A research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in A more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?
Four years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Jennifer Reif, Developer Relations Engineer at Neo4j.
Today’s Woman in Tech: Jennifer Reif, Developer Relations Engineer at Neo4j
Jennifer Reif is a Developer Relations Engineer at Neo4j, speaker, and blogger with an MS in CMIS. An avid developer and problem-solver, she has worked with many businesses and projects to organize and make sense of widespread data assets and leverage them for maximum business value. She has expertise in a variety of commercial and open source tools, and she enjoys learning new technologies, sometimes on a daily basis! Her passion is finding ways to organize chaos and deliver software more effectively.
When did you become interested in technology? What first got you interested in tech?
Both parents are computer programmers, so my sisters and I grew up with technology. We played computer/video games, learned how to type properly, and took a website summer class for kids all before high school. I knew technology would be an integral part of life, no matter which career path I chose. My first real interest in tech as a career came in college, though.
Let’s talk about your background. How did you end up in your career path? What did you have to overcome?
Music was a huge part of my family and my life growing up. I ended up majoring in music performance with a business minor and took music theory courses alongside computer programming courses. The two subjects merged when I saw that both music and technology combine logic and creativity. Music brings logic through patterns of rhythmic and harmonic structures, as well as creativity through composition and emotional connection. Computer programming uses logic in program structure and language syntax, while giving creativity to design and human/machine interactions. I found that crossover point between the two careers and saw technology expand aspects of music and other passions that no other industry can. Technology gives you access to anything you could possibly dream or want to do.
The first obstacle was that I didn’t have a strong enough programming skill set with my Bachelor’s degree. I had a music major with a business minor that included some programming classes. The year before graduation, I applied for the Master’s in Computer Management and Information Systems at my university and was accepted, so I started that program right after graduation. Each job I’ve worked has been a totally different aspect of technology, so I’ve skilled up or out several times to get where I want to be.
Did you receive support from your family and friends? Do you have a role model?
Yes. Both parents had careers in tech, so I would consider both of them role models. However, both parents and the rest of my family were always supportive no matter what career and life I chose. If friends or acquaintances had other opinions, I never knew them. I’ve had many mentors (colleagues, friends, and family – male and female) who helped and encouraged me along the way. I want to be my best in this role, so I can learn from anyone willing to share their knowledge.
Did anyone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?
I don’t think so. If they did, it wasn’t directly specified, and I didn’t let it slow me down. I like to take in ideas and recommendations from others, but I try not to spend too much time wondering whether other people’s actions are purposely sabotaging my efforts. I can still learn from those hindering my progress and use that to my advantage. If I’m going to accomplish something, I’ll accomplish it. Whether they’re helping or hindering doesn’t matter in the long run.
Technology is a wonderful place for combining multiple faces of logic and creativity, and women can bring their skill sets to bear in solving problems in new and different ways.
A day in Jennifer’s life
I work for Neo4j as a Developer Advocate. That’s a relatively new career path in the technology industry, but the job description typically revolves around solving developer problems, often focusing around a set of technologies or problems. For me at Neo4j, it means exploring tools, integrations, and projects (both commercial and community), showing developers how to use and gain benefits from them. I learn technologies revolving around graphs and Java, then write code, pen blog posts, give presentations, record videos, or chat with developers to show them how to use the technologies and learn what business or technical problems they’re trying to solve. Since I don’t only interact with my own company’s tech, this means I get to learn all kinds of tools and code constantly. I also love getting to hear other developers’ stories and solutions. It’s learning from all directions.
My typical work day usually entails tackling some sort of technical problem (either to understand a technology for myself or fill an internal or external gap) and then usually publishing my learning somehow and for others – either through a blog post, conference presentation, or other medium.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I’m proud of the effort I put in and the things I’ve learned. I’ve assembled a career that offers creativity and encourages me to learn, grow, and help others. It also provides stability and flexibility to do all those professional things without sacrificing things I value personally.
Why aren’t there more women in tech? What’s your take on that?
I think there’s a combination of things here. One thing I’ve learned in developer advocacy is that no matter how many times you broadcast a message, there’s always an audience who hasn’t heard it. We should all strive to reach new audiences with the message that technology has a variety of roles to offer for everyone – developer, data scientist, advocate, technical writer, and so much more. It’s an extremely challenging and rewarding field for those who want to or thrive in that environment. The other component is encouraging women to do what they love and capitalize on their strengths. It’s not about winning or taking over an industry or role. It’s about helping women achieve their dreams, whatever those look like.
Could you name a few challenges (or obstacles) women in tech face?
The biggest thing (for me at least) is balancing all the things I want in life. My career is important, but so is my family and my other passions. I don’t think women are the only ones who face these challenges, and each individual is going to face their own battles and external hurdles to jump. It’s all in how you handle them – whether you let them stop you or find ways to overcome them, getting creative yourself or finding others to help against larger obstacles.
Remember that most people want others to succeed, and don’t let those who don’t stop you.
How would our world be different if more women worked in STEM? What would be the (social, economic, and cultural) impact?
I think women can lend their experiences and their unique perspectives in ways we probably don’t or can’t realize. Technology is a wonderful place for combining multiple faces of logic and creativity, and women can bring their skill sets to bear in solving problems in new and different ways. We need women in technology, but we also need women in all aspects of life and careers – medicine, business, law, politics, research, STEM, and families and homes, too. Women will have the most impact in places that they care about and want to make a difference.
The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current discussion?
For some, discussions may lead them to take a course or take an opportunity that comes along tomorrow. Others might take months or years to make a decision. For the longest lasting and successful results, in my opinion, we need to reach kids about the fun and fascinating world of technology. Those audiences might take years to enter the industry, but they’ll have gotten there through natural curiosity and their own decisions/ambitions. Driving people there unnaturally probably means we’ll lose them later, so growth should be organic.
What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career? What should they know about this industry?
I would say there are opportunities and challenges around every corner. Celebrate each success and tackle each challenge. If you need help, find mentors or friends. Remember that most people want others to succeed, and don’t let those who don’t stop you. Challenge yourself and don’t be afraid to ask questions and learn.
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