Earlier this summer, Austin tech company Spanning Cloud Apps promoted longtime Austin software engineer Andrea Adams to vice president of engineering.
That in and of itself was newsworthy.
The vice president of engineering position has been a notoriously tough glass ceiling for women, with LinkedIn reporting that only 5 percent of people with this title are women.
We interviewed Adams about her career thus far and her advice for women in engineering. The interview has been edited for clarity and for length.
512tech: Tell me about your background. Where did you grow up?
Adams: I grew up in suburban New Jersey. I went to a small public high school. There were only 800 people in the high school total. There wasn’t much computer science to speak of. But I took one introduction to programming class that I loved. There’s where I fell in love with computer science.
Where did you go to college?
I went to school at UC-Berkeley. I started out as applied math with an emphasis in computer science but ended up graduating with a B.A. in statistics. When I did get to Berkeley and I met some of my classmates, there were some folks that had done quite a bit more (than me) in high school.”
Were your college classes predominantly male?
Yes, very much so. Thinking back, I didn’t have too much trouble with it because I did have some good friends that were also male that were easy to get along with.
I definitely didn’t feel my gender was somehow an issue. I was raised by my parents to think I could do anything and be anything when I grew up.
How did you end up in Austin?
About nine years after coming out to California, my husband, who was my partner at the time, and I wanted to move somewhere else. He’s also a software engineer.
We looked across the country and he didn’t want to live in the snow. He drew a line and wanted to make sure it was a city that could support both of us without having to work for the same company.
We looked at Austin and Atlanta and we came to Austin and never left.
What exactly do you do at Spanning?
My job is to deliver and support the three products we offer here at Spanning, which is back-up for Office 365, Google and Salesforce.
I’m responsible for the development team and dev ops team that are writing the software.
What do you like about working as an engineer? Why is this a good fit for you?
I find that the customer-facing work was a little bit more draining for me. I prefer back-end work and working with people within the company.
I love solving problems. I loving building solutions, and this is going to sound very geeky but I really love hanging out with engineers. I find them to be very honest, very critical-thinking. You don’t have to wade through any sort of B.S.
Why do you think so few women pick engineering?
My son is about to go to college and we were doing some college visits with him. At Georgia Tech there was a female engineering student that was taking us around. I asked her specifically about ‘How is diversity in the computer science major?’ and she indicated that was the one major that was still male-dominated and she couldn’t figure out why.
I’ve been puzzling over this because it has stuck with me for a long time.
I don’t know if it’s that (computer science) looks boring or uninteresting. In terms of what we see, maybe one out of 20 or 30 resumes are from women. They hardly ever come across my desk.
I would like to see more women. My daughter thinks what I do is completely boring.
I think one of the reasons is that people don’t see people like them. That can be difficult if you’re in a male-dominated company or part of the region where there aren’t that many engineers.
So what has it been like to work in an industry that typically is so male-dominated?
In my own experience, the things that helped me were to have other women as role models.
As I was looking through my history, I saw women that were managers or directors. At Vignette (a software company), one of the most successful teams I worked, a woman was a VP and another woman was a manager. That was one of the most effective teams.
I actually took eight years off of work. I’ve gotten back into this position after almost effectively starting over again. I was actually hired by a woman who was a good friend and we also worked together.
Without her encouragement I’m not sure I would have ended up back in the workforce. I thought after eight years it had passed me by and I wouldn’t be able to get back in. I had no confidence.
The software industry moves so quickly it’s hard enough to keep up with it when you’re actively working in it but when you’re not I wasn’t sure any of my skills would be relevant.
Why should young women take software engineering seriously as a career choice?
I would challenge those women who love solving problems, who like puzzles or really love understanding how something works, that it’s an excellent career.
The other thing is in terms of job security, everybody needs programmers now. There’s a ton of job security. Software engineers command unbelievable salaries right now.
In terms of advice to women that are looking to sort of move up in the ranks in engineering, is be up-front with what you’re looking for and what you want out of your career. Nobody is going to hand it to you.