Stories from the WIT Trenches: Susann Luperfoy

[This is the tenth in a series of posts exploring the personal stories of real women in technology. 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. 
 As Executive Director of UPOP, Susann Luperfoy (ln) equips MIT students for careers in STEM. With an impressive background in Artificial Intelligence and Akamai technologies, Luperfoy provides insight to how she got to where she is today and challenges she faced along the way. If reading her story inspires you to share yours, please email me.]

I’m Susann Luperfoy, a former research scientist and engineer in artificial intelligence who also worked on several startup companies as well as startup ventures inside established companies.  I now teach MIT undergraduates the skills they need to thrive and lead in STEM careers outside elite academia.

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

So many eureka moments: the first GUI (I was used to programing on ASCII terminals), the first demo of xMosaic and the worldwide web as an elegant replacement for FTP.  But the relevant answer to your question would be the moment I watched a social science major get promoted over an MIT grad who was not only vastly more qualified technically, but also more creative, more generous with his ideas and his time, harder working, more productive, better able to manage a project team, etc., however not interested in anything that sounded like management.  A string of such surprising experiences prepared me for teaching UPOP.

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

Growing up the plan was always to be a physician. (An engineer was someone who drove a steam train.)  But I loved technology from the start, anything that involved tools; fixing things and building things—cars, bicycles and custom designed clothes as a 5’11” teenager.  Tools and medicine: in some parallel universe I am now a happy surgeon.

3. As Executive Director of UPOP, what led you to this career path? When did you first start working with tech? Was it by choice?  

UPOP was never remotely in the plan, but so many experiences in the world of work prepared me for this position.  When UPOP was first conceived, I was still immersed in work as a research scientist and engineer in Artificial Intelligence.  When UPOP launched in 2002 I was busy in the Cambridge startup world. It was such a great program that I was happy to support it from the outside and eventually took it on full time.

4. UPOP is a great internship program at MIT. Can you tell us a little bit about UPOP, your involvement with it, and what makes it unique?

Thank you for asking!  MIT’s Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program (UPOP) is a full year credit-bearing course sequence in the School of Engineering. The curriculum of “firm skills” is what MIT students need to translate their “hard” math, science and engineering prowess into thriving careers outside elite academia: specification, project engineering, user-centered product design, as well as negotiation, networking, conflict resolution and leadership practice tailored to the needs of engineers and scientists.

5. Prior to UPOP you worked on Akamai Technologies, can you tell us about your work there and how you became involved there?

Akamai was an MIT startup founded in the late 1990’s. A good friend was the founding VP of R&D who hired me as one of his directors.  My department delivered user-facing tools for customers and network operations teams and it grew rapidly with Akamai from three-four programmers to a software development organization with release cycles and quality assurance.  Akamai is a great company, loaded with world-class talent, constantly breaking new ground. At one point I had five MIT professors among my department staff along with one former marine. Talk about a eureka moment – military discipline and elite academia meeting in the for-profit business world was a real eye-opener.

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

Not setbacks so much as my own bad decisions.  For example, I turned down a couple of promotions and some great career advancing job offers to stay put out of an exaggerated sense of loyalty, or what you might call a lack of street smarts.

7. Whom do you look to as mentors and/or sources of inspiration?

I’ve always been inspired by people who apply their accomplishments to give back to society.  There are too many to mention and several of them are current colleagues at MIT.  For now I will mention Tim Berners-Lee and Jimmy Wales.  Each started with a vision and without authority or power over others.  Each changed the world by inspiring others to adopt their vision.

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

You notice that women who start careers in biology, medicine or law remain in their fields whereas women who start in computer science often leave, and few women ever consider careers in philosophy. All were once stereotypically male-dominated fields.

In the 1980’s many women started in introductory computer science courses.  A few years later, I was the only woman in the room.  There were other women around the company or lab but they were managers or administrators often doing good work and rising rapidly in the organization. It was hard being the only woman doing hands on software engineering.  The guys worked together on programming problems, ate lunch together, they went out for “Beer and Brauts” together and laughed a lot. They learned from each other and mentors were plentiful. Why did I stay? Maybe it was as simple as the fact that I had brothers and had grown up being the only girl on camping trips, working on the cars, delivering newspapers, riding motorcycles, etc., so I had become resilient to that feeling of being out of place.

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

Remember “bring your daughter to work day?”  It quickly became “bring your child to work day,” and the year the boys arrived the girls immediately stopped volunteering to try out technology demos. Similarly with a robotics outreach program for high school students that I was involved in, mixed teams became all male teams and if the girls stayed they mostly observed.

My recommendation – every mother should learn to program and teach her daughter to program.  Even if a girl wants to be a ballerina or a politician or princess, let her have the experience of translating her idea into an algorithm and then making the machine enact her idea. You might also teach her to tune up her own bicycle.

10. Do you have any advice for women interested in computers and computer science? Is this important to you?

Stay in. It’s great fun and it’s important.

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