found a multi-year IT internship opportunity with the U.S. Army Computer Systems Command that offered classroom training, On-The-Job (OJT) assignments and the promise of career advancement; I decided to apply. The selection process was rigorous and very competitive, the classroom training was demanding, and the subsequent assignments included sites throughout the world.

I loved it and was assigned to be a junior systems programmer upon graduation. I spent the next 30 years working my way from the team neophyte up the organizational ladder. When I retired in 2008, I was the senior civilian in the command and primary deputy to the commander. For over 25 years, I was also privileged to participate actively in the SHARE, Inc. users group in a number of roles in line management and at the board level.

Overall, my experience has been that technical competence is the general tender for success in IT, supported by the ability to communicate well with all of the players involved (which sometimes includes translation skills from techie to executive to user and beyond). I would credit a good deal of my success to keeping a close focus on those competencies and working to continually develop them.        

Do you have to "act like a man" in order to fit in and be successful?

Whenever I join a new group, I’m aware of a tremendous temptation to fit in, to learn “how things are done around here,” and to even sometimes adopt protective camouflage to look less like an outsider and more like someone who belongs. You might remember that for a while women’s business apparel struggled with how closely to mirror men’s suits, probably trying to find a reasonable balance and suggest common ground.

But much as in the apocryphal story of Johnny Cash being warned not to sing the Folsom Prison Blues during a concert at Folsom Prison because it might just remind the prisoners of their jailed state  to which Cash is said to have replied, “So, do you think that otherwise they will have forgotten?”  when you are the one in a group who is clearly not like the others, no amount of camouflage is going to keep you from being “the one who is not like the others.”

My initial assignments were challenging enough that I was entirely consumed in learning as much as possible as quickly as possible as sort of an apprentice in a guild of systems programming masters. Although it’s true that they were all men, I don’t have any recollection of trying to fit in in any way other than pure systems programming skills.

However, a few years later, as team chief for a software extension team comprised of four other systems programmers (all men), I began to gather stories. For example, at the start of our entrance interview at one of the installation sites, the local director clearly assumed that one of the men was the team leader and took the lead by introducing himself to them in turn, as each of them told him that they were not the lead. That was pretty annoying but the reason that I remember this incident so clearly is that when he reached the end of male possibilities, he became clearly frustrated and asked, “Well, then, who is in charge of this team?” Given the time, the culture, his operating beliefs, he was entirely unable to see me in the role of leading the small group. He apologized, we went on, and I realized that rather than blaming him for what in retrospect might have been simply expected behavior, I needed to take a more active and visible role to help avoid setting up this sort of confusion in the future.

What are some of the biggest obstacles you've had to overcome?

I think that the single greatest obstacle that I’ve dealt with is something that gets referred to as “prevailing mythology,” which I would define as how the members of a given group think about the world around them. It’s related to the methods, beliefs, and behaviors in the group and extends to making judgment about things and people outside the group. The “isms” are facets of various prevailing mythologies. As the years have passed, I’ve been glad to see some of the gender mythologies fading, while I’m working to exploit the also shifting generation and aging mythologies.

There’s a fine balance between highlighting the differences that bring value  sometimes unique value to your team and efforts  versus the differences that just make you different. Finding and maintaining that balance is continually challenging, but it is critical to being able to benefit from the wealth of benefits inherent in operating within diversity.

What are some times where being a woman in technology has helped you or increased your success?

In the very early days, being a woman in the tech industry did have some positive impact, simply because it was such a novelty that it occasionally opened doors or started conversations that might become the basis for further work together. But this sort of thing was often outweighed by the sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle, requirement to prove oneself capable in the face of general disbelief that women had a place in tech.

What advice do you have for women coming into the industry? What piece of advice have you received that's stayed with you?

Be mindful and purposeful  spend some time actually identifying what you want to do in your career and life. There are lots of pretty simple ways to do this, like building a bucket list or developing a life plan, or even writing the obituary that you want to live into; it’s really just about thinking through where you want to spend your time and energy and then being willing to monitor progress and adjust if you decide that it’s appropriate.

Keep an inner ear open to alert yourself to self-limiting beliefs. These can be pretty sneaky and seductive, worming their way into your inner conversation and weakening your resolve. Keeping this little diagnostic available is part of being mindful and on purpose; don’t let yourself be sidelined by them.

And finally, seek out a mentor or even better, a few mentors. Recognize that there’s no rule that you have to (or even should) develop your best self and build your career by yourself. Identify someone who has competencies that you want to acquire, whether these are technical skills, social graces or interpersonal networks, among others. Read up on mentoring if that might help and reach out to those you see value in emulating.

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