Stories from the WIT Trenches: Debra Dalgleish

[This is the sixth in a series of posts exploring the personal stories of real women in technology. Every woman in tech overcame at the very last statistical odds to be here; this blog series aims to find out why, and what they found along the way. If you’ve ever sought Excel-related help online or in print, chances are you’re familiar with Debra Dalgleish, one of the foremost authorities on Excel and Access development and the author of three books on pivot tables. Here, she talks staring your own home business, getting young girls aware of and excited about careers in tech and kissing correction fluid goodbye. If reading her story inspires you to share yours, please feel to email me.]

Self-employment is the dream job – most of the time. As a computer consultant, working from home, you can set your own hours, schedule meetings at convenient times, or meet with clients online. You’re the boss, so you can pass on projects that don’t appeal to you, if your workload gets too high.

If you have a young family, running your own computer-based business can give you more time with the children, while still earning an income. That’s why I got started, and now, even though the children have moved out, I wouldn’t want any other job.

My work, as an Excel and Access developer, is challenging and rewarding. My clients bring interesting projects, and push me to continue to improve my skills. In this business, there’s always something new to learn.

Each year since 2001, I’ve been honored to receive Microsoft’s Most Valuable Professional (MVP) award in Excel. That has allowed me to travel to annual conferences in Seattle, and meet amazing people – Microsoft employees and fellow conference attendees, from around the world. Those connections have led to other opportunities, like writing my three books on Excel pivot tables, which were published by Apress.

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

  • In 1984, we bought our first home computer – a Macintosh. It was amazing! While helping the kids with their homework, I learned how to use the word processing program, MacWrite, and then Microsoft Word. It made me realize that I could use it to start my own business.

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

  • When I was in high school, the courses were divided into general and technical streams. If you planned to attend university, you took the five year general program. We perceived the technical courses to be easier, and for those students who wanted to graduate, and get right to work in a hands-on job.

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

  • My career path has been long and winding, and somehow ended up in IT. As a Psychology major at university, I had only one course that included a trip to the computer room, and certainly didn’t picture a career in computers.
  • My working life started in the clerical field. We had typewriters on our desks in those days, not computers, and were grateful for technological improvements like correctible ribbons on the typewriter, so we didn’t have to use those little bottles of white correction fluid.
  • Once we had our Macintosh at home I could picture using it to start a home-based business. Local companies were moving from typewriters to computers, and I could help them get started, and assist with their work overloads.

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

  • When I started my computer business, the children were young, and it was difficult to give enough time to the business. Work had to been done during their nap times, or late in the evening, which can be exhausting.
  • Another challenge, when you have your own business, is finding clients. At first, I worked with local businesses only, and was lucky to get new clients through referrals. Later, I created my website, http://www.contextures.com and added pages with Excel tips and tutorials. That has resulted in many new clients, from around the world.

5)      Whom do you look at as mentors and/or sources of inspiration in your field?

  • My sister, Nancy Nelson, has always inspired me with her successes in the technical field. She has a successful career in technology, is raising a family, and participates in many community activities.

6)      How has your participation in both the on- and offline Excel and Access communities changed the way you look at and work with these technologies?

  • Through the Microsoft newsgroups and forums, I have learned an incredible amount, from both the questions and answers. The questions have expanded my perceptions of what can be done in Excel. The answers have shown me incredible new techniques, programming tips, and formula ideas. I’ve learned there’s almost no limit to what Excel and Access can do.
  • At Microsoft events, I’ve met Excel and Access experts, who are very generous in sharing their knowledge. We’ve also met with the Excel program team, to discuss current features and plans for future versions, which was an amazing experience.

7)      Why do you think the rate of attrition for women in software engineering is higher than that of women in most other tech fields?

  • I’m not familiar with the attrition rates in various industries so don’t have an answer for this one. Is the male attrition rate also higher in software engineering?

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

  • Show girls that computers are a great tool for solving interesting problems and creating fabulous designs. Young students want to be cool and connect with their peers, so if they see computers as geeky they’ll avoid them. Get some moms, who work in technology, to spend a few hours in the classroom, talking about their cool jobs.
  • Who are some of their role models? How do those role models use computers? How could the girls create a project focused on one of those role models using a computer?
  • For the older girls, who are choosing university programs, the student counselors and university recruiters could show the benefits of enrolling in a technology program, and the wide variety of careers that are available to graduates.

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