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Reesa Abrams: This blooming of STEM women is long overdue

By Sean Tario
Open Spectrum, Inc.

September 15, 2016 — Santa Cruz, CA

(Photo above: Reesa Abrams has a long history of contributions to the fields of adult learning and technical knowledge transfer. Contributed.)

[Editor’s note: Sean Tario founded Open Spectrum, Inc when he lived in Santa Cruz and was an active member of the local tech community. Although Tario now lives in and runs his company in North Carolina, Reesa Abrams resides in Santa Cruz.]

I am stoked to introduce you to my friend and mentor, Reesa Abrams. Reesa has a comprehensive record of significant contributions to the fields of adult learning and technical knowledge transfer. Reesa became a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) woman when she was accepted into the Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) Pilot Project. She entered into the IT profession when she was selected to be one of 50 students who helped bring up UT Austin’s Computer Science program, and UT Austin as the #4 active node on the DARPAnet. Since then, she has worked on computer hardware/software implementations, training and education systems, technical content, quality management, customer service, supply chain, testing, and return on investment measures associated with corporate profit. Reesa is recognized by leading educational institutions as an expert on learning and technology transfer, and is extensively published in high technology industry and educational publications. You can contact Reesa through www.wellsprg.com, or find Reesa on LinkedIn.

SPT: Tell us a little about yourself and how you found out about your acceptance into the GATE Pilot Project.

RA: I was born in Dallas, Texas and attended public school. In 1958, the United States decided to create the GATE Pilot Project for students in grades K-12. GATE, which stands for Gifted and Talented Education, is a program for kids who are on a more advanced educational track. GATE is basically what started the evolution of education to all of the different subjects.

My school was one of five selected to participate in the GATE Pilot Project. At the time, I was in the 5th grade. The students were asked to choose a side of the room based on the academic path they wanted to pursue. If you chose the left side of the room, you were going to study literature, informed languages, and history. If you chose the right side of the room, you were going to study math and science. I went to the right. Two girls went right.

It’s amazing how that one decision, at that one moment, adversely affected the rest of my life. My parents didn’t know how to deal with it because it didn’t fit within their image of how they were going to get me married and be a wife. They eventually adjusted but it shocked them. The community I was in didn’t think women should go into math and science. The KKK came to my house. I actually heard them pull up and sat looking through the blinds so they couldn’t see me. I saw them get out of the car with their white shrouds on. They came up and knocked on my door. It was around 4:00PM so they couldn’t have been looking for my Dad.

I was with my mother and my brother. Luckily, the house had just been shut down for the evening and the car was locked in the garage. My mother and I were in her bedroom when they came and my brother was napping so he slept through it. She locked me in my closet and locked herself in another closet. I don’t know how long I was in there but we just pretended we weren’t home.  We were traumatized and agreed not to tell anyone about it. I didn’t tell anybody about it until I was 40 years old.

SPT: Were they there because of your ethnicity or religious affiliation, or do you think it had something to do with you choosing Math and Science?

RA: I think it had everything to do with that. The two women who chose Math and Science were both Jewish. The time of day they chose to come by my house, and the fact that it was three days after I had been accepted to GATE as a woman who wanted to study math and science, all fit too well.  Also, more than one (non-Jewish) adult came up to me after I was accepted to GATE and told me I was an “abomination.”

I don’t know if the people who I went to school with were conscious of the KKK visit, but they certainly didn’t know how to interact with me.  I was basically ignored through K-12. I was in the back of most classes, sitting alone in the corner, as I was usually the only female in any of the technical classes. To be completely honest, what made me feel okay was the teachers would whisper to me as I walked out the door, “You’re going to be okay. You’re going to make it.” My high school math teacher moved me to the front of the room and started using my answers as an example on the board for the very first time in my life.

Around March of 1963, a man came into my calculus classroom. He came up to my desk and screamed at the top of his lungs, “I hear you like magic! Sign this piece of paper and you’re admitted to The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin).” And I’m looking at this guy thinking, “Who are you? Why did my teacher let you in? But if you’re going to let me into the college for free, I’m going! Especially the college I want to go to.” So, I signed the piece of paper. This man became a significant mentor to me.

In January 1964, our math teacher called a meeting in the basement of the Texas Tower. He said to us, “You are going to get a degree in Mathematics because the Computer Science program is starting the year after you leave. Your job is to take and help debug every Computer Science course, bring up this computer and the Internet Node.” So, we took all of the courses in basic operating systems and Science programming, and we worked as interns on the Information Technology required to operate the CDC 6600. I learned FORTRAN at UT Austin. When I graduated, the # 4 Internet Node was up. We had accomplished our assigned mission.

I had hoped to attend Stanford and help build robots, instead, I ended up working in Houston with Mission Control for NASA, developing telemetry software, which is messaging from the Apollo space craft to Mission Control during a flight. I got to work on Apollo 8, 9, and 10. It was my very first programming job. It was all done in IBM OS Assembler on an IBM 360 Mainframe which only had 32k. It was an exciting way to enter the technology field.

After Apollo 10, IBM downsized their NASA team so I was sent to the Time-Life Building at Rockefeller Center in NYC to work on the FORTRAN Compiler for the IBM 370, which was my first quality job. When I got there, I was lucky enough to work for one of IBM’s earliest female managers. Through IBM, I met a lot of women in New York City who shared my passion for technology.

I got a Master’s Degree in Education and Cultural Anthropology from the University of New Mexico (UNM). This was important to know so I could develop a standard process that they could use to train their employees and implement the software. I couldn’t figure out each group deep enough for me but that’s the benefit of being a person of difference as we have something: the keys. Being a person of difference caused me to be very curious about all of the other people in the world.

SPT: What did you do after you completed your graduate studies?

RA: I moved to Freeport, Maine in 1978 where I initially worked for the University of Southern Maine. My boss at the University of New Mexico moved to Boston to work for Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) and asked me to work with her on the team as a Quality engineer to debug V1.0 of Office. We were all trained in Quality at A.E. Deming’s first class back in the United States after working in Japan since WWII. After that project, I was approached by one of the VP’s of Engineering to write the Digital Equipment Corporation Corporate Culture Manuals from an Engineering perspective. They are posted on my blog.

I got to interview Dave Cutler, the manager who created Office and the reason you have Windows/NT. He managed the original writing of both of those pieces of software. I interviewed Roger Heinen who did Access. I interviewed Alan Kotok who built Node number 1 for Minsky. There was no, “I am the best person ever.”  It was all, “Who are you, and what can we build together?”

It’s hard to explain what it was like to talk to these people and when I did, they were so inspirational. I asked them, “Why did you work on building the Net?” Every single one of them said, “I’ve never had a choice. This just seemed to be the only thing that attracted me.” Then I said, “What was it about it that attracted you?” And they all said, “That the freak in me could play with the freak in you, and we could build Stone Soup.” Stone Soup is a children’s book about diversity.

It was inspirational, just like working in IBM was incredible because I learned so much about the Fortune 50, the infrastructure of this country, the private government Internet, and how to work internationally. I have the same feelings about Hewlett-Packard. I feel lucky enough to have been in Hewlett-Packard when Dave Packard was there. I got to follow him down the hallway for 30 seconds.

DEC relocated me to California in 1985 where I worked at 100 Hamilton in Palo Alto. It was there that I met Anita Borg.  She was a STEM woman in DEC’s Western Research Lab.  We would meet regularly to discuss the issues of STEM women. When she passed, she left www.systers.org as her legacy, where we can talk with each other freely.  Having a place to listen and tell your truth is huge.

SPT: During your career, were there any moments you experienced blatant prejudice that you had to overcome?

RA: When I received the IBM THINK Award from IBM for my work on Apollo 10, they sent me a charm to put on my bracelet.  I am sure the men in my group did not get that.

When I was an Industrial Visitor at Stanford, one of the staff members at Stanford called my spouse on his business line and left a message that I was having an affair with one of my bosses. It was a lie that caused a lot of unnecessary pain.

At most of the companies I took positions with, all of the women received the lowest stock options, the lowest salaries, and the lowest promotions. There was a general feeling in most staff meetings that we weren’t supposed to talk, and that was during most of the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s.

SPT: Was there ever a time you asked yourself, “Why am I doing this? Why am I going through this?” Or did you just know from day one that there was no way you were going to play the game the way everyone wanted you to play because you were too determined to just give up? What was your thought process through all of this?

RA: I had a passion and I couldn’t let go of it. I never had a choice. Giving up was never a thought. I knew early on that I was destined to go down this path. I didn’t know why but I knew this was the path for me. Thankfully, I had a great deal of support. My father was extremely turned off, but my mother was thrilled. It was tough, but I was lucky that my aunts in Dallas and Houston also supported me.

As I walked my path, there were always these angels. I don’t know how else to describe them: Mammy Lola, my Aunt Florence and Aunt Lee, my father’s secretary Grace, my school teachers who whispered in my ear and told me I’d be okay, my math teacher who clearly mentored me, and the teachers at UT Austin who also mentored me. I can’t say enough magnificent things about the mentoring I received from the Mescalero Apaches when I was in Albuquerque as they told me it was okay to be who I was. Professionally, this continued in all my jobs. I would not have made it if it were not for my spouse, Xander, who has walked this life path with me since New York City, and his Psychology Mentors Frederic Hudson, Dr. Bob and Mary Goulding, and John Gladfelter.

Even now that I’ve evolved into Standard Process Development, Documentation, Education, and Training, being a technical woman is still in my core. I think from my knowledge of the technical base every day. I don’t walk into places and behave as if I don’t understand the infrastructure and I think there was a reason why I needed to understand infrastructure. I’m saying this is a spiritual thing because I have no idea. It’s just I never felt I had a choice.

SPT: What are some of the lessons you have learned by being a minority woman in STEM, and what are some of the conclusions that you’ve drawn that helped shape and effect who you are today through that process?

RA: Most of the lessons that I’ve learned to get through that process are about my personal growth: growing and learning to deal with the challenges in the outside world because everybody deals with them. It’s about learning to really appreciate the diversity and the uniqueness of each person, and being compassionate in finding that. I learned is that it’s really not about me being the biggest ego person in the world, it’s about how can I serve and be a part of a completely integrated community to make the world better.

If you’re going to build infrastructure for the whole world, you have to take care of everybody in the world. I want to say this because I think it needs to be said. One of the things that I got to participate in, because of my relationship with NASA, and because of my relationship with academia; there was an NSF grant that started a long time ago that automates first graders and they get a slice of the universe every day on their computer. They have to find supernovas by counting the digital size of the star. That data was used in a meeting held in the Vatican between Pope John and Steven Hawking in 1999. There was one of every religious subgroup and one of every physics department and astronomy department from all over the world. I’ve been reading books that came out of it and I’m blown away that nobody tells anybody about it but they made some decisions that day which I think should be shared with the world.

“We’re all inside the body of the creator. That makes us muscle cells, or enzymes cells, or blood cells. And if we can’t get along, we’re the cancer.”

SPT: With the new position that we’re carving out for you, specifically creating and crafting content focused on leadership in our industry, women and technology, and the evolving role of women and technology, are there any specific intentions that you have within this position?

RA: My intention is that people will be able to get up in the morning, no matter how they are feeling, and feel that there’s something there to support them. It seems to me that what’s important is, first of all, how each of us lead ourselves so we can be the best person that we want to be, and show our success. The second is how to work well with other people, whether they’re customers, competitors, partners, employees, or your bosses. We have to figure out how to all live together in a way that makes everybody successful.

Personally, this blooming of STEM women is long overdue. It’s time that women came in and took their roles as competent partners, and we found a way for everybody to feel comfortable with that on all sides. It’s also time that we pay attention to all of the different races and personality types, and make sure that we can all work together. If we are going to keep expanding the Net, more specifically the Cloud, we’re going to have to be able to meet those needs in a way that’s safe for everyone, and that it’s responsible.

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This article was originally published here: http://openspectruminc.com/leadership-diversity-tech-industry/

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