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The women bricoleurs of technology

The women bricoleurs of technology

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Full text also available in the ACM Digital Library as PDF | HTML | Digital Edition

Tags: Computing profession, Historical people, Women, World Wide Web

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As I sat down to gather my thoughts for this article, the first thing that popped into my head was the adage, "Don't let your studies interfere with your education." My father would often recite this phrase with a broad smile and a wink when one of my two older brothers or I were in the midst of a stressful academic moment. It's sage advice that has stuck with me, always hovering in the background, subconsciously informing my career and life choices. My father's wisdom afforded me permission to recognize how the formality and theory of education only become real and alive through understanding the application and cross-pollination of disciplines. It reminds us that some of the most important lessons are found in our studies' informal collaborative moments when we connect with other students on seemingly unrelated topics that surface those memorable aha moments of discovery.

Many of you reading this are at stages in your careers where you're focusing on very specific or narrow fields of study. You may be wondering how your "education" may inform and apply to your "studies," wondering what broader opportunities are available outside of academia. I hope that sharing a few examples from my seemingly serendipitous career path can inform and inspire you to realize the exciting possibilities and opportunities to take your well-earned years of theoretical study and put them into practice.

We often hear it's challenging for women to succeed in tech today. A bit of historical context can help to remind us this was not always the case. Going back in time, it was not uncommon to find women at the creative forefront of a variety of corners of the technology landscape. These new frontiers and wide-open spaces provided women a voice and entrepreneurial freedom. They were untethered from existing power structures and the guardrails that make assumptions about their value and the nature of their participation. Look back at every new technology and you are likely to find a woman or many women who made groundbreaking contributions. I think of women such as Ada Lovelace. She worked with Charles Babbage on his computational machine and is believed to have been the first to see its possibilities and applications beyond calculation.

World War II was a watershed moment for creative problem-solving women and technology. Grace Hopper, a mathematician and pioneering computer programmer—although rejected from joining the military at 34—joined the reserves and developed the UNIVAC and the first programs for linking. Hedy Lamarr, the glamorous Hollywood actress and producer of the 1940s and one of my favorite icons, learned the Nazis could easily jam radio-guided torpedoes. She patented radio-frequency spectrum hopping utilized in GPS and Bluetooth to this day. The Ladies of Bletchley Park were more than 8,000 strong, comprising 75 percent of the British crypto-analysis and early intelligence units' code-breaking workforce. Their work gained the Allies a distinct advantage and may have shortened the war by over two years.

Jumping ahead a few generations to the mid-'90s, the "Women of the Web" were visionaries through innovative applications of emerging technologies. Jaime Levy created groundbreaking user experiences with Hypercard and Stacy Horn founded the early digital salon ECHO, a BBS community coalescing diverse voices and now well-known talents online. In each era, women's creativity and voices were supported early on. Unfortunately, as each of these corners of the technology industry evolved, women's contributions and voices receded into the background or were shut down. As technology has evolved and stratified, roles have formalized, and subconscious bias has crept into our assumptions. These women are just a few examples to demonstrate we have already earned our place in the technology landscape. Our unique lens, inherent perception, talent, and skills have laid the foundation for today. We have had an impact from the start. We have earned the space for our contributions and talent. Let us ensure we continue to support and provide the canvas for even more creativity and contributions to come.

Before any bright spotlights were shone on the commercial web—women were quietly discovering and making their mark. I distinctly remember the exact moment I clicked on my first HTML link. I was sitting in my cubicle among a maze of cubicles at Citicorp. It was after work hours. A female colleague stopped by my desk to show me this new thing. At the time, my work computer was my only computer (as it was for most of us back in the day), and I would often stay late to explore—using Internet Relay Chat (IRC) or a BBS to connect with other people who were discovering the wild west of "internet stuff." The act of clicking on a link now seems unremarkable, but in the early days, clicking on a link on a screen and being taken somewhere else—anywhere else—was miraculous. The idea that we could link together people and ideas in new "permanent" ways beyond email and real-time chatting fascinated me.

And so began a long and varied career of identifying, adapting, and architecting new possibilities with internet technology. Up until this point, I thought of myself as a marketer, communicator, and "creative." I was very adept at leveraging and applying computer technology, whether using Hypercard as a proto user-friendly programming language or building Filemaker databases to manage my role as an AVP in charge of all the bank's conferences. But it never dawned on me to think of myself as a "techie." I was simply a very curious relational generalist and systems thinker driven by human/data connection. I was using the tools at hand to solve the problems in front of me effectively.

When my boss got wind of my late-night internet forays, as Citibank was planning their first website, she asked me to join the newly formed "Corporate Web Council." The planning meetings were chaotic and full of political turf. There was no understanding of what user experience should or could be. For the first time, the corporate bank and consumer bank shared one front door. Customers representing the Fortune 500 and kids straight out of school with their first credit cards would be landing on the same page—the discussions, skill sets, and collaboration needed to make this work were mind-boggling. The technology was cumbersome, and the roadmap was murky. At one planning session, the information technology team and the business team got into a heated debate. We had signed off on the project specs when a VP wanted to change "Name" to "First Name" on a form. After hours of discussion, it finally dawned on me that the VP was not asking to change the specs or the database schema, but the actual display text from "Name" to "First Name." We had wasted time and energy by not asking the right questions and not listening to each other. The key to effectively launching this new digital "storefront" was not in-depth technical skills or business acumen. We required relational skills and the ability to collaborate across domains and inhabit numerous points of view. We needed a research mindset and a translator—the exact skills forged in an academic setting.

The web and commercial internet were unformed spaces back then. We were a small community of early adopters, making things up as we went along. We found each other in email forums and weekly pub meet-ups, sharing ideas and solutions. In New York City, these groups had names like WWWAC (World Wide Web Artists Consortium), the digital salon ECHO (East Coast Hang Out), and NYNMA (New York New Media Association). Many are surprised to learn that the early days were a diverse mix of talent, representing various races, backgrounds, and genders. These women created zines, wrote code, developed early UX models, performance art, and much more. This new industry's birth eliminated barriers to entry and the usual assumptions on skills sets and expertise—it leveled the playing field. When fields are nascent, gender balance is more equitable. If you were participating, you were welcome. Curiosity and helpfulness built social capital, not expertise or power. Looking back, we can recognize there were many more women on the internet in the early days than now acknowledged. As with the women technology pioneers in the early half of the 20th century, unshackled—we dove in deep, rolled up our sleeves, explored, and built innovative solutions society benefits from to this day.


Look back at every new technology and you are likely to find a woman or many women who made groundbreaking contributions.


Over the next few years, as the industry began to evolve, I debated going back to school (NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program) or following a more commercial path. In the end, my entrepreneurial bent, relational nature, and builder mentality led me to explore a variety of roles across the industry. The tech sector was in its commercial infancy—it was a vital and exciting space that drove my desire to be out there collaborating across disciplines—putting my theories on adapting the web and social technology into practice to shape the world.

Looking back, each of my most exciting projects or positions found me, or I discovered and crafted them through relationships and my curiosity. Just as you may set up a hypothesis for research or a paper, I used my various jobs or projects to answer practical questions about my theories.

Can we change marketing from transactional to relational? At several stages of my career, I have explored how we can break the traditional, modern marketing model. At the time, marketing was and, in many ways, still is extraordinarily transactional. Let's remember that "marketing" derives from "markets," and markets are conversations, originally said by Doc Searls et al. in The Cluetrain Manifesto. Before we separated the maker from the distribution, there were authentic conversations between buyer and seller. I worked with P&G, the world's largest advertiser, to create a ground-breaking Social Media Innovation Lab. We explored fresh approaches by partnering with startups to explore different frameworks for the company-customer relationship. At the time, online communities and social networks were emerging as a place for companies and brands to "participate." Speaking to the Chief Marketing Officer at major companies, I would advise them to "stop yelling (advertising) and start weaving." You are in a relationship with your customer, and yet you ignore them 364 days a year and then send them flowers on Valentine's Day (e.g. Superbowl ads), expecting love and gratitude. I explored these issues both at P&G and on an early podcast I co-founded, called "Tummelvision," with a broad swath of industry luminaries. Tummlers is derived from a Yiddish term referring to people who are hired at weddings to get everyone to dance. It is my deep belief that digital platforms do not necessarily need more algorithms; they need humans who are skilled in the nuance and art of creating safe spaces online. There is still a lot more to explore in this space and much new framing on alternate ways to leverage algorithms in ways that build more in-depth, more lasting relationship-driven marketing.

What if the world's largest companies started talking directly to their customers? A lot of my early work examined the CRM space. I created one of the first online bill-paying systems for AT&T and argued for more nuanced approaches and the opportunity to directly engage with customers on the first Citibank website. As big data and privacy concerns increased, I joined the Vendor Relationship Management movement out of Harvard to examine the individual's role in these conversations. Unfortunately, the marketing and advertising industries are still in the grips of the "Mad Men" mass advertising model of the early days of television. This model has led us down a broken path to search engine optimization algorithms and attention grabbing clickbait. Companies have thrown millions of dollars behind the assumption that their marketing nirvana lies in "1:1 marketing" algorithms. They have slid down a rabbit hole in the belief that banner ads and clicks lead to sales with no regard for how they represent their brand or the power of customer service as a genuine marketing opportunity. Brand and storytelling often take a backseat to quick fixes. In the past few years, we have seen companies push back on these assumptions and challenge the social networks and search engines built to take advantage of this model. As privacy concerns surface, I have seen a deeper understanding of customer service's power to facilitate these conversations and the increased attention on holistic customer experience. I am energized by observing that the pendulum is starting to swing back towards authentic, real conversations with customers.

Can we build spaces that operate effectively online and offline? Recognizing a gap in the marketplace and missing the more intimate spaces of the early web, I along with four other women co-founded a gathering and community believing great things emerge by bringing diverse people together in the right environment. We very carefully and consciously spent time crafting the right culture. We balanced serendipity with structure, conflicting views with coalescence. Everything from the first communication to how we sent invitees on their way was consciously, though surreptitiously, architected. We set the stage to bring out the best in each attendee. The gathering has been described by many as a place where deep connections and game-changing ideas have surfaced. Over the years, this culture has moved online and deepened. It has reemerged and utilized a variety of our current social platforms. At the heart of all valuable discourse and authentic connection is trust. We bring our humanity with us online in whatever form that online interaction takes.

Can we design digital tools that are more responsive to our humanity and psychosocial well being? What are the roadblocks? When I took a job as VP of Strategic Programs at the design agency Neo, I recognized to design digital products that reflect a more nuanced approach to human behavior, we needed to bring together designers, social scientists, and engineers earlier in the discovery phase. It quickly became apparent that the chasm of tools, language, and approach across these disciplines—though narrowing—had a way to go. This gap is one of the significant reasons we often end up with technology that does not serve the end user or often the business itself. There is an enormous opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas and methodologies across these domains more fully.

As an ecosystem builder, pattern-finder, and sense-maker, these questions and many more have led me to build and explore real-world solutions. Whether designing a Downtown Information Center in NYC after 9/11, launching a social media lab for P&G, interviewing guests for my podcast, or creating a sought-after industry gathering, all of these projects brought together diverse points of view, skills, and backgrounds to create something unique and new. At these moments, when I am wrestling with a challenging question, I remind myself how young pervasive social technology and AI are. I often think of our new platforms and apps as teenagers—exploring, challenging, learning how to be an adult. We have so much more to explore to create the frameworks and tools that enable a smarter and more helpful technology ecosystem.

The opportunity to contribute to something larger than myself is a constant motivation for me in my work and life. It's what drew me to social technology early in my career, and it is what continues to drive me today. The renewed attention on the issues impacting our global digital public square has further deepened my belief that a human-centered approach and cross-pollination of ideas across different socially focused domains are critical for ensuring broader societal good. I am equally concerned that the current white-hot spotlight may lead to short-term fixes and local patches, which in the long run will lead to further problems. We need to address issues holistically by acknowledging we are dealing with highly intertwined complex systems. Industry and society need more social scientists and academics who possess the theory, historical context, and gravitas to apply their knowledge, asking the hard questions before releasing unintended butterfly effects onto the world.

In sum, as my father expressed so poignantly, I have always believed we should "not let studies interfere with education." We are not stuck in one lane. With the women before you as inspiration, we should always question how to move from theory into practice into impact. We should take every opportunity to raise each other up along the way. We have earned our place and our voice in technology thanks to the many women who have come before us and are rising alongside us today.

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Deborah Schultz is an internet industry veteran who merges expertise in design, marketing, and innovation to bring fresh approaches to business. As an ecosystem builder, sense maker, and pattern finder, she is widely recognized for her practical understanding of the dynamics of the social web and its impact on culture, society, and business. Schultz was responsible for architecting the first-of-its-kind Social Media Lab for Procter & Gamble focused on customer relationships. This successful program led to P&G reinventing the nature of their company-customer framework. Previously, she was the VP of Global Strategic Programs at the design firm Neo, a founding partner and senior fellow at the Altimeter Group, marketing director at Six Apart, VP at Citibank, and ran her own technology consultancy firm. One of her proudest accomplishments was launching the Downtown Info Center, a lower Manhattan community center and online hub to revitalize lower Manhattan after the attacks of September 11th. She is a graduate of Barnard College, Columbia University. Her current work focuses on the path to developing more responsible technology, reimagining the company-customer relationship, and the human dynamics required for both startups and large organizations to succeed in an increasingly AI-driven society. Schultz currently advises, consults, and speaks on customer experience, marketing, and ecosystem development, while advocating for a renowned focus on a psychosocial approach to technology's impact on business and society.

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