Stories from the WIT Trenches: Stacia Misner

[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. Those of you who work in the SQL Server BI arena are mostly likely familiar with Stacia Misner— the consultant, instructor and prolific author is one of  the MS BI stack’s greatest champions. Here, she talks tractors, the SQLBI community’s collective consciousness and growing up in the stars. For guidance and in-depth tutorials on all things SQL Server, SSRS, SharePoint and BI, check out Stacia’s blog and books! And if reading her story inspires you to share yours, please feel to email me.]

I’m Stacia Misner, a business intelligence consultant, author, and instructor specializing in the Microsoft business intelligence stack. I have been working in the business intelligence field since 1999 and started my own consulting company in 2006.

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

I’ve always been interested in technology in one way or another. My parents were both programmers, although I don’t recall growing up thinking that I would follow in their footsteps. I was always very good at math and science, and was properly encouraged in those areas. I had the privilege of growing up in Houston, in the heart of the space industry, so all my friends’ parents (mostly fathers at the time, I suppose) were engineers or scientists. Technology seemed a normal part of life, and my friends and I grew up expecting that it would become more and more like Star Trek as time went on. At that time, computers were still some sort of mysterious thing that my father and his colleagues worked with, but I’m sure I never saw one. And then one day, my father brought home a TRS-80. Although it was his “toy”, he allowed me to spend time on it, and I quickly fell in love with programming. I had a plan to develop a version of Monopoly, but perhaps that was a bit ambitious for my first serious program. I never did finish…

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

My preconceived perceptions were definitely influenced by television – with programs like Star Trek and Space:1999 as the ones that loom largest in my memory. I was surrounded in my neighborhood by people in the tech world, but although I didn’t really see women outside of traditional roles as mothers, teachers, nurses, and the like, I also didn’t feel that I would be hindered in any way in my choice of careers.

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

I knew that working with computers would be a good idea, so I started taking a Fortran class in high school. In those days, I had to use a keypunch machine and submit my programs as a stack of cards to be run in batch mode overnight. I honestly didn’t have a plan at that time. I just knew that it would be a good idea to develop some skills.

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

My teen years were troubled and I wound up as an emancipated teen as I was finishing high school. That meant I couldn’t get the financial aid paperwork done for college, and had to fend for myself for a while. Still, I took classes at the local community college when I could and focused on accounting more than computing. Eventually, my mother and I reconciled and she recommended that I apply for a job at a small software company where she had once worked. I was hired as a software installer/trainer, which meant I traveled around North America installing computer systems at tractor dealerships and teaching the personnel how to run their business on the new computer. It was an interesting experience, considering that the agriculture industry was so male-dominated. The advantage I had was that I knew how to run the computers and they didn’t – and the manufacturers at that time were requiring dealers to computerize or lose their franchise. They HAD to put up with me! I rose in the ranks at my company and had a very good career going.

While this job was a great job while it lasted, it also required me to travel a lot and I had to set my education aside. The ag industry was also very cyclical and eventually it declined enough that I found myself out of a job. I settled for a job as an accountant at an insurance brokerage, which gave me a chance to go back to school at night, but after my “glory days” with the software company, it wasn’t as challenging. That is, until management figured out that I could program specialized reports for them that they couldn’t get from the canned reporting system. That is really when my business intelligence career officially kicked off, although I didn’t know it at the time and certainly had never heard the term “business intelligence” then. But that’s exactly what I was doing – the hard way.  The insurance industry at that time was also very male-dominated, with women primarily in support roles, but I carved a niche for myself and provided a lot of value to that company.

Fast forward many years, and a couple of jobs later, I always felt respected and appreciated for what I did. I thought the days of women having to prove themselves were over. I was in a management position, and my boss was a VP who had left the company. I applied for that job, but was told (by the CEO) that because the company was planning an IPO in the future, the only serious candidate would be a gray-haired man. I was dumbfounded. I thought even if that were the case, I would hardly have expected to be told such a thing to my face. Talk about discrimination! But as it turned out, the gray-haired man that got hired was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I don’t recall now whether he came before or after I had discovered business intelligence and pitched it to upper management as a direction to pursue, but regardless, he was my biggest advocate and helped me secure funding for research and development that set me on the path leading to my current role.

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

My mother is definitely a source of inspiration. She accomplished so much at a time under such difficult circumstances. She had to endure a lot of blatant sexism, far worse than anything I encountered. Also, that first software company into which she steered me early in my career had a high percentage of women, very unusual for the early 1980s. So I had many role models to learn from, and I still think about them today. Now, I don’t find myself looking up so much, but instead I’m looking around. I am inspired by many people in the SQL Server community, both men and women, at all stages of their respective careers.

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

I think engagement in these communities lessens the feeling that I have to be the lone ranger, especially being part of a small consulting company. Although I get to use the BI technologies in different ways, thanks to a diverse group of clients, my experiences are still finite, and I can tap into the “collective consciousness” of the community to fill in gaps. In addition, as I encounter something in my work or in classes, I think about how something I learned might be helpful to others and share when I can, so it’s a two-way relationship.

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 entirely sure. I’m removed from that side of the field. I’ve wondered aloud with others if it’s the rate of technology change that is a factor. It certainly doesn’t help if women take a break to raise a family. It’s harder to pick up where you left off. But it’s also not impossible. Women also tend to be the primary caregivers and it’s hard to balance the family life if you also have to deal with project crunches and off-hours support issues.

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

I wish I knew the answer here. I do think it’s important, but I’m sure smarter minds than mine have been looking at this problem. I do think it’s important enough that I continually exposed my own daughter to computers throughout her childhood. Her first reaction was to ignore me, but she eventually succumbed and became a business intelligence consultant like me! I think girls should only pursue computer science if they’re interested, but the key is to give them that exposure. They need to see how they can do something that matters in computer science. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the Microsoft DigiGirlz program and hope to see things like this be accessible to every girl. The only way that I see that happening is for parents to push for it at their children’s schools. I’d like to see concerned volunteers get involved in their local schools, or some type of variation of SQLSaturdays that targets young girls in the community.

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