[This is the eleventh 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. This week we met up with Pam Conway (ln) of CompuWorks. If reading her story inspires you to share yours, please email me.]
Pamela Conway has over 20 years of experience in the technical education field. A graduate of Purdue University, Pamela joined CompuWorks in 1991 as a technical writer and software trainer. After many years providing traditional classroom training and curriculum development, in 2000 she became part of CompuWorks’ management team concentrating on implementing new training modalities and planning training/support projects for Fortune 500 companies and government agencies. In 2007, Pamela, along with Andrew and Stacy Wight, assumed ownership of CompuWorks. Pamela has lectured throughout the United States and Europe.
1. Can you take us back to your “eureka!” moment—a particular instance or event that got you interested in technology?
I can still vividly remember the moment when I fell in love with technology. I was a freshman in college and had a paper due in one of my classes. As many of us have done, I’d procrastinated too long to write out the paper, edit it and then type it up to turn in the next morning – yes, we were stilling typing on actual typewriters back then, but it was just on the cusp of the explosion of personal computers. This was 1986. A friend of mine who was majoring in information technology – the program was one of the first of its kind at the time – told me to come use her Mac and I could compose, edit and type all at the same time. I was an English major and very wary of computers, but I was desperate. All it took was that one night typing away on her Mac using the first version of Microsoft Word and I was hooked. I turned the paper in on time and chucked my typewriter out the very next day.
2. Growing up, did you have any preconceived perceptions of the tech world and the kinds of people who lived in it?
I sure did. It was mostly based on my best friend’s brother and his friends who would sit in his room all day playing with his Commodore 64. Naturally, they were all male. So for me, the world of technology was populated by geeky boys who sat in dark rooms. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, but junior high perception is pretty compelling! Luckily, I attended a university that was very tech heavy and happily had my perceptions altered. The truth is, at this stage of the game, the tech world is THE world. It’s everywhere, but these old perceptions of things die hard for some folks.
3. As Vice President of CompuWorks, you’ve been highly involved with the technical education field. Can you tell us a little about CompuWorks and what led you to this career path? When did you first start working with tech? Was it by choice?
CompuWorks is a computer training and IT services company. We focus on software training and providing assistance that support users of software, such as supplemental help desk services, technical writing, elearning and customized training. It’s interesting how I got started down this path. After I graduated from college, I struggled for the first year trying to find a job beyond a never-ending series of temp positions. It was the early nineties and PCs were just starting to proliferate in offices. The temp agency would call and say, “Do you know WordPerfect for DOS?” or “Do you know Microsoft Excel?” My answer would always be yes, even if I hadn’t ever heard of it before. My roommate worked for a different IT training company at the time, and she would bring home training manuals for me. I’d cram the night before on her computer, or sometimes if she didn’t have the software, I’d just read the manual and hope enough of it stuck. I always managed to remember just enough to make it in the next day to the temp job and wing it. That experience taught me that I had the ability to learn software very quickly. When my roommate moved to join CompuWorks and a position there opened up for technical writer developing software training manuals, I jumped at it. From there I proceeded in short order to being a trainer myself and the rest, as they say, is history. It certainly wasn’t the path I thought I would walk, but it was a very happy accident that lead me to here.
4. You’ve also been involved with the NERD Center’s Successful You – a fairly new Women’s Leadership Forum. Can you tell us a little bit about it and your involvement with it?
CompuWorks is a Microsoft certified learning solutions partner and our Microsoft rep, the fabulous Barrie Mirman, has been instrumental in working with the conference. Barrie invited me as her guest to the first conference three years ago and I’ve been attending ever since. It’s a fantastic event. The one day format and location right in Cambridge, MA at Microsoft’s NERD Center is very convenient, but it’s truly the content of the sessions and the networking with other women that make it a great day. I would definitely recommend people check it out.
5. In your interview with the NERD Center after their annual Women’s Leadership Forum (The Successful You), you mentioned a woman’s path to success is usually very different than a man’s – would you be able to expand on that?
The truth is there are many people who still make assumptions about men and women in the workplace. Whether it’s that women need to have flexible work hours so they can go home to make dinner for their families or that men are the primary bread winners – all of these types of assumptions are not true for many of us any longer, and yet these old perceptions hang on. As a result, I think both women AND men can face struggles trying find their way forward in this new paradigm of stay-at-home Dads, CEO Moms, single working fathers, women business owners, female engineers, male nurses, etc. When we make assumptions based on gender, we make statements about equality and that knife can cut both ways. Once we see that, once we see that something like unequal pay is unfair not only to the women earning less but to the men who are penalized by the same gender inequalities and are therefore not offered the same flexibilities to leave work if a child is sick, we will find the path to success has fewer bumps for us all.
6. Did you experience any personal or systemic setbacks at any point of your academic or professional career?
Probably the biggest setback I had came in college. The week before I was to return to Purdue for my senior year, my father had a heart attack and passed away. Needless to say, it was beyond horrendous. I assumed I would not return to Purdue for the fall semester and that I would stay and help my mother, but she wouldn’t hear anything of the sort. My brother, who was matriculating into Purdue as a freshman that fall, were dropped off at college two days after the funeral. I had intended on going to law school after my undergraduate degree was complete but finishing up my last year while grieving for the loss of my father didn’t leave me with time to study for the LSATs and prepare for a post grad experience. I managed to graduate on time and I figured I’d work it out at some point and look at law school again. I can tell you though that the direction my career took has made me so much happier than if I’d gone to law school. I’m certain of it.
7. Whom do you look to as mentors and/or sources of inspiration?
I am very fortunate to have two fantastic female mentors. The first, Peg Grimes, is the woman who founded CompuWorks back in the late ’80s. She had been a special education teacher but seeing the rise of computers in the workplace and the subsequent need for training, she formed CompuWorks. When I joined the company as a technical writer, I was in many ways lost in terms of where I was going with my career. Peg was the one who looked at me and said that I would be a great trainer. I was doubtful, but she was insistent. Turned out she was right. I loved being a trainer and, frankly, that is still what I consider myself at heart to be. My other mentor is a fantastic woman named, Shelley Hall. Shelley worked in the computer training business for a number of years in sales and management roles before ultimately owning her own computer training company. Shelley is generous with her knowledge and advice, and I lean on her often, bouncing business and management decisions off her for feedback. She runs a successful management consulting company now called, Catalytic Management.
8. Do you have any suggestions for how to get more girls interested in computers and computer science? Is this important to you?
This is very important to me because it’s crucial for the future economic growth of our country and the success of our children. Here’s the thing I want girls to understand: computers and computer science are big, broad, dynamic fields that offer so many different types of opportunities that require people with a wide variety of skills. Certainly there are major roles for girls who have a love for and a talent in mathematics, but many girls are drawn to a vision of a creative career when they see their future. Designing software or user interfaces or databases or writing about technology are highly creative roles. For the girls who see themselves in business, many of the major companies in the US are tech companies or have major technology components to them. Yes, absolutely study and learn about business, but embrace technology in doing so. It’s part of so much of what we do now and that will pale in comparison to what it will be like in the future.
9. Do you have any advice for women interested in computers and computer science? Is this important to you?
My advice to women interested in computers and computer science is this: go for it! These are important fields that can greatly benefit from having more women involved. Women, in general, tend to be more collaborative than men. In the fields of software engineering and computer science so much of the work is done as a part of a team. The value that women can bring to these disciplines is enormous. But more than that, if a career in the field of computers is something a young woman desires, nothing should prevent her from pursuing that. There are mentors out there for young women. I would encourage them to reach out to women in their company or other companies for advice or support. Don’t be bashful about asking and reaching high. You might not get Yahoo’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, to agree to be your mentor but you definitely won’t if you never ask. You’ll be pleased with how often the person you ask says yes.