Stories from the WIT Trenches: Sadie Van Buren

[This is the first in a series of posts exploring the personal stories of real women in technology. Back in April I wrote a bit about my own history, and about the problems, systemic and idiosyncratic, plaguing women who chose  a career in most sectors of the tech world. Writing it was surprisingly cathartic, and the response to it was powerful enough to make me want to push it further. Every woman in tech overcame at the very least statistical odds to be here; this blog series aims to find out why, and what they found along the way. I’m so thrilled that we get to kick off with Sadie Van Buren, whom many of you already know as a dynamic voice in the SharePoint community, and as the author of the ingenious SharePoint Maturity Model. If reading Sadie’s story inspires any of you to tell yours, please feel free to email me.]

My name is Sadie Van Buren and I’m a Senior Software Engineer at Blue Metal Architects in Watertown, MA.  I’m a Microsoft SharePoint consultant and have been working with that product since late 2002.  Over the past nine years I’ve participated in about 50 implementations of the product and have acted as project manager, business analyst, developer, and solution architect.

1)      Can you take us back to your “eureka!” moment—a particular instance or event that got you interested in technology?

I’m not sure there was a specific moment.  One of my brothers gave me a new Commodore Vic-20 when I was a kid, and it may have been a disappointment to him that I mainly used it to play Q-bert.  But by the time I was in my senior year of high school, I was convinced that I needed a computer for college.  I had been using an ancient Royal typewriter for creative writing and school papers at home, and my mother was supportive of getting me one of those nice new electric typewriters like I used in typing class, but I wanted to go beyond that and do real word processing.  The choice between making edits on paper and then typing the whole thing over again versus making them before they were printed was a no-brainer to me.  A family friend hooked me up with one of those big old beige PCs that so many of us had under our office desks in the 1990s.  I used it for fiction writing and for my essays and papers all through college.  Not many of the other kids I knew had their own PC; most of them went to the computer lab to work on their papers, but I didn’t assign any meaning to this at the time.

2)      Growing up, did you have any preconceived perceptions of the tech world and the kinds of people who lived in it?

I’m thinking about my father, who was an appliance repairman and who, as the years went by, talked about becoming less familiar with the more computer-chip-controlled appliances; about my older brother, who designed ocean research equipment and HATED his job (mostly because of having to field the tech support calls from what I understand), and my other brother who was crazy for technology and gadgets largely for their own sake.   My early perceptions of technology  were, by turns: 1. It can be befuddling, 2. It can be a ball and chain, 3. Its sounds and lights can be very annoying if they’re not used for a purpose.

3)      Were you a CS major?

No.  I never even considered it when I was in school.  But there have been many times since that I wished I had that background.  Not that I would have exchanged it for the education I did get –I wish I had it all, that it would have been possible to major in many different areas and get a comprehensive education in lots of subjects.

4)      When did you first consider a career in technology? What did you envision doing?

When I started consulting in 2006, that’s when I stopped thinking about my “job” and started thinking about my “career.”  I had enjoyed working with technology in all the years previous, and was good at it, but until that point I hadn’t thought it would be what I’d do for the rest of my working life.  Consulting increased the amount of working with people and their many and varied real-world technology problems; I was learning much more at a much faster pace than I’d had to before, and all these elements felt right to me.

5)      Did you experience any personal or systemic setbacks at any point of your academic or professional career?

My experience has been overwhelmingly positive.  I’ve worried a lot about how my not being a CS major might block me from better opportunities, but that hasn’t been the case.  I wouldn’t have my current career situation any other way:  challenging technology projects that encourage me to innovate and that put me on teams with incredibly smart and talented engineers, developers, analysts and designers.

6)      Why do you think the rate of attrition for women in IT is higher than that of women in other tech fields?

I wonder if it has anything to do with the type of personality that is drawn to this kind of work.  When I consider the “lack of female role models,” hypothesis, I’m thinking about how I personally have found some amazing female role models in technology, many of whom are outside the companies where I’ve worked.  Great female role models are out there in abundance, but you may need to push yourself to find them and connect with them rather than waiting to cross paths with them in the natural course of your work.  And I know how uncomfortable this kind of networking and outreach can be for some people to initiate.

7)      Do you have any suggestions for how to get more girls interested in computers and computer science? Is this important to you?

I’ve read recently that girls like images of horses and unicorns because they’re associated with power and transformation.  If we want to get girls more interested in computer science, we need to make the case that technology can give tremendous power to those who know how to harness it.  Computer science in and of itself may not be at the top of my list of must-have skills for girls, but self-reliance is, and the more a girl understands the power of leveraging technology to develop her own ideas and visions, the more self-reliant she can be.

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