Women in Technology: Susan Courtney

Posted on - Community, Tech Education, Women in Tech

Susan Courtney didn’t go into tech right away. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of Minnesota, she joined the navy for six years and worked as a naval flight officer. She took some classes to brush up on her programming skills, found a job in technology, and has grown into a major leader in the local tech community. For the past fourteen years, she has worked for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska, where she is now the Executive Vice President of Operations, Business Process and Shared Services.

In 2012, Courtney received the AIM Institute’s prestigious Tech Leader award for her work at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska and her leadership in the wider community. She has also been a Women in IT Initiative task force member for UNO’s College of Information Science & Technology. Recently, the Women’s Center for Advancement honored her at the 2019 Tribute to Women luncheon.

Courtney encourages young people to drop their preconceptions about what a career in technology entails. It’s not necessarily as solitary as you might envision.

“There’s a big misnomer about what technology fields are available to people,” Courtney said. “They kind of think old-school, ‘I’m just gonna be fingers on a keyboard all day, every day.’ It’s really not like that.”

When asked whether, as a woman, she faced any challenges or obstacles entering the historically male-dominated field of technology, Courtney said: “I don’t know if I’d classify it as obstacles. It was pretty lonely. A lot of the time, pretty much maybe every time, I was the only woman in my computer science class.”

She said that didn’t necessarily bother her, as she wouldn’t have joined the navy if it did.

“I have been pretty fortunate to work for companies that see the value of the diversity of having women in technology,” Courtney continued. “In fact, most of the companies, certainly Blue Cross, would really like to see more women in technology, so they do what they can to push that forward.”

At Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska, Courtney is currently spearheading work on data and analytics to help improve customer experiences. She is also helping the organization transfer to a new core system to keep pace with the ever-evolving healthcare industry. She is not sitting at a keyboard all day.

Courtney’s experience is important for young women to keep in mind as they consider career options.  

“What I would advise women to do is to go explore. See if you can get some shadowing time or informational interviews with people in the field, because I think it’s going to be different than what a lot of people expect,” she said.

Women in Technology: Marina Brown

Posted on - Tech Education, Women in Tech

Technology was not Marina Brown’s first choice of profession. Originally from Bulgaria, Brown is the daughter of medical professionals who urged her to become a doctor. She wasn’t interested in medicine, however. And as high school slid toward college, she began noticing how new technology was coming out all the time—and that programmers had fairly lucrative jobs.

She is now the manager of product development and data science at Werner Enterprises, a global transportation and logistics company headquartered in Omaha. She’s also an authority on cutting edge technology. At this year’s Infotec conference, for instance, she gave a presentation on the business applications of machine learning.

None of that would have happened without a kind of rebellion against her parents’ desire for her to study medicine. Once she realized she wanted to work in tech, she pursued her B.S. in Computer Information Management from College of Saint Mary in Omaha. She found herself adept at coding.

“I’ve always loved mathematics and have studied mathematics pretty hard for most of my life, so programming just made sense,” Brown said. “It was all about solving problems, and I love to solve problems.”

Shortly after college, she attended the prestigious University of Southern California to study for a Master’s degree Artificial Intelligence. She was a little bit ahead of her time, however.

“I wanted to build machines that could act, feel, and interact like humans. Back then, though, people were mostly focused on optimization and figuring out how to get a person from Point A to Point B in the fastest way. That wasn’t what I’d been thinking about when I thought about artificial intelligence.”

So she dropped out of that program and pursued a profession in product management. She worked at First National Bank as a product manager for several years before switching to ACI Company, an electronic banking and financial transactions company, where she guided and led development teams. Along the way, she received her Master’s degree in Economics from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.

Now she is responsible for the life-cycle of products at Werner Enterprises. She leads a team of software developers, and while she no longer codes like she did in college, the position suits her well.

“I have a social personality, so I don’t want to be looking at code day-in and day-out, because it’s not as exciting for me,” Brown said. “But going around and trying to figure out what technology applications users want to use, and how they want to use them, and providing that knowledge back to the development team, really seemed to resonate with me.”

Her expertise in coding, however, has helped her succeed as a product manager. Brown said people entering the product management field tend to have one of two backgrounds. Either they come from the technology world and need to learn business-speak, or they come from the business world and need to learn about technology. She said people transitioning from technology to business generally have a much easier time adjusting to the demands of product management.

How does she feel about working in a traditionally male-dominated field?

“I love it, honestly,” she said. “A lot of women think of technology professions and they think of coding. And that might not be what they really want to pursue out of life. But there are so many opportunities in the technology space above and beyond just being a programmer, that when I think of women, I always try to explain: you can do so many different things.”

Not only do women have the ability to succeed in tech, they have a kind of ethical imperative to enter tech environments, Brown contends.

“You can help, in a variety of ways, our society, by just partaking in the step of technology development without having to drown in code,” she said. “We need women in technology because they tend to address more female-oriented problems that our male colleagues just don’t think about.”

For instance, without women’s voices in the room, a male-dominated team of developers working on early cancer-detection technology might be less likely to consider breast cancer a priority, she said. “That has real-life implications to fifty percent of society.”

The broad societal value of women in technology is one of many reasons Brown uses to encourage young women to pursue tech careers. She also emphasizes the diversity of jobs available in technology, as well as the high pay, which helps women sustain themselves.  

“There is just so much innovation going on, and we need more and more women to be part of this innovation,” Brown said. “If they don’t partake, our society will be worse off for that.”


Women in Technology of the Heartland Helps Women Navigate the Tech World

Posted on - Community, Women in Tech

“It’s revolutionary, really, for women in technology right now.”

Marie Hiykel directs two federally funded pre-college support programs for the AIM Institute. When Hiykel was growing up, she said, most girls she knew said they wanted to be a mommy or a nurse. Back then, a girl saying she wanted to work in tech would not have been supported. Recently, however, Hiykel encountered a girl who said she wanted to teach technology when she grew up.

Hiykel was one of roughly 60 attendees of the Women in Technology of the Heartland (WITH) meetup group Tuesday at Blue Cross Blue Shield headquarters. WITH provides a fun networking forum for women to learn from and share with one another, focusing on developing and promoting IT talent women through mentoring and outreach. According to its meetup page, the purpose of these efforts can be distilled into the motto: “so we’re not the only women in the room anymore.”

The event was co-sponsored by Tek Systems, who provided pizza and soda; Object Partners, who helped with promotion and communication; and Agape Red, who treated the group to drinks at a nearby bar afterward.

Abby Jones, technical solution architect for Mutual of Omaha, gave a funny, informative, and inspiring presentation about her journey to becoming a software engineer. After majoring in English, Secondary Education, and History, Jones taught herself sign language and became an instructor for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. She taught at Beveridge Middle School for several years before becoming intrigued with the idea of programming. With help from multiple people, she began teaching herself to code, making fledgling websites, and learning and networking as much as she could.

Jones credited WITH for helping her take the steps she needed to take to switch careers from education to software development.

“The steps were so small I almost didn’t notice them. But they were life-changing,” Jones said during her presentation, which balanced interesting autobiographical anecdotes with technical specs about different projects she worked on along the way.

Next month’s meetup will concern using technology to encourage and empower women.

Each WITH meetup is structured to allow for casual networking and opportunities to connect with other women who have expertise in technology.

“Other women in my neighborhood, when they hear what I do, they go, ‘Oh I don’t know anything about IT,” said Ashley Podwinski, who works in risk management for Nelnet. “And then they’re like, ‘Can you fix my router?’”

Podwinski previously worked in the male-dominated software development field. One of the things she missed most about that environment was female camaraderie and humor.

“It’s nice to see other women who know what the difference between Copper and Fiber is, and can make jokes about them,” Podwinski said, referring to computer science terms.

While she acknowledged the heartening progress Hiykel had mentioned, Podwinski also expressed a cautious optimism about the headway women have made in the technology sector.

“You do start to see more women in the CIO roles, so that’s nice. But there’s still a ways to go.”

Thankfully, groups like WITH are working hard to change that, so that a woman who wants to be CIO will be as supported as if she wanted to teach technology, become a nurse, or do anything else with her life.


Women in Tech: Camille Eddy

Posted on - Tech Education, Women in Tech

Growing up, Camille Eddy wanted to be an astronaut. She went to space camp, loved Star Trek, and was even mentored by former NASA mission specialist Barbara Morgan. Part of being an astronaut, Eddy discovered, involved developing STEM skills. So she began programming at age 12, started her own web design business at age 17, and went to Boise State University in Idaho to major in mechanical engineering. While most college students rely on loans or parental support to pay for their university housing, Eddy used the profits from her web design business.

Now, she works as a robotics engineer & developer at TIMBER IT consulting in Seattle and is a mechanical engineering/robotics major at the University of Idaho. She has interned at HP, where she designed a five-fingered robot, and at NVIDIA, where she worked on the development of self-driving automobiles. Notably, Eddy also interned at X, the moonshot factory—formerly Google X, a research & design facility—where she invented various mechanical apparatuses and helped maintain quality control.

As if that weren’t enough, Eddy writes regularly and speaks internationally on inclusion in the tech community. She sits on the board of directors of GIRL STEM STARS, whose mission is to foster excitement, confidence, and literacy in STEM for girls of color, particularly those from underrepresented communities. She is also a robotics instructor for lilSTAR, a STEAM program for underserved Black students in the greater San Diego area, for which she wrote a robotics curriculum that taught students how to build a robot complete with servos, motors, wheels, and Arduino technology.

Listing the rest of her accomplishments and volunteer experiences would take too long.

She’s done all this while working on her bachelor’s degree.

Coming to Omaha

Last Friday, Eddy visited Omaha to give a keynote presentation at the Gender Equity in Technology Conference, or GETConf. Her talk, “Recognizing Cultural Bias in AI,” focused on identifying and reducing unwanted bias in machine learning. She discussed how culturally biased datasets can introduce unwanted bias into artificial intelligence. For instance, when researchers at Boston University and Microsoft Research used a Google-developed word database called Word2vec to complete the analogy of “man is to computer programmer as woman is to X,” the database evaluated X as “homemaker”—meaning any AI that learns from this database will inherit a sexism that humans would like to see eradicated, not reinforced.

“We must ensure that the world we live in today, with all its -isms…is not the world that artificial intelligence interprets for us tomorrow,” Eddy said during her keynote.

An Advocate for Women in STEM

When asked how to maximize the number of girls and women entering the tech talent pipeline, Eddy echoed some advice that had stuck with her over the years: “We don’t need to convince girls or women to go into tech, we need to create more environments where they feel welcome and acceptable, so that tech becomes a natural choice.”

“It’s also not just about getting them in, but keeping them in,” she added. That means strengthening retention in both degree programs and career fields.

And the tech pipeline itself is not the only consideration, she said. The jobs that lie at the end of the pipeline are just as vital.

“I think it’s really important that we’re providing careers that are satisfactory to whatever it is that we’re interested in. For example, my talk was on cultural bias in AI. But when I talk about that as a career path, I might get a couple stares. So making sure that if there are those types of careers that people are interested in, that we’re creating valid paths to them.”

As for Eddy’s own career trajectory, she wants to continue working at the intersection of hardware and software, particularly in robotics. She also wants to be a science and engineering communicator, someone like Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson, she said—someone who popularizes STEM for a general audience.

Given her passion for the way humanity interacts with emerging technology, and her already extensive history as a speaker demystifying difficult subjects for audiences, Camille Eddy is someone to watch as she makes her own moonshot to the future.

Women in Tech: Noni Williams

Posted on - Tech Education, Women in Tech

Whenever someone would ask Noni Williams what she wanted to do with her interest in math and technology, she would start to answer honestly. She wanted to be the problem solver she saw herself as when she was the little girl at the front of the classroom, scratching out algorithms and bad poetry in her notebooks. But before she could finish answering, the asker would usually interject: “Be a teacher?”

Williams noticed nobody ever interrupted her male peers with that question. It was like they were trying to send her the message she would only ever be able to teach the world’s future innovators, not be an innovator herself.

“The best it seemed I could hope for was to grow up to be a teacher to inspire some little boy to change the world,” Williams says. “Teaching is not a consolation. It is a calling. And it wasn’t mine.”

Her childhood notebooks were filled with mock-ups for inventions and algorithms for solutions to questions she did not yet have the capacity to communicate—not drawings of blackboards and rows of kids smiling at their desks.

When Passion Intersects with Technology

Now, as the Manager of Solutions and Continuous Improvement at United Way of the Midlands, she spends her days solving tech problems for the organization.

“I’ve been introducing a lot of automation into this job, trying to bring us into the 21st century in terms of using data efficiently,” Williams says. She recently built an app that houses vital demographic and organizational data that colleagues can use to answer the questions they need answered when they meet with funders.

Williams loves being able to use data to solve problems, and to write programs that automate tedious processes. The time saved through automation frees her to focus on more exciting problems.  

Overcoming Small Minds and Smaller Hearts

She didn’t always know she wanted to pursue a tech career. During college, she originally majored in civil engineering. Despite her obvious talent and aptitude for the discipline, the attitudes she encountered there frustrated her.

“Be a woman in the room,” Williams says. “Be a woman in the room and dare to be anything but exactly right. You’re met with glares and sighs for wasting everyone’s time. Have a slightly different thought process in front of the class and you’re told that you’re wrong.”

It was exhausting not being given a chance to grow along with everyone else.

“I got tired of being shot down in front of everyone. So I spoke up less. Which I guess is what the unconscious, or conscious, culture of those classrooms wanted in order to maintain the status quo.”

So she switched her major to Mathematics after two years because she likes numbers and problem-solving.

At the time, however, Williams wasn’t keen to embark on the computer science curriculum required for her math major. “I left my computer science classes until the end of undergrad because I didn’t want to take them,” Williams says. “A year later, I was like, ‘I really like coding.’ It became fun for me.”

Eventually, Williams decided to pursue her master’s degree in math with a concentration in data sciences. Now she is a crucial member of a powerhouse nonprofit, working on the algorithms and dreams she began scribbling into her notebooks years ago. She’s leading the innovation, silencing the interjectors.

It hasn’t been an easy road. But Williams dealt with her challenges by never losing her sense of wonder, by writing poetry to contextualize her frustrations, and by leaning on supportive friends and family, she says. “I kept people around me that knew what I was capable of and would not let me forget it. With a creative outlet and a strong support system, I felt unstoppable. And I still do.”

Tech Is for Everyone

For women considering a career in tech, Williams has good advice.

“Think about what types of problems you like to solve. What challenges you in an exciting way? What feels good? What skills can you grow here? What relationships can you build? Seek these out.”

She also advises women not to feel hemmed in by their past.

“Do not let your past employment determine how much your time is worth. Consider your skills, your experience, your education, your geographical location, and the position or contract work you are applying for. Do your research about what the typical compensation is. Ask for what you consider to be fair.”

Williams also has advice for women who aren’t necessarily thinking about a career in technology, who have perhaps been misled into believing tech was not for them.

“Tech is for everyone,” she says. “I have friends who majored in psychology, English, computer science, math, various types of engineering, horticulture, business agriculture, biology, etc., that work in tech. You may not realize it, but your voice and your perspective could be extremely valuable in the tech world. Tech needs you!”

Women in Tech: Kaitlyn Hova

Posted on - Women in Tech

Growing up, Kaitlyn Hova thought programming sounded extremely dull, thanks to her father, who worked as a software engineer for various credit card companies.

“He worked in an office, and it was just the most boring life I could ever imagine,” Hova says. “I was never going to be a software engineer, ever. I just had no idea that you could do so much with it.”

Now, the Omaha native is senior UX developer at Women Who Code, a global 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers. She and her husband also operate their own business, Hova Labs, whose work runs the gamut from web design to 3D printing. (Recently, Developer Week, a developer & engineering technology conference, gave Hova Labs a “Best in 3D Printing” award for their Hovalin, a playable, 3D-printed violin that can be made with about $70 worth of raw material.)

Kaitlyn Hova is also a neuroscientist and a Berklee-trained violinist who has performed with Rod Stewart, Josh Groban, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Mannheim Steamroller, and multiple rock and indie bands.

In other words she’s pretty much a superhero.

An Unlikely Path toward Tech

Originally, Hova pursued a career in music. She started performing at thirteen with various big-name artists that came to Omaha, then quickly discovered she could make better money playing weddings. But she faced a major age-related hurdle.

“I found out no one was actually going to hire a violinist who’s thirteen years old to play their special day unless you have a website. A website makes you legitimate. So I started coding around then.”

The gigs started rolling in.  

She didn’t realize you could do programming for a living. Coding had always been a means to an end: a website for her music, a customized Myspace page, a database for a college project.

Eventually, after a stint at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, she came to the University of Nebraska at Omaha to study neuroscience.

Building a New Social Network

Hova was born with a neurological condition called synesthesia. Synesthesia involves the crossing of senses. A person with synesthesia might see sounds, taste colors, or hear smells. Like most people with the condition, she didn’t realize she was any different. She thought everyone saw colors when they heard music.

When she found out synesthesia was relatively rare, she wanted to know everything about it. After graduating with her degree in neuroscience, she decided she wanted to research synesthesia more extensively. Unfortunately, many graduate programs in neuroscience did not offer the option to study the condition. It’s hard to find funding for synesthesia research, because many people do not even know they have it. And there was no aggregate database of synesthetes, which made it hard to recruit study participants.

So she built The Synesthesia Network, an educational social network for people with synesthesia, universities that want to study synesthesia, and curious minds who want to learn more about synesthesia. Since then, she has given TED Talks on synesthesia, and developed a synesthesia violin that pairs notes with different colored lights to approximate the type of synesthesia that she experiences.

Developing the Synesthesia Network required learning an unfamiliar coding language.

“I already had all the front-end experience,” Hova says. “I could build it, design it, no problem. But I didn’t know how to work with databases.”

So she took a coding bootcamp to learn Ruby on Rails and build the back-end database behind the Synesthesia Network. This experience helped her realize she preferred to build software and dynamic web apps rather than static websites. She switched careers,  moved to San Francisco, and now spends her days coding, dreaming up new ideas, inventing fun projects, being a new mom, and advocating for women in technology.

Advice for Women Considering Tech Careers

Hova knows what it feels like to feel excluded from tech. From a young age, she thought of software engineering as a boring dad enterprise, not as a powerful tool to unlock her creativity.

“Girls, myself included, are usually pretty creative,” she says. “You want to solve creative problems. So don’t think of software as ones and zeroes. Think of it as: each coding language and platform you use is like a different tool in your toolbelt to build whatever you want. You can still have that creativity. But coding gives you the tools to build the thing that you want to build. Like, literally anything.”

It might be difficult at first. “But you’ll learn patterns along the way, and it gets easier.”

“It’s kind of like puzzle-solving all day. You’ll get a problem, and you’ll go, okay, how do I solve that? And that’s all you do. It’s fun!”

What We Do

AIM Institute is building an inclusive tech talent community. From offering tech educational experiences to youth through our Brain Exchange, to helping career changers and tech professionals upgrade their skills via the Interface School, we believe there is a path for everyone in technology.