Friday, January 13, 2006

Girls' Middle School Inaugral Scholarship Breakfast - with Robin Jeffries.

I sometimes get to attend events that Sun Microsystems decides are worthy causes to sponsor - and to be seen at. Over the past few months I've been a guest at the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology Women of Vision awards where Sun's Radia Perlman won the Women of Vision 2005 award for Innovation, and the Women in Technology International San Jose conference where Sun's Barbara Bauer was inducted into the WITI Hall of Fame. Attending these formal dinner events, has been extremely interesting, and it's been wonderful to be able to learn about and celebrate the achievements of these wonderful women who work in technology as well as meet them in person.

This week the event I was invited to was the Inaugural Girls' Middle School of Mountain View Scholarship Breakfast. This event was especially appealing to attend, because a former Sun colleague, Robin Jeffries, was giving the keynote and receiving an award for her services to technology. Robin's keynote speech was really wonderful. There were two stories in particular in her talk that I cherished hearing about, and Robin has endorsed my re-telling them in my own words:

The first story is about the challenges of being a working mother. By the time Robin was just about to have her second child, she saw a job ad with 'her name written all over it.' She had recently identified her interest in the area of HCI, and was very eager to apply for the job. However, this was difficult timing. The hiring manager at the company she was applying to was extremely keen to have Robin work for them, and she's imagined over the subsequent years how he'd had to ask HR things like, "Is it ok for someone to go on maternity leave as soon as they join the company?" In the end she flew out for an interview taking her baby when he was just 6 weeks old. She arranged for baby-sitting by an agency and early in the morning the baby-sitter called to cancel. She was unable to arrange for a new sitter, since the agency were not yet open, and called the company she was interviewing at only to find her interview couldn't be delayed as she was making a presentation at 9:00am. So, she had no option but to take her baby with her. She set him down, and cross her fingers, .... ... ... and he was as quiet as anything throughout the presentation, cooing, and quietly gurgling in all the appropriate points of the presentation! Robin had thought that with all the complexities that she'd completely blown the interview, that didn't turn out to be the case at all, and they happily hired her.

And how can I relate? Well my story isn't as dramatic; but I did once do a telephone interview at home with my then 9 month old grabbing hold of my legs, to get my attention. As he got louder and louder in his demands, I had to resort to putting him in his crib, shutting the door, and doing the interview in the yard! I felt bad, but he calmed down afterwards with lots of love and cuddles, ... and I also landed the job!

The second story explains Robin's "ah-ha" moment that sparked her curiosity in HCI. Robin had been creating some software down in the basement of the company that she was working at (where programmers were always put) and was visiting her work colleagues up on the 3rd floor, where she was able to notice someone using her software. The software was HR related and the administrator using the software at that point in time was supposed to type in an employee ID but instead had started to type in a name. As soon as the error message started appearing she'd realized her mistake; but had to wait through the gradual appearance of the very clear and long explanatory error message that Robin had written to cope with this very situation. Back then the text appeared one character at a time on the screen, and it took a rather a long time before the administrator could begin working again. Robin noticed her sitting there tapping her fingers while the text arrived. This lead Robin to wonder how she could correct this - it was obvious that the error message needed to be shorter as the administrator had quickly figured out what was wrong. Robin thought about what the shortest form that error message could be. She thought through what an actual conversation would be like around this error, and that probably all one person would need to say to another for them to notice such an error would be "huh?". So she duly went back to her development environment and implemented this. The very next day, while she was sitting in the basement programming, she heard a commotion and someone knocking on the door and bursting in, in floods of tears proclaiming, "your computer just said "huh?" at me!". And this is when Robin realized that learning to develop systems that would appropriately support users in their tasks, was a much more complex and interesting subject to pursue, and hence this became her lifelong career.

Many thanks to Robin for letting me recount these delightful stories here - she told me these were her two favorite stories of the presentation too.

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