[This is the third 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. To many of you reading, the name Kendra Little may ring a bell. She’s one of the most active voices in the SQL community, and her blog is crammed with tech and workplace wisdom (and amazing illustrations). Her journey to becoming the sole female member of the Fantastic Four is described below. If reading her story inspires you to share yours, please feel free to email me.]
I love data.
I’m a founding partner of Brent Ozar PLF, LLC. We’re a team of consultants who dive in to help clients identify their biggest pain points and prescribe remedies that will work for their environment. Think of us as sports medicine trainers for the database layer—we’re experts at conditioning, recovering from and preventing failures, and helping database systems do more.
I’ve loved to draw since I was a kid. I create art for presentations and posters on topics like Isolation Levels and Table Partitioning. Everyone can download my posters for free from http://BrentOzar.com/go/posters.
1) Can you take us back to your “eureka!” moment—a particular instance or event that got you interested in technology?
One conversation changed my life.
I earned a stipend in Graduate School by working in the Dean’s office part time. My job was to administer databases, develop data entry interfaces, and automate new reports. My manager, Dr. Nancy Busch, was fantastic. She set clear goals, she listened carefully, and she had a great vision for the future.
One day Dr. Busch asked how my graduate program was going. I told her I was always excited and engaged when working with our databases, but my Philosophy classes felt like a chore. With a few thoughtful questions she helped me see what was important: I really loved to do something, and I could make a great career of it.
I finished up my Masters degree in Philosophy and embarked on a new path. It was scary at the time—this was shortly after September 11, 2001 in New York City and work was scarce. But it was the absolute right thing to do. I got a job integrating data from web applications with a mainframe and I’ve never regretted changing course.
2) Growing up, did you have any preconceived perceptions of the tech world and the kinds of people who lived in it?
I assumed the tech world was composed of two types of people: people like my brother (who is rad and very much an entrepreneur), and people who never bathe. Basically, I thought it was half people who run startups and half geek-machines.
Without really thinking about it, I assumed they were all men. I didn’t see it as being a very creative field.
Wow, was I wrong about all of that! I’ve worked with all types of people in technology and they’ve been men and women from a large variety of countries. I’ve gotten to team up on so many creative, interesting projects with them.
3) You had an interdisciplinary, heavily philosophical education—what advantages, if any, has this given you in your current field?
My education at Shimer College focused on reading, thinking, and conversation.
Shimer College made me a better listener. This was no mean feat: I’ve always been very in love with my own ideas! In college I learned that collaborating with others is harder than doing something yourself, but it yields better results. If you work at listening and understanding someone else’s perspective you can generate more interesting ideas together than alone. This is true for running a company, working with clients, and coming up with any technological solution.
4) Did you experience any personal or systemic setbacks at any point of your academic or professional career?
I had a difficult time when I was working in a second-tier support team for a dot com. The job gave me access to huge amounts of data to analyze and solve problems with, which I loved. But there was far more work than resources, and I spent tons of my personal time automating tasks.
I learned an important lesson with this job: if you don’t stop a good distance before the point of burnout then you put yourself at risk of serious unhappiness. It’s important to set limits and guard time for what’s important to you personally, even if you enjoy your work. Your colleagues will understand, but you gotta have the courage to speak up.
5) Who do you look at as mentors and/or sources of inspiration in your field?
Selena Deckelman (blog | twitter) is so inspirational. She’s a database administrator and a community leader for PostGreSQL. She blogs, she organizes conferences, she tweets, she teaches, she hacks. She’s everything cool about data and community and her excitement is contagious.
My brother, Rick Little, is a huge mentor. He’s got great startup stories, he’s been the CTO of a large corporation, and now he’s building a business intelligence services business. Rick’s entrepreneurial spirit and his natural joy in life make him a great inspiration for me: be happy every day and do big things.
Jeremiah Peschka (blog | twitter), Tim Ford (blog | twitter), and Brent Ozar (blog | twitter) are major sources of inspiration. Starting a company together teaches you a lot about people, and these guys have integrity, creativity, and just the right amount of mad science.
6) How has your participation in both the on- and offline SQL communities changed the way you look at and work with SQL?
I’ll never feel like a lonely nerd again, now that I have Twitter. I’m now a nerd with intercontinental company! (I use the term ‘nerd’ lovingly, I promise.)
If I hadn’t started blogging and speaking at conferences, would I be a founding partner of Brent Ozar PLF? I’d probably be figuring out how to start my own business about now, but it would be on a much more local level, and I can’t imagine it’d be nearly this fun.
The SQL community has also given me a great sounding board and never-ending source of information. This is a group of people who share a passion for learning, and I think that’s what keeps it going.
7) Why do you think the rate of attrition for women in IT is higher than that of women in other tech fields?
The women I know in IT are smart, driven, and clever as all get out. They want to lead interesting lives. I wouldn’t put it past them to go off and do something else for a few years -perhaps work in a different industry, perhaps raise a family- and then come back and start up their own small business in IT.
Personally, I wish the job market in the United States had more flexibility. At many points in my career I wanted to have a part time job and volunteer for the rest of my time. I could have scrimped and lived on the reduced salary, but a lack of health insurance always held me back. I hope someday we can get to a world where it’s easier to be more creative in designing a career.
8) Do you have any suggestions for how to get more girls interested in computers and computer science? Is this important to you?
Since I love working with data, I want more girls to have the opportunity to find out if they feel the same way. There are so many ways to be creative with computers, and it’s so exciting and engaging.
I love Lynn Langit’s blog and the Teaching Kids Programming project (site). Lynn shares curriculum that you can use with the young people in your life to get them engaged with technology. If you have young people in your life, start working with SmallBasic and share it with them!