Excerpted from an interview with Kellyn Pot’Vin published in the November 2014 issue of the NoCOUG Journal
See also: Career Advice for Oracle Database Beginners

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A strong advocate for women in technology, Kellyn Pot’Vin is an OakTable Network member and was an Oracle ACE Director until joining a group of Enterprise Manager specialists at Oracle Corporation. She specializes in environment optimization tuning, automation, and creating robust, enterprise-level systems. Kellyn works almost exclusively on multi-TB-sized databases, including Exadata and solid-state disk solutions, and is known for her extensive work with Enterprise Manager 12c and its command-line interface. She is the co-author of a number of technical books; hosts webinars for ODTUG, OTN, and All Things Oracle; and has presented at Oracle Open World, Hotsos, IOUG Collaborate, ODTUG Kaleidoscope, and numerous other U.S. and European conferences. Originally from French Canada, her motto is “Tomber sept fois, se relever huit!” which means “Fall seven times, rise eight times!” She blogs at www.dbakevlar.com, and her Twitter handle is @DbaKevlar.

You’re the first woman to be interviewed in the NoCOUG Journal in its 28-year history. Why are there fewer prominent women than men in technology?

The topic of women in technology is a complex one, covering many areas, but we Americans have added cultural challenges that are not as prevalent in Europe and are different from those in the Middle East and Asia. Educational focus, media, and lack of role models and mentoring round off the list of reasons.

To simplify the situation as much as possible, back in the 1980s there was a consistent increase in women going into technical fields, hitting a high mark of around 38% in the early 1990s. This was quite close to the percentage of women in the overall workforce, and no one is quite sure why it started to decline. As I noted, research points to complex cultural issues, along with different localized challenges. I started becoming interested in the topic as many of the women around me in the Denver area departed the technical arena. Many left high tech for “soft tech,” (project management, technical management, and technical recruiting), and others left the industry altogether. When I asked them why they were leaving, the responses included lack of support and experiences of being bypassed for promotion, along with personal demands not meshing with career ones.

We’ve all experienced this decline in high tech. Women now are leaving the industry at an almost 41% rate due to cultural changes, and young women don’t consider technical careers for their future as often as they could. This has resulted in increasingly lower numbers of women in tech (down to 23%), and even less involvement when it comes to the additional career- and network-building opportunities of writing articles, books, or blogs; attending or speaking at conferences; or leading a startup.

Anyone who engages in a career-building venture—such as writing, networking, and presenting—is going to be open to more scrutiny and face demands on personal time from the tasks and requests. These ventures can be daunting to women, many of whom have a tendency to over-scrutinize themselves, only taking on challenges when they’ve ensured that they are 110% qualified to perform the task. Why does this happen? Gender study research says much of it is cultural, as boys grow up being challenged to take risks. If boys fail, they are told to get up, brush themselves off, and continue on. Girls are less likely to be offered this type of encouragement. As a result, rather than taking on risk, women are more likely get stuck in self-examination unless (or until) they feel their success is guaranteed.

Attending conferences or outside networking events takes women away from the workplace and/or family. Women are also under considerable pressure to be the first ones available for family: children, spouse, and parents. Men are often given little support and, in fact, receive the opposite when they perform what is considered a woman’s role within the family, making it difficult for them to step into a more equalized role. This adds more pressure on women not to invest in outside activities unless they are connected with their family.

Women are great communicators, but they sometimes have concerns about building a network. Women fear that they will be misunderstood by male peers if they reach out to network with them. They can feel alienated in all-male work environments and feel uncomfortable going out to lunch or having any contact outside of work with a male peer. This is another reason that mentoring is so important to women in the industry. They often feel isolated, and having support is crucial to retaining them in the industry. I often remind those I mentor that their network is essential to their career growth.

Presenting and writing are not tasks that women take on lightly or very often. All of the above adds up, along with those cultural challenges, to deter many women from speaking at conferences and/or writing articles. Truth be told, this is the quickest way to become known in the industry and respected in the technical arena. Having your name out there and your knowledge shared makes you a considerable asset.

Despite all of these challenges, there are, in fact, many women in our field who have persevered, built their careers, and succeeded in IT. Two of the women whose specialized knowledge and presentation skills are very familiar to NoCOUG members are Maria Colgan, the product manager for Oracle Database 12c In-Memory Option, and Gwen Shapira, an Oracle ACE Director, OakTable member, and Big Data maven.

What should companies like Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Twitter, and Yahoo do (or not do) to bring more women into technology? Would you call for affirmative action and outreach, or would that lead to reverse discrimination?

I have to say that, honestly, I haven’t experienced much discrimination in my career. Almost all companies have mature policies in place to deal with discrimination, and what we really experience these days are unconscious bias and cultural challenges. Intent is not a component of unconscious bias, and it’s not isolated to one gender—both men and women possess some unconscious bias and, as the term “unconscious” deems, we are often unaware of it. Our ancestors wouldn’t have survived without it, as it was how we identified our world, but it does now hold us back as a society.

Consider that the cost of unconscious bias and cultural challenges is that less than 25% of the people in our field are women, and then look at race. Technology workers are only 30% Asian, 3% Hispanic, and 2% black. This is very troubling when you consider the small percentages representing the population as a whole that are contributing to the future of technology—and yes, I think we are all losing out. How many people in society use a computer, tablet, or smartphone? How many rely on online services, systems, and programs? Research has already shown how important the contributions of both genders and diverse cultures are to the economy and overall prosperity of a country.

A young Oracle professional in India named Ranit Biswas asked Cary Millsap, “How did you learn so much about Oracle?” and Cary responded at length on his blog. What advice would you want to pass on to young Ranit?

Although it’s impossible to top Cary’s excellent answer, I can add the following:

  • Find those that can guide you and offer you honest advice;
  • Ignore those that only offer criticism and not options;
  • Be generous and gracious to others in the industry; and
  • Always do research, always support your answers with data, and never assume.

(Editor’s Note: With Cary’s permission, his entire response has been reprinted in this issue of the NoCOUG Journal.)

How did you get started in the DBA field, and what were the things that you did right during your career that Ranit and others like him can learn from?

In my early 20s, I suffered from a mysterious and challenging autoimmune disease that caused strokes. By the time my doctors had the answer, I’d suffered five strokes, I’d lost 48% of my left-side visual field and 9 years of recent memories, and I could no longer perform the duties of my current career.

I started physical and speech therapy, and relearned to drive and balance a checkbook, along with other knowledge I’d gained as a young adult. I also started to learn how to do basic job tasks again, and began working in retail. Starting over seemed overwhelming, and I found the only way I could work through it was to break it down into very small tasks. As I completed these tasks and refused to give up on anything, these small accomplishments turned into real recovery and growth.

I went from selling computers to desktop support to becoming a DBA. As a DBA, I was never afraid of taking on difficult challenges, as I broke them down into these same small tasks. I didn’t fear failure and continued to succeed. It’s important to know that there is great power in the simple act of doing. There are so many people who say they will do something but then never get around to it. The 18th-century philosopher Goethe said, “What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it; Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” He was right.

When I first started as a DBA in 2000, I only had my Oracle certification courses to support me. I started with a local company as a junior database administrator and looked forward to really starting to immerse myself in the Oracle database. There was an issue though: the company had just let go a senior MSSQL DBA and needed someone to take over the very large MSSQL 7.0 clustered database on Windows NT. Within the DBA team, no one wanted anything to do with this behemoth and, of course, there were snide remarks from the Oracle DBAs, who had no desire to touch Microsoft SQL Server. My philosophy was that I was there to support the company and the users, and I also thought of it as an intriguing challenge. I was quickly informed after I volunteered to take on the job that the DBA team was not on speaking terms with the application support or users for this large environment. I was not allowed to break the silence and instructed that I must figure out how to take it over without their support.

This was against everything I believed in, especially since I’d previously worked in the support world. I followed the lead DBA’s instructions for approximately three weeks before I finally went to the director of the application and users for my new MSSQL system and said, “So I hear that my group and your group are not on speaking terms. I think that sucks and I’d really like to change it.” Over the next four years, I supported and upgraded their MSSQL environment, along with Oracle and Sybase databases, and this group was there for me during even the most difficult times.

I learned that no matter what your level of knowledge or skill is, you can’t do your job alone as well as you can with the support of a team. The database is in the middle of everything, and as such, embracing those around you is a sure path to success.

You’re a social media expert. What’s your advice for the rest of us social media noobs?

With the popularity of social media, more focus has been placed on personal brands, not just on company brands. A personal brand is your online identity on the Internet. Creating a powerful personal brand requires thought, persistence, and a desire to learn about what is required to be successful in the world of social media and the Internet.

You should have a clear idea of the image you wish to present to the public, and know the value you bring to your community and how you wish to grow as a part of it. For example, my personal brand, DBAKevlar (http://about.me/DBAKevlar) is based on my technical identity. Your identity determines who your followers will be.

There are four common categories of social media users: networkers, for whom professional contacts are everything; socializers, who are interested in interaction and communication that is more often social in nature rather than strictly professional; lurkers, who monitor social media but rarely post anything; and broadcasters, who send out information but are less likely to interact.

Outside of social media, we have the following categories: authors, who write articles and/or books; contributors, who only contribute to sites owned by other groups/individuals; content providers, who simply push out content from other providers but produce nothing original themselves; and bloggers, who post original content on their own websites.

My DBAKevlar brand is a combination of a number of these categories, as I’m heavily involved on the Internet compared to most users. For social media, I’m considered a networker and broadcaster. Outside of social media, I fall into all four categories, as I produce my own blog and magazine, write for other publications, push content, and also contribute to other users’ sites.

If you want followers who are interested in you technically and in the topics that you feel passionately about, post only on what is important to you. Remember that nothing disappears from the Internet. Choose your words wisely and only provide information about your personal life that you are comfortable sharing with the whole world!

On the subject of personal branding, what drives your unusual fashion choices?

Mid-career, I wasn’t receiving as many technical challenges as my male peers. I was explaining to my manager one day that I was frustrated about being mistaken for an end user/project manager/sales team member instead of a high-end techie. My manager looked at me and he said “then stop dressing like one.” The next day I painted my fingernails black. In my first meeting, as expected, people made numerous comments about my nails, but they also started asking me technical questions. Within a few weeks, I was either wearing combat or cowboy boots, and from that point on, I was rarely taken for anything but a high-end techie! ▲

Also see Career Advice for Oracle Database Beginners