S1E16: Interest and Aptitude, Lists, and The Ability To Interrupt- A Women's Guide To Tech Success with Debbie Schilling
Speaker 1: Go.
Angel Leon: Hello, everyone and welcome to another edition of ASCII Anything, presented by Moser Consulting. I'm your host on Angel Leon, Moser's HR advisor. In today's episode, we'll be talking with a veteran leader of the IT community. Today, we have a special episode dedicated to women in IT and to talk to us about this and other interesting topics we have Debbie Schilling with us. Debbie graduated in 1984 from Macalaster College in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a degree in computer science. She spent more than 30 years developing banking, insurance, pharmaceutical and laboratory software applications. She spent the final 18 years of her career at Orchard Software in Carmel, Indiana, where she focused on software for laboratory information systems and rose to the level of executive vice president of development. Debbie retired from IT in 2017 and is the parent of two adult daughters, one of whom has severe disabilities. Her personal interests include world traveling and gardening. Debbie, it is an honor to have you with us today on ASCII Anything. I am thrilled to learn more about you, your career and beyond, with some other topics sprinkled throughout. How are you today?
Debbie Scilling: I'm doing great. How are you?
Angel Leon: I'm doing excellent. Thank you very much. So I want to start with how you got your start into computer science. What drew you to this field? How did you start your career?
Debbie Scilling: Well, my story goes way back to the magical decade of the'70s. So I was lucky enough in eighth grade to be chosen for a pilot program. It was a computer science class where we learned programming and we're talking really old school, tele- type computers, dialing in with modems, the works, and I just fell in love with it. I just absolutely loved it, but that was it for computer science and there were no more classes offered until I got to college, so programming just fell by the wayside. That class really ended up determining my future. So in 1980, I went to Macalaster College. It's the liberal arts college in Minnesota near where I grew up and I wanted to be a mechanical engineer like my dad. Calculus and college- level physics just stopped me dead in my tracks. I think in algebra, but I can't wrap my mind around calculus. So fortunately, I've never needed it in my career, so that's been pretty great. So I took programming courses and I took as many introductory courses as I could. I took Norwegian and mythology, astronomy, ethics, graphic design and I loved graphic design. So I changed my major to art and I'm still grateful to my parents for humoring me about that at the time. So by the end of my junior year, I gave up on art because I was getting Bs in my classes and I just didn't have the right art mindset. So my drawing professor said," Debbie, don't just draw the tree, you've got to feel the tree." I thought," I drew the tree. This looks just like the tree. The tree is accurate. Where's my A?" So fortunately, I had been acing my computer science classes and I spent my entire senior year scrambling to finish my computer science degree instead. I also had to take the dreaded calculus II, so I spent the summer beforehand reviewing my calculus I material. That was no fun at all. But near graduation, I spoke to my professors and one of them directed me to a software company that created forms design software. So again, this is back in the mid- 80s and it was very much like an early version of Word. So I got to write software to do graphic design, which turned out to be pretty much my dream job. But let me add that any programming project can be fine. I've done insurance printing. I've done drug interaction reports. I've done banking calculations, medical software. It's all fun. It's all about taking a requirement and making it come to life in the most elegant way possible. So I was a typical teenager in that I was going to do something really cool with my career. I was going to be in music or I was going to do something very creative. The reality is that I was writing urinalysis reports when I was in my'40s, but I've always loved what I do and it's been great fun.
Angel Leon: So that sounds like a very interesting start to a very long career in IT. You went from electrical engineering to liberal arts to then, computer science. That was quite the development right there in just what, a four or five year span?
Debbie Scilling: Yep. Pretty much. Yep.
Angel Leon: So let me ask you, you were part of the IT community in a period where, without a doubt, a lot of technological advancements were happening. How were you able to keep up with all the changes during this time?
Debbie Scilling: Well, again, I count myself very fortunate. I came out of college with a good understanding of Pascal as a programming language, but at my first job, we had to rewrite our system very quickly using C. This was before C++ was invented. So I just got a crash course in," Here is a set of software. We know what it does. Here's the C language. Rewrite it all using that." So I learned a lot along the way, which was really nice. I never had to go back to school for any particular training because I was given a lot of learn- on- the- job opportunities, but starting out with something fairly cutting edge really gave me a leg up. Wiziwig software was brand new when I got out there and it was really nice to be able to start on that instead of COBOL system or something at the time. So I really just had great luck with the timing of my career.
Angel Leon: That's interesting. So if I may, can I ask you when you first started in IT, what was harder than you expected?
Debbie Scilling: Well, really, I didn't realize that I wouldn't be able to let go of it when I came home. I think most programmers can relate to puzzling over a problem at night or the solution coming to you in the shower. I would dream about programming and then I'd wake up in the morning and go," Oh, okay, here's a different approach." But really, I think that the hardest thing was realizing that if you hit a wall, if you hit a problem that you can't solve, you're going to have to solve it. So I got into the mindset of," You know what? 10 years from now, I won't even remember this. A year from now, I'll barely remember this a month from now, this will already be solved. I've got to get through it." I remember some pretty miserable days of three, four days in a row trying to get something figured out and eventually getting there. So I learned a phrase long ago in my career that really has been helpful," Things that can't be, aren't." What that means is if you're looking at a problem, you're like," Well, that just can't be." Well, then it isn't. It isn't. What is it, instead, that is making it appear to be that way? It's a really powerful phrase if you stop and look at the problem and then start stepping back. The other thing is I remember having a boss who, he probably was technical a million years ago, but he was just an old guy that I reported to at my first job. One time, I was about two days into a problem I couldn't solve and he just sat down next to me and brainstormed it with me. I was so impressed that someone would just sit there and talk to me," What have you done? What worked, what didn't work." Sometimes just making a list of what you've done and what failed is really, really helpful because you can then clear that stuff away; that's already been handled; none of that was successful; what other things can we have? Sometimes, having another set of eyes to toss out some new ideas can be very, very helpful. Third, I've learned, as I think every developer has learned, that once you explain the problem to someone else, you realize what the problem is. It's just taking the time to describe it to someone else and you get to about the end of your last sentence, you go," Oh. Oh, okay. I know what it is." Again, it's having a second set of eyes, but in that case, the person doesn't do anything except sit there and listen to you and that can be very helpful.
Angel Leon: So could you speak to me a little bit more about having trouble letting go when you got home, because I think we see in a lot of movies and TV shows where people take their work to home and they start thinking about their issue at work at home and they figure it out by looking at, I don't know, a hole in the wall and they," Oh, wait, this is how you solve this? Oh, Eureka," but how would you explain that in real detail?
Debbie Scilling: Sure. So that feeling where you've just been working all day and working all day and you've just hit the wall? You just can't think about it anymore. You're done and you go to sleep and your brain resets overnight. You wake up the next morning and you're fresh and you're able to think of new things and so on. So I think a lot of times when people use the phrase'figured it out in the shower,' that really is, you're getting up in the morning, your brain is fresh and you're ready to take it on again, because at the end of the day, you're still puzzling over the same things that you've been thinking about the long, last three hours. You're not getting any fresh ideas.
Angel Leon: Interesting. So moving on a little bit, how, in your career, did you see the roles and opportunities for women in the tech industry change and evolve?
Debbie Scilling: Well, I've known a lot of great women in tech throughout my career and the numbers have improved quite a bit since I entered the field, but they're still not where they should be. With that said, I think the attitudes toward women have improved quite a bit since I first started out. I remember going to trade shows in the'80s and having people assume that I was there to attract people to the booth rather than to provide tech support for software that I had written. I was told that my ideas would be more palatable to senior management and if they were presented by a man. I heard," You don't look like a programmer," quite a lot. I still haven't come up with a snappy come back to that. But it sounds like a compliment, but it's kind of an implied put down as well." Oh, you're a woman. You can't be a programmer." But women in tech really aren't a novelty anymore. We're good at what we do. We're taken more seriously. We're now more visible in positions of power and our networks are better. Mentoring is better, so it's a good time for women in tech and it's definitely improving.
Angel Leon: That's true. I know that here in Indiana, we see a growth from some companies that have women- led tech organizations. It's going in the right direction. I still feel like, definitely, there could be some more room from improvement, like with everything else, but that's definitely going in the right direction. So as you've moved on through throughout your career, what advice would you give for someone wanting to pursue a tech career, specifically women?
Debbie Scilling: Well, tech careers and especially software development are great fun and very rewarding as long as you really have the interest and the aptitude. If you're going into the field, because you heard that you should, rather than because it fascinates you and you're obsessed with it, well, then you're not as likely to be successful. That said, if you have a logical mind and you love to solve problems, great. You've found your career. To women interested in tech, seek out your mentors. Build your network. Perhaps it's a professor or an advisor or a student farther along in their education. Once you're in the workforce, seek out women in leadership positions and ask for their advice and coaching. I saw this happening more and more to me later in my career, which was really, really great to see women, who were specifically wanting to meet with me and get advice and see how I had gotten where I had gotten in my career. Once you're in the field, my most important advice for women is to interrupt. Studies show that women get interrupted at a much higher rate than men and all you have to do is be in a large meeting to see it happen. I've learned interrupt and that ended up serving me well in my career. The very worst case was I was in an executive meeting with a bunch of men who I outranked and I had to actually lean forward, put my hands on the table and say," Let me speak," just to make my point. But we are typically trained to say," I'm sorry," or to let someone else speak over us and I think interrupting is an extremely important tool. I know it sounds rude, but it really makes a difference.
Angel Leon: No, I agree. I just want to dissect your answer a little bit more because you mentioned a lot of good points, good tips for anybody that's out there listening, specifically women, like you said, interest and aptitude should be your first step. If you're interested in the field, if that's something that's calling to you, take advantage of that. If you want to learn, go learn it. Learn it at your own pace, but make sure you are knowledgeable in the field. Then the second thing I think you mentioned was mentorship. Find that person, whether it's somebody that's, maybe, further along the line and you're in the study, so maybe a junior or a senior. If you're just starting as a freshman in college, make sure you get that mentorship. Then, eventually, once you get into the field find somebody that's a good mentor. If you want to find specifically a woman, because she's definitely walked the shoes that you're about to take on, that's also good advice to take on.
Debbie Scilling: That's a really good point. Your mentor doesn't have to be a woman. Men or women find someone who's in the position you want to be in and get their advice, get their leadership.
Angel Leon: Yeah. I always go back to the phrase," Dress for the role that you want." I know that could go a lot of different ways, but I think it goes with what we're saying here in that if you want to be an IT manager, if you want to be a VP of IT for an organization, look up. Look up to those people, whether that's a man or a woman, you're right. But make sure that they're mentoring you the right way because a mentorship could look many different ways. But you want to make sure that you're getting that feedback, that brutal feedback. As you were saying, just now about not being able to be afraid to interrupt others, get that brutal feedback from that mentor so that you know," Hey, this is what it takes to get to where I'm at right now."
Debbie Scilling: Yep. I agree.
Angel Leon: So moving on a little bit more, you're retired now. You're done with the field. You retired back in 2017. So what are your tips for a smooth, productive and fulfilling transition to retirement?
Debbie Scilling: Well, first of all, do everything possible to save for your retirement. I know that I sound like every financial advisor out there who says," Hey, your savings will compound. You've got to start when you're young," but yeah, start when you're young. You won't be able to see that your money's growing, but one day you'll wake up and go," Hey, I can retire." It's hugely important and it's extremely difficult to do, especially when your kids are young. You've got cars and mortgages and so forth, but definitely, definitely, always make your 401k and IRA contributions as much as possible. Also, this is something that I really lived by. Don't wait for retirement to do retirement things. Work that bucket list while you're young. You'll find more things to add to it once you retire anyway. So I did all of my international travel while I was still working so I wouldn't be too old to get to it all when I finally retired. But do all the other things too, skydive, hang glide, snorkel. All of those things that you want to do, write them down and start doing them. Anyway, I approach retirement like I approached my career. Of course, I made a list of projects that I wanted to do and I prioritized them. So I spent my first year scanning all of my immediate family history letters, photos, videos, all of that. Then the next year I worked on my extended family history, all my grandparents and old love letters from them and just everything, share that with my family. So my next project is to write my memoirs and then maybe I'll get into genealogy after that. But instead of worrying how I'm going to fill my days, which is what people really thought was going to be a problem, I worry that I don't have enough time, but I wake up every morning knowing that each day of retirement is a gift.
Angel Leon: Well, that's great advice. I got to go back to the whole travel while you're still working. I've done that myself. I've had the privilege of traveling overseas. I actually lived overseas in a couple of places while I was working for the government, so I got to do all of that and I can relate to your thoughts. I think it's great. It's given my family and my kids a different view on the world. It definitely is an eye- opening experience for anybody that can do it while they're working, if they're able. Do it. As Debbie said, don't wait until it's later in life because you don't know what could happen from here to there. As we get a little bit wiser, as I like to say, not necessarily the O word, it could be harder to travel, move around, so try to do it in your early years. So let me ask you, Debbie, speaking about traveling, what has been your favorite place to go to so far?
Debbie Scilling: Oh, I've got kind of my top five, but I think Tahiti French Polynesia has got to be at the top of the list. I love to snorkel. I love French food and I love being warm. So that's got to be the top, but I have family in Sweden, so I go back there as often as possible. It's the total opposite end of the spectrum. Obviously, it's very cold there, but I have people there and so it's a very different experience to be able to just be with relatives and to go places that they go and live a typical life with them.
Angel Leon: I've been to Sweden. I've been once. I guess I should say my favorite method of traveling is cruising. So before the pandemic in 2019, I was actually able to take a cruise out of Copenhagen in Denmark and one of the stops was in Sweden. So I got to say, I've been there. I loved it. I love all those Nordic countries in Northern Europe. They're amazing. We've been to Norway. Several years ago we took a cruise out of Amsterdam that took us all the way through Norway, so that was very exciting as well. So I'm all into the Nordic country culture, so I really appreciate the fact that you have family in Sweden. That's very cool.
Debbie Scilling: My family and I went to the ICEHOTEL, I don't know, 18 years ago and spent New Year's Eve in the ICEHOTEL. It's north of the Arctic Circle, so we went out and we got to see the Northern Lights. We got to see the suite that Queen Sylvia had stayed in for her birthday a week earlier. It was great, but oh my goodness, so cold. So very cold.
Angel Leon: Yes. No, I've never been to the ICEHOTEL. I remember in a small town in Norway, gosh, I can't remember the name, but they had, basically, this store made out of ice. So you could actually go in, but you have to wear those big puffy coats, orange overalls. Obviously, you could get a drink in there, but the thing about it is that they pour you the drink, but it would basically freeze in less than 10 seconds, so you'll have to make it really fast. So and then the other nice thing was that the actual shot glass was made out of ice.
Debbie Scilling: Oh, yeah.
Angel Leon: So that was very interesting as well. So any other places you have been that you love that you...?
Debbie Scilling: Well, I made a goal really early on in life to get to all seven continents and then I also planned out when I would get there. I think it was 2000 when I said," In January 2009, I will go to Antarctica," and then it came and I went. So I really enjoyed that. I've loved very much traveling in Asia. I love being on Shinkansen, the bullet train in Japan, going from one station to the next, ordering bento boxes of things I can't pronounce or identify. But I love traveling the world. I love going to different places. I love Indiana so much. I love living here, but it's so different in so many of the parts of the world and that's what I really enjoy is being someplace radically different than my normal.
Angel Leon: Yeah, absolutely. That the world just opens up your eyes to different experiences, environments, cultures. I've never been to Asia, unfortunately. I think the closest I've been to Asia was, I lived down in Chile, in Santiago, all the way down there. So I don't know if that counts as being close to Asia, but it is crosstalk far away.
Debbie Scilling: We'll give you points.
Angel Leon: It's a seven- hour flight from Miami, so that, to me, is pretty far away. But we had a lot of Chinese and Japanese population down there when I was there, so I would love to definitely go to Asia. I've yet been to Africa, so that's definitely on my bucket list. I'd love to go to Africa just to see how it is. I've been to Europe, like I said, Northern Europe, Southern Europe. I've been to Russia, which was on the bucket list of mine. I actually did go to St. Petersburg for a couple of days on a cruise through the Nordic City. So St. Petersburg was eye- opening, very, very pretty, just the Russian architecture, it's just amazing just how beautiful it is.
Debbie Scilling: That Baltic itinerary is amazing.
Angel Leon: Yes. So that was a bucket list item for my wife and I. We did it for a special birthday for her, so that was very special a couple of years ago. Hopefully, when everything opens back up, our next vacation right now, it looks to be Alaska. So we're hoping that if cruising comes back, we already have it booked, so it's going to be next year for Alaska around this time. So hopefully it's great. We are very much looking forward to that.
Debbie Scilling: That sounds great. I specifically saved Alaska for my 50th state when I turned 50. I was already at 75 countries by the time I finally got to Alaska, but I'm very much someone who likes to add meaning to my travel. I've been just about every place I've wanted to go. What I'm missing is the Classic River Cruise through Europe. I haven't gotten that done. As much as I've been to Scandinavia, I haven't done one of those cruises that takes you into the Fjords and right up around the top of Norway, I would love to do that. Of course, anytime I get close to Scandinavia, then I drop in and see the relatives. So those two are kind of waiting. Once I hit 100 countries, I was less obsessed with adding to the list, but now I'm thinking about it again. I'm like," I can make 125. Surely, I could." Any time I start thinking like that, I get out my list of countries and I start making lists and sure enough, then my husband just rolls his eyes and says," Where are we going next?" But really, like I said, I'm somebody who makes lists and so I went through and made sure that I had gone to all the places that were absolutely important to me. Anything I can get to now is just going to be icing on the cake. So now with the pandemic, I bought a Class B RV in December, one of the little, teeny tiny camper vans, and so now it's my little COVID mobile. So I've done a three- week trip through state parks and so on. I found that if you travel when it never gets above 32 degrees, nobody is in the state parks because it is really, really cold. But I'm looking forward to doing more traveling once the world opens up a little bit more. Currently, I do things like take pictures through the windows and eat our meals inside the little camper van and so on. But it'll be nice to actually use it to visit family and so forth.
Angel Leon: Yeah, that's a nice way to travel. I've never actually been in an RV, so I'm kind of jealous.
Debbie Scilling: Well, I've never been in a big one. I've only been in this tiny, little thing where you can barely move, but it's great for now. It's a really nice way to just travel in a bubble and not have any actual interaction with people.
Angel Leon: Yeah. I guess that's the world we're currently living around right now, so that's that's normal.
Debbie Scilling: Yep.
Angel Leon: Well, Debbie, it's been a pleasure to speak with you today. I've learned a lot from you. I've learned a lot about your travels. This has been very interesting. I love your career and it's been an amazing journey and retirement suits you. You've done so much, so it's great.
Debbie Scilling: Thanks, Angel. I appreciate you having me today. It was a good excuse to wear pants.
Angel Leon: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for your time again and I hope you continue enjoying your retirement and that you can start traveling again soon. I know you're enjoying your little RV, but I'm sure you'd love to get on an airplane and go somewhere.
Debbie Scilling: Absolutely. I've got a world cruise coming up next in a couple of years. That's my dream trip.
Angel Leon: Well, we'd love to hear that when you go, so we'd love to hear about it, so thank you again. Thank you for listening in to this week's edition of ASCII Anything presented by Moser Consulting. We hope you enjoyed this conversation about women in tech. We'd love it if you could join us next week when we continue to dive deeper with our resident experts in what they're currently working on. In the meantime, please remember to give us a rating and subscribe to our feed wherever you get your podcasts. Until then, so long, everybody.
Speaker 1: Go.
One advantage of having so many tech experts at Moser Consulting is that a lot of us have cool friends in our network. Debbie Schilling is one of those friends. Debbie retired a couple of years ago after spending her career in development. She's a former VP of Development at Orchard Software, a world-traveler, and a gardener. She joins us today to talk through the evolution of opportunities for women in the tech field over the years and we even delve into making a smooth transition into retirement.