“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.