6.4.19 - Izzy Elwin Retrospective: The Winding Road To Tech

In many ways, the winding path to a career in technology has given me a unique approach to my work. It’s no secret that diversity in tech is a problem and those of us who are minorities in the field can learn a lot by examining how we got here. What contributed to the delay in entering the field? What helped keep you going against the odds or bad treatment?

Here’s my story.

The first thing I remember wanting to be was an archeologist.

I read every dinosaur book or magazine I could find and picked up every rock that even vaguely looked like it could be a dinosaur bone. My mother loves to tell anyone who will listen about the time I convinced myself and my classmates that a rock by the basketball hoop was a Brachiosaurus neck bone.

In middle school, I got into theater, and then as I entered high school, more specialized science classes became available. I was particularly excited about biology but became discouraged with my teacher. Classes with him generally consisted of meandering stories about growing his own mushrooms, while my brother, in another biology classroom, was learning and being encouraged to explore science as a career. To say it was disappointing would be an understatement.

I took one computer science course in high school, but a lack of clear direction for women in the field, and my general focus on theater meant I didn’t give it much serious thought, even though I truly enjoyed it. Classes in college followed a similar pattern, with one notable experience with Symbolic Logic. I was obsessed with it, but it was offered by the philosophy department and discussions with my instructor-centered on philosophy as a career, so again I missed the link to the STEM fields.

I graduated with a degree in human ecology, planning to get into early childhood education. After a few months as a toddler teacher, I was completely burned out. It was a scary time; I was in my mid-twenties with no clear direction. Then began the odd jobs. A bookseller at Barnes and Noble, a circulation assistant at a library, a warehouse administrator, a project specialist — but, there was one common thread between all of these experiences, and that was my excitement to solve technical issues.

I eventually landed in a job with opportunities to move into a technical career without a true background in tech. I started in customer service, doing my usual tech troubleshooting and was encouraged by two wonderful co-workers on our HelpDesk team to pursue a position; however, my experiences at that company were not pleasant, and I witnessed a talented woman co-worker treated so badly she gave up on a technical career altogether. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought about doing the same. The biggest difference that kept me going was having another woman in tech reach out to me.

She shared a book with me to start, but that small gesture held so much value to me. Here was another woman in a similar position sharing a resource that helped get her through her struggles with being heard, and being respected, in the technical space. Slowly, I started to reach back out to her. I told her about what I’d experienced and she gave me advice on how to navigate the waters. We’d had a lot of similar experiences and seeing another person like myself who was pushing through the obstacles, through the isolation and the anxiety, and not only thriving but using her experiences and her platform to lift up others who are minorities in the tech space inspired me to keep going.

I see mentorship as a key component in the longevity of a career in tech. Throughout my own journey, there were so many points where a mentor (of any gender) could have helped me more thoroughly explore my options for a career. When I finally found my way into tech, having someone to talk to who understood what I was going through was pivotal to my continued success and to my mental health throughout my journey. It’s so important that we look out for one another and encourage others to explore what we do. Even if they don’t end up caring for technology or any of the STEM fields, simply having the opportunity to see that they are welcome and supported is so powerful in creating a diverse landscape in STEM.