May 2011 Features

Geek Nirvana: Alumnae Work in Digital Businesses

By Maria Jacketti

Emily Pinkerton ’07 at Twitter: “The Tell Your Stories Here sign always spoke to me on a very meaningful level.”

Emily Pinkerton ’07 at Twitter

Two years after graduation, Emily Pinkerton landed a job at Twitter in San Francisco—what she describes as “Geek Nirvana.” In 2009, Twitter had only 120 employees. The old headquarters exemplified “quintessential start-up life,” she says. “The office was full of light, with vibrant paint and art of all kinds on each wall, a DJ booth, plenty of comfy couches, and fridges that never ran low on Red Bull or beer.”

Today, Twitter has more than 400 employees and Pinkerton has advanced to content editor. She now oversees a team of writers who keep Twitter’s collective mind organized and readable.

Pinkerton grew up a mile from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The parents of her friends were astronauts and engineers. Math, science and technology were part of the zeitgeist.

At Bryn Mawr, she won a place at the competitive Summer Multimedia Development Institute, a College-funded internship that gives five students per summer an opportunity to help faculty and staff develop web, video, or multimedia based projects.

Her senior thesis explored the way that digital media has changed the way we tell stories. “Now stories are told online,” says Pinkerton, an English major. But the art of storytelling is still prized. It does not matter, she says, how such texts are delivered—in print or online. “Traditional authors should not be threatened by the shift. It does not strive to kill the printed word. Texts that are canonically relevant will always remain relevant.”

Roopa Dhanalal ’89 at Oracle

Born in India, Roopa Dhanalal ’89 moved to Minnesota as a child. At the age of 6, she wanted to be a surgeon. At Bryn Mawr, Dhanalal majored in neurobiology and minored in Spanish—mentored by Margaret Hollyday and Nora Magid: “strong women who were doing what they loved,” says Dhanalal.

Skilled in writing, she also had an internship at Working Woman magazine and freelanced at various local newspapers and radio stations.

In the mid-1990s, software companies in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area were beginning to search for liberal arts graduates to serve as consultants because they were able to see the “big picture” in evolving digital scenarios. For Dhanalal, that was her call to adventure.

She began at a small European subsidiary and was recruited by a head hunter to play a bigger role in software consulting. From that point on, “my career evolved on its own,” she explains.

Dhanalal spent the last 15 years at Oracle, a multinational computer technology corporation that creates hardware and software systems. Neither a developer nor a programmer, she specialized in working with end products to help customers have better user experiences.

Today Dhanalal is about to start a new phase in her career. She wants to apply her business expertise to small start-up companies and also expand her consulting to larger European, Middle Eastern and African computer operations. In addition, she is on the Board of Directors of the International School in Hamburg, Germany.

“I believe my most valuable contribution is international know-how, and the ability to work well with individuals from different cultures,” she says.

Alexis Blevins Baird ’05 at Bing

Computer science is a family affair—both of Alexis Blevins Baird’s parents are math Ph.D.s turned computer scientists. To rebel, at least temporarily, she avoided all hard sciences at Bryn Mawr and studied linguistics instead.

Graduate studies, however, brought her back to the familial connection. Baird dove into a master’s program in computer science at the University of Pennsylvania, “a computer science boot camp,” she says. Few women were in the program. A male classmate confided that when he first saw her walk into class, he thought, “Cheerleading tryouts are down the hall!”

After graduate school, Baird began working in San Francisco at a start-up company, Powerset, which was soon acquired by Microsoft.

Today, Baird thrives at the largely male-dominated search engine Bing— crediting the previous generation of female computer scientists for opening access for her and others in what has been a testosterone-laden profession. She spends some days writing code, mucking around databases; other days she is involved in more global types of development.

Privacy is a growing concern in the virtual world. She urges consumers to be aware of what they are doing when they share online. Congress last updated privacy laws in 1986. At that time, most people did not have a cell phone. And the World Wide Web was still a fantasy.

There is a certain irony to her current job. Baird puts it this way: “In order to do metrics, you have to collect data. In order to collect data, you need to track users. But when it comes to sharing info, I find myself clicking ‘No.’ I want my privacy!”

Nicole Gervasio ’10 at Google

“Don’t be evil”—Nicole Gervasio reports this is the company motto of Google, where she is spending a year in online sales before she heads off to graduate school in the fall. An English and urban studies double major, Gervasio describes herself as one of Google’s “wildcard” humanities people in a workforce of mostly business and computer science graduates.

She plans to focus her graduate studies on the literature and lives of traditionally marginalized groups. A recent recipient of a Javits fellowship for graduate study, she admires Joseph Slaughter, a professor at Columbia University whose research explores the individual’s place within a national/corporate body. How do disparate individuals figure into the creation of a unified entity, without experiencing the extinction of individuality?

Of her own situation, she relates: “There are not many queer or working class people at Google. There are not many people of color.”

Yet, as an individual within a vibrant corporate body, Gervasio has autonomy over the products she takes on. This underscores the company’s individualistic culture, she explains. It also reflects the social concern that her colleagues and the larger organization routinely communicate. For example, she is proud of Google’s stand against the Chinese government’s blocking of information from ordinary citizens.

Gervasio cautions inhabitants of the Net to focus more attention on protecting original creative works that can get swept up in the sheer amount of data online. “As the Internet expands the knowledge available to everyone, we still have to figure out better ways to negotiate the ownership and exchange of that intellectual property. Basically, I wouldn’t want to see writing, an occupation I value so much, become devalued as a result,” she says.

Kimberly Blessing ’97 at Comcast Interactive Media

Kimberly Blessing’s career as a computer scientist started when she was 5 years old, working with a TRS-80 Color Computer, one of the first for home use. By the time she was 8, she was writing programs on a Commodore 64.

As a senior at Bryn Mawr, she designed the College’s first website. But she almost dropped out of college. The crisis erupted when Blessing’s maternal grandparents died. Her computer science advisor and the IT staff came forward, providing emotional support and encouraging her to take on special projects for the campus. Thanks to them, she says, she remained in school and received her degree.

After College, Blessing became a web developer at AOL and eventually ran the department. In the mid-2000s, she worked as a private consultant before leading web development platform initiatives at PayPal.

Today, she is a senior software architect at Comcast Interactive Media in Philadelphia, working on Comcast.net and XfinityTV. She also teaches computer science courses at Bryn Mawr.

Innovation drives the digital industry, she points out. In the near term, she sees a continuing boom in ultra-lightweight tablet devices such as the iPad. People like to carry devices around and stay connected. But for the long term, where are the digital wizards to invent the next generation of computers?

“I want parents to tell their kids, ‘Here is an old Commodore 64. Take it apart.’ Kids may find the gift a little retro and low-tech. But they need to understand the ancestor machines,” she says, “before they dissect their iPads and invent something new and utterly amazing.”

Lisa Redekop ’83 at Thomson Reuters

Lisa Redekop ’83 lives in London with her husband and two children. For her, balancing family and a corporate career is not just a challenge—it’s great satisfaction, she says.

Recently she joined Thomson Reuters, a news and information company. Her work involves taking marketing messages and making then usable and useful by sales people.

Marketing, she points out, has been a traditional field for women. Sales, however, have been more male-dominated. And there has also been suspicion between both camps.

“As a marketer,” she says, “one sits in front of a customer and brings the value of a product to life. There is a continuum between the marketers and salespeople that needs to be recognized and explored.” Redekop’s job is to synthesize the two disciplines.

Growing up in Arizona, she planned to be a vet and was active in the Future Farmers of America, an activity that honed her speaking skills. Although she had never traveled to Pennsylvania before College, she imagined a refreshing change from the desert—a “green and horsey place,” she says.

At Bryn Mawr, she majored in Growth and Structure of Cities, and devoted her senior thesis to exploring the architecture of American embassies, focusing on how their designs reflect the American character.

Redekop’s concerns with digital technology center on children. “Our kids need to know how to write!” she says. Adults also need to be filters to help kids sort through the Internet’s labyrinth for quality information, she continues. “Digital technology is a platform—content is still king.” While all forms of communication form a mosaic of the collective human voice, she adds, “I really value a nice card or letter.”

Comments on “Geek Nirvana: Alumnae Work in Digital Businesses”

  1. Yes, very encouraging — great to see the paths ambitious, innovative women can pursue with the right support and skill base!

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