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Q&A session with Marie Wallace, IBM

Marie Wallace is currently Analytics Product Manager & Strategist for IBM having spent the last decade working across software, hardware, and research divisions on analytics innovation. She is advisor to IBM's Global Consulting organization where she helps IBM's clients craft strategies that will allow them to realize the benefits of social, collaboration, and analytics. Prior to this Marie led research of IBM's LanguageWare technology which is now integrated into dozens of IBM products, including IBM's Watson. She also led IBM's involvement in a pan-European semantic web research project, and subsequently was Content Analytics Evangelist and then Social Analytics Strategist. Before joining IBM Marie held a number of positions across Siemens, Motorola, Informix and Oracle. She holds a Bachelors degree in Applied Physics, and a Masters in Optoelectronics. Today Marie is a globally recognized thought leader in the analytics space with an active social media presence and popular blog. She also sits on advisory boards for the Digital Repository of Ireland at the Royal Irish Academy, and the Digital Arts & Humanities PhD Program at Trinity College Dublin.


Figures show that over the last decade, the number of women in IT has declined. Why do you think this is so?
My gut instinct, at least looking at the situation in Ireland, is that this is in large part due to the overall decrease in IT graduates we’ve seen since the tech bubble burst in 2000. Since we were already seeing small numbers of women coming through the academic system, this had a significant incremental impact on the number of women coming into the industry. These numbers have only started to recover in the last few years, and considering the lead times for college graduates I anticipate that we will see some recovery in the next few years.

Why do you think it's important to get more women into the IT industry?
I’ve spent the last decade in IBM working on research and innovation, and in my experience the most successful projects have been those which combine a diversity of cultures, academic backgrounds, and genders. It creates a dynamic, albeit sometimes challenging, environment within which ideas flourish. I believe that women look at problems in a very different way then men, not better or worse just different, and this always adds huge value particularly when solving completely new challenges that require out-of-the-box thinking. In addition, and maybe this is somewhat of a cliché, but I’ve also personally found that a mixture of men and women makes for a closer and more familial team dynamic which in my experience always benefits the overall team and business results. In fact most the men I work with would also agree that they prefer the dynamics of a team which has a mix of genders.

How do you think we can encourage more women into the IT industry?
I believe we need to go back to the beginning and start with the very young. Young girls need to be encouraged to be curious about the world around them, and not to be afraid of science, engineering,maths or technology. And young boys need to recognize that a girl's different approach to solving technical problems is equally valid. A few months ago I read a really interesting article about a lady in the United States who was designing engineering toys specifically targeted to very young girls. They integrated physical construction challenges into story telling, which I thought it was just such a wonderful way of introducing young girls to engineering in a way that engages them intellectually. We in the IT sector also need to change the perception, which I believe is slowly changing, that IT is all about maths and computer science nerds sitting in front of a computer
screen for hours on end. Nowadays much of what we do in the software sector requires actively engaging customers on everything from use case modelling, business process, user experience, and writing code is a small, albeit important, part of the creation process. There is great diversity of experience in the IT sector.

What do you think caused the major shift of women out of technology?
To my point above, I’m not totally convinced that the reduction wasn’t a by-product of a broader reduction in IT graduates following the tech crash of 2000. Having worked in the IT sector since I graduated in 1992, I’ve seen increasing support for women during that time. I know in IBM, where I currently work, there is a strong and vibrant community of women spread across different divisions and in many different roles.


What made you want to get involved in the technology industry?
I was very lucky that when I graduated from college the Internet was just kicking off, so it was an extremely exciting time to be in software. I was fascinated with the potential of what the Internet could be and I wanted to be part of what I saw as being the next major technological wave. As a child I was also a huge fan of science fiction which probably helped :-) Also I guess I’ve always loved puzzles and for me software is nothing more than a series of puzzles that we have to solve. Coming from a physics background I was used to being in a male dominated field so it never occurred to me to be intimidated about entering the IT sector.

Have you come across any personal barriers in your career?
I’ve been very fortunate with my career and the companies I’ve worked with and I would really have to think hard to identify any situation where my gender was detrimental to my career. If I was going to dig deep and suggest any potential challenges for women in this sector, it’s the obvious one of style differences. In a predominately male environment behaviors that are natural for men may feel less comfortable for women; speaking up, self-promotion, expressing opinion, arguing your case, etc.  However I do believe this is slowly changing and companies like IBM are actively fostering cultures that support different communication styles.


What advice would you give to women who would like to get into the technology industry but are hesitant or not sure how to do this?
As with any career choice, my #1 advice if do something that you love. So first and foremost consider what you find interesting. For me I loved puzzles, designing things, working with people, and wasn’t afraid of technical challenges. Therefore I was able to find myself various roles over my career that played to these strengths and where I could feel challenged and passionate. Once you know what you are good at and what excites you, I would suggest looking to the companies that would have these types of roles. With the Internet it’s very easy to find whatever information you need about most companies. Clearly in many cases there are specific skills that are required which may require academic studies, or perhaps leverage pre-existing skills that were learned in a different industry. The IT sector is a hugely exciting space, never more so than now as we see the consumer sector flourish and the entire world being transformed by technology. There was never a better time to get on-board.
 

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