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Purpose Is Key to Bringing Women Into Tech

Elizabeth Miller Coyne

Technology for technology's sake is not a woman thing. However, technology for the sake of solving a problem or a purpose is what appeals to women, and that's key to bringing women into the comms industry, according to Gargi Keeling at VMware.

Keeling, director of product management for VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW) NSX, network virtualization and security platform for the software-defined data center, has what she calls a "typical tech background" -- strong in math and science in high school, and two degrees in electrical engineering (BS, MIT; MS, Columbia). But when she went looking for a career, she went looking for a job that let her solve problems and had a purpose.

"I graduated with these fancy degrees but I felt that I was not a true engineer until I could build this stuff with my own hands. So when it came down to choosing careers between a typical engineering company and a bank, I chose the bank," Keeling says, "I actually liked how technology was brought together to solve problems -- and had purpose."

I checked in with Keeling late last year to find out more about her career, what it's like to be a woman in comms, and what she thinks is important to help increase the number of women in the industry.

Finding a Purpose
Gargi Keeling, VMWare, says more women would be attracted to join the comms world if they could make the connection between technology and purpose.
Gargi Keeling, VMWare, says more women would be attracted to join the comms world if they could make the connection between technology and purpose.

Liz Coyne: What is the biggest advantage to being a woman in the comms industry?

Gargi Keeling: The biggest advantage is that we are memorable because there are so few of us. I call it a bit of the Where's Waldo effect in that we stand out. Specifically, I stand a foot shorter and I speak an octave higher than a typical presenter so I stand out. I have had sales reps come to me and say, "Yeah, we love how you come in and break it up and it's so refreshing." They dance around the point that, yeah, every other presenter had been a dude.

I think of it kind of like any press is good press. To me, it has not been a problem, but I don't want to rely on the Where's Waldo effect to get attention.

LC: How did you get started in technology? What inspired you to pursue engineering?

GK: I'm a bit different because I don't fall into the mold of the girl who wasn't encouraged. I got a lot of encouragement from my dad, who's an engineer. It was kind of expected that you had two choices: doctor or engineer. But in terms of technology, in particular, I excelled in math and physics but my dad always added a little cherry on top. He said, "To be a good engineer, you have got to do mechanical drawing," so he pushed me extra.

But I have to tell you that I wasn't naturally inclined toward programming, for example. In fact, I hated it, but to my point earlier, I didn't see a purpose. I didn't get the point of it. So in some ways, I'm not like other women in that I got a lot of encouragement, but on the other hand, I didn't like technology just for technology's sake.

LC: What advice would you give to women thinking about a career in comms?

GK: In general, I would say you need to get them interested in it in the first place. I would tell them you would bring great value to the tech industry due to the innate skills that you have -- attention to detail, process orientation, multi-tasking and problem solving.

Women are problem solvers. If something went wrong when you were a kid, you'd go to your mom. Think about all the things in this world that you want to fix that don't have technology associated with them. It doesn't even have to be a great social problem. It could be wanting to share music with girlfriends, organizing parties or something like that and then how technology could be used to solve that problem or make it easier.

LC: Where do you think the comms industry loses a lot of women? How can we avoid that loss?

GK: It's in figuring out what you don't know. That's where we lose a lot of women and girls. There is this feeling of the path of least resistance, like, "This is hard, so I'm going to find something that I'm good at and I'll just keep doing it because I don't really need a high-powered career because I am going to be a mom and raise kids." That is one extreme, but my dad pointed out to me that the problem that most women have is that they have a choice and that gives them an out -- this path of least resistance. You have to set your bar high -- it doesn't have to be your ultimate goal, there are other things that you can do, but set it high.

LC: What motivates you to work and stay in the comms industry?

GK: I've been focused on technology in banking or building technology products to sell to certain industries for 20-plus years. I feel like I've been so fortunate and so blessed to have a lucrative career, but what really keeps me going is that if I build a couple of new skill sets, I might even be able to work on a technology that could do something like aid in cancer research.

We are at this amazing point in technology where biology and genetics could really benefit from a lot of what we have been doing in banking and manufacturing, so for me that keeps me going.

— Elizabeth Miller Coyne, Editor, The New IP

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Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
2/3/2016 | 10:03:43 AM
Re: tech outcomes
Hi Gargi! Thank you for your comment and for the excellent Mentor Monday interview with Liz. That's great to hear about your experience finding a balance between being a mom and contracting as a technical product manager. It sounds like that was a really effective way to accomplish both in a way that let you keep your skill sharp and transition back to full time when you were ready. I'm impressed that your company enabled this and/or you forged this path on your own.
User Rank: Light Beer
2/3/2016 | 8:29:58 AM
Yes, I can see how women are more of problem solvers than men and that is what gets them motivated and going strong.
User Rank: Light Beer
2/3/2016 | 2:33:57 AM
Re: tech outcomes
Thanks, Sarah - agreed.

Yes, I'm one of those women that depended on the paycheck, too, given that I was a single parent for quite some time. I was fortunate to have an upbringing that taught me to be self-sufficient, so that I could support myself if I ever needed to.

I also chose to forego full-time work and promotions for several years, so I could be soccer coach and library mom to my only son - all while contracting as a technical product manager.

Technical careers can also offer flexibility unlike man other jobs/vocations and it's important for women to also understand the freedom that these careers can offer.

- Gargi Mitra Keeling
Sarah Thomas
Sarah Thomas,
User Rank: Blogger
2/1/2016 | 1:00:29 PM
tech outcomes
I don't necessarily agree that most women have a choice whether to stay in the workforce, as many depend on that paycheck, but most do have a choice what career path to pursue -- and whether to stick with a particularly challenging one when balancing the demands of family. She makes a good point there.

I also agree in the idea of not promoting technology for tech's sake, but for the outcomes it can enable. That will be key to attracting young people, and women in particular, into the comms industry.
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