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Kimberly Blessing

Kimberly Blessing

Kimberly Blessing

The Myth of the Queen Bee: Why Women (Sometimes) Don't Help Other Women - The Atlantic

For women with low levels of gender identification—who think their gender should be irrelevant at work and for whom connecting with other women is not important—being on the receiving end of gender bias forces the realization that others see them first and foremost as women. And because of negative stereotypes about women, like that they are less competent than men, individual women can be concerned that their career path may be stunted if they are primarily seen as just a woman and therefore not a good fit for leadership.

To get around these kinds of gendered barriers, these women try to set themselves apart from other women. They do this by pursuing an individual strategy of advancement that centers on distancing themselves from other women. One way they do this is through displaying Queen Bee behaviors such as describing themselves in more typically masculine terms and denigrating other women (“I’m not like other women. I’ve always prioritized my career”).

The point is, it’s not the case that women are inherently catty. Instead, Queen Bee behaviors are triggered in male dominated environments in which women are devalued.

Kimberly Blessing

My Nerd Story

8 min read

Rosie the Riveter reminds you that we can do it!These are cute totems. I have the Tesla doll.

A few days ago, I was directed to Crystal Beasley's Nerd Story post by Kirin Kalia, my Bryn Mawr College classmate. She asked me to share my own "nerd" story.

I hesitated. I hesitated because I saw that Crystal was prompted to write her story in response to one of the current sexism-in-tech spotlights. (I'm not trying to downplay whatever is going on currently -- I'm just not following it and can't speak much about it.) I hesitated because I know that my story is laden with the exact kind of privilege that is often attributed to white men in technology. I know that some women don't so much see me as a potential role model as part of the problem.

Still, I considered it. Then I went back to Crystal's post and read the comments that had been left and thought, "I don't need to deal with this shit." Crystal's post had brought out the trolls, haters, and real misogynists. While I've read my fair share of hate mail, I am past the point where I want to deal with online harassment because it wastes *my* time to have to handle it.

After thinking about it some more, I figure that if my story guides or inspires just one other person, or validates something going on in their brain (or heart), then any grief will be worth it. So, here goes.


I grew up in a middle class family that was extremely focused on education. My grandfather was an engineer in the midst of the CAD revolution; my dad and aunt were pharmacists dealing with the computerization of their field. Math, science, and tech geekiness ran in my family.

I started elementary school in 1980 and, from day one, got used to seeing a variety of TRS-80s in the building. Soon, I got used to using them on a regular basis, first through the gifted program, and later through a before and after school program, which I've written about before. BASIC was my first programming language. I wrote programs to make sounds, change the screen color, print text to screen, draw shapes -- all of which culminated in me programming a TRS-80 CoCo 2 to play the harmony to "Yesterday" by The Beatles, while I played the melody on the flute.

TRS-80 CoCo 1My TRS-80 CoCo 1, salvaged in 2008. I don't like getting rid of old tech.

Meanwhile, at home, we had Pong, then an Atari 2600. Playing games was fun, but I wanted to write programs. I got a Commodore 64; in the summer of 1983, after seeing War Games, I spent weeks trying to program my own "Joshua" artificial intelligence. Thankfully, no one ever discouraged me from working on that fruitless program. I don't think they even knew that building an AI wasn't possible. I sure as hell didn't.

The Commodore 64 eventually became a 128 and was a mainstay for everything from gaming to doing homework to getting online. In 1985 or 1986, my aunt purchased an Epson Equity PC (8088) and thus I was introduced to DOS (version 2.11, and all of the upgrades from there!). She was using it for basic word processing; I quickly figured out how to do mail merges for her, create spreadsheets, and other more "office-y" type things with it.

As I made my way into junior high and high school, my interaction with computers was limited to home and the library. Whereas every classroom in my elementary school had a TRS-80 or an Apple IIe, the only computers in the upper schools were in special computer rooms, which were mostly used by the "business prep" students. Honors/gifted students, apparently, didn't need to use computers. At home, with more and more homework to do, my computer use became much more practical -- checking math and typing papers. There wasn't time for programming.

In reality, I didn't make time for programming anymore. It wasn't in the classroom anymore, so I suppose I didn't see it as important anymore. Although I started seventh grade already knowing some trigonometry, I went back to algebra. Yawn. Science was still fun, at least, but my language and music teachers were much more encouraging of my work and progress. I turned my focus to where I got feedback and positive reinforcement. By the time I graduated high school, I had dropped out of calculus but took AP French. I had skipped the one and only programming class at my high school -- but when I saw the homework assignments, I yawned again. They would've been pretty repetitive for me.

Thanks to my grandfather, I started college with a brand-new Packard Bell 486/33, which came with 4 MB RAM, a 120 MB hard drive, a sound card, a 2400 baud modem, and Windows 3.1 -- better than my boyfriend's! In my single dorm room, I had plenty of time to noodle with my new tech. Word 6 and NCSA Mosaic had just been released. I had accounts on AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserve but also quickly learned how to dial in to my college's UNIX server. That computer lasted me one year; I built a new computer the following year and upgraded it consistently, until I got to grad school and bought a fancy Dell machine with a Pentium processor.

At the same time, I was rocking my liberal arts education experience, with my intended romance languages major, until the reality of completing the quantitative (i.e. math) requirement reared its ugly head. I wanted to love calculus, but I struggled. Where to turn? Intro to computer science, of course. I figured it should be easier than suffering through more calculus. I didn't count on it changing my educational direction.

I wasn't a great student, that first CS class. Instead of really trying to learn something new, I relied on my existing knowledge and prior experience to get me through. But I guess it was clear that I "got" it enough to warrant the encouragement of the professor, my friend Deepak Kumar, to continue studying CS. So I did. It was as simple as someone saying, "Hey, you're good at this. Ever thought of majoring in it?"

Me in college with an X-TerminalIn the X-Term lab. I think Sarah and I were writing a program to play Konani.

Being a major in computer science at a women's liberal arts college with only one CS professor wasn't easy. I had to lobby the school to be a CS major, and I had to take classes at other colleges and universities in order to complete my CS requirements. I remember taking computer organization (my favorite subject) at Carnegie Mellon University, and being one of about four women in the hall of perhaps 200 people. It's only strikingly odd to me now; at the time, I knew I was a rarity, but it didn't really faze me. (Later, in grad school, the ratio was a bit better because the classes were smaller.)

I made friends with Sarah Hacker (yes, her real name) who had already decided on a CS major; she worked for campus IT services and helped me get a job. Because I knew UNIX, I made an extra 25 cents an hour! Sarah introduced me to HTML (and helped me fix my first markup bug) and I started cranking out websites on Deepak's server. Other members of the team taught me everything I know about software and hardware support. It was a perfect storm of interest, opportunity, and encouragement. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, after 20 years of experience in large internet/tech companies (AOL, PayPal, and Comcast) and other organizations, I head up the web development team and growing technology consulting practice at Think Brownstone. I've architected and built some of the coolest publishing systems and web sites in the history of the internet -- and I still get excited when I'm presented with a challenge that requires strategic thinking, technical know-how, and organizational savvy. I've been able to take my experience and turn it into book contributions, conference presentations, and a for-credit CS class at my alma mater. I'm still a technology junkie, but as a manager and leader, I get the biggest kick out of coaching younger talent and helping them grow their skills.


Disney's Kim Possible

The moral of my story is: discouraging a young mind can stop its progress, but encouragement can help get things moving again. If you're an adult, figure out who you can encourage today. If you're a young adult, avoid the discouragers (as much as you can) and find the encouragers.

Write your own Nerd Story -- don't let it be written for you.

Kimberly Blessing

Working On Weaknesses

4 min read

Say NO to kryptonite t-shirt Even Superman has a weakness. (One of mine is wanting to own lots of cool t-shirts, like this one.)

In my last post, Understand and Leverage Your Strengths, I wrote about focusing on your strengths to make yourself (and your team) happier and more successful.

But a former direct report of mine wrote to remind me that, even when one understands and leverages his or her strengths, it's still possible to have a weakness or skill deficit that makes true success difficult to attain. What does one do in this type of situation? If this is something that's weighing greatly on you, here's my advice.

First, get specific about the weakness. Don't just summarize it as, for example, "I'm not a good communicator." What is it that you're not good at or comfortable with? Is it that your written communications lack structure or suffer due to poor spelling and grammar? Are you terrified of speaking before a crowd and thus get tongue-tied whenever you must do so? You want have a focused statement that spells out what you're addressing; for a bit of positive reinforcement, you might even specify what related skill you have that you're good at. Using the earlier example, you might be able to make the following statement: "While I am able to clearly summarize and deliver my thoughts verbally to one person or a few people in a regular team meeting, I get very nervous about speaking before larger groups or people I don't know well, to the point where my delivery of prepared statements can be very awkward."

Next, determine how much you need to grow to be successful -- and this means getting specific about what success means to you. Let's say that you're a web designer and you want to start doing some consulting work where you deliver design and front-end code for clients. You are already a decent HTML and CSS coder, so you have that covered, but you don't know any JavaScript and anticipate having to write some every so often. Rather than give up on your consulting business idea because you think it will be too hard to learn JavaScript, you may want to think about finding someone you could outsource that work to. Or you can work with some developer friends to create a small suite of scripts that you rely on. Or maybe you really should buckle down and try to learn JavaScript before you assume that you can't!

Once you've figured out the above you can create a development plan. Take out a sheet of paper. On the left, write down where you are today; on the right, write down where you want to be. Then identify the steps you need to take to get from one to the other and write those out in between. Assign some dates to each step, et voilà, you've got yourself a plan!

Does that sound too easy? It might, especially if the idea of addressing this weakness fills you with dread or fear. To that end, I strongly suggest that you seek feedback throughout this entire process. You may be surprised to learn that others don't view your weakness the same way you do -- this can be a really great perspective to consider. By talking about your weakness, you may come to terms with it. Or, you may be able to identify someone who could mentor you as you work through your development plan.

So, what's your weakness? Leave a comment and you just might find someone who can help you as you help yourself!

Kimberly Blessing

The Problem Isn't IE6 -- It's You

5 min read

This post is going to upset a lot of people, I'm sure, but what I have to say needs to be said, if only to remind members of our community to behave themselves.

Is Internet Explorer 6 an old, outdated, hanger-on of a browser? Yes, absolutely. Does it require the use code hacks in order to achieve semi-parity with more modern browsers? Yes, it does. Should this be such a problem for web professionals? No, it shouldn't.

IE6 Cartoon Thanks, Tracy Apps!

For a moment, forget about all of IE6's issues, security, how much you dislike Microsoft, or whatever baggage you're carrying around. Instead, think about IE6 as an unknown browser -- perhaps as a random blip in your browser stats, or maybe as an interesting piece of tech you've seen on a blog or at a conference. You don't know much about that browser or how your site is going to work on it, so what do you? You code it using web standards goodness: you create a base with semantic markup (and any server-side tech for forms), add on design via CSS, then layer on client-side interactivity with JavaScript and Ajax-y goodness -- et voilà, you have a lovely, robust web experience.

Now, with some new or unknown browser, you hope for the best. But with IE6, we know what the issues are. If you're using PNGs with alpha-transparency in your design, you'll need an alternate solution. If you're adding horizontal margins to floats, you know you'll run in to a double-margin bug. If you're trying to clear floats within a parent, you know you need to set height. You'll need to plan for handling unsupported CSS selectors. And when it comes to JavaScript, you may not even know what to plan for (unless you spend most of your days working with JS).

But again, you're a web professional. You know your craft. You know this platform and its issues. (If you don't, you need to know your craft better. No, I don't buy "newness" to the field as an excuse -- this is still a present concern, so you need to understand it! Why not start with my CSS tips for IE6.) While some venting may be in order, I find the outright hatred for this browser (and other versions of IE, also bashed on a regular basis) to be downright unprofessional. Here's why:

  1. IE is still #1. While recent reports cite that its market share is shrinking, IE (all versions combined) is still the number one browser in use worldwide. The snide comments I've seen people make about IE (which I won't link to) often extend to remarks about IE users, which is just about the uncoolest thing I've witnessed. Respect the user, regardless of browser!
  2. IE6 use is shrinking. With the growing number of sites proactively messaging that support is being discontinued for IE6, its share should continue to shrink, which will lessen your burden over time. (You do have an actively managed browser support policy, to help you identify when you don't have to support it any longer, right?) Celebrate that people are upgrading instead of harping on the stragglers.
  3. Promote the best experience. Instead of complaining about having to make a fancy widget work perfectly on IE6, engage with the client/product/design team to explain how you can deliver the best possible experience to every user by honoring only what each browser is truly capable of, rather than let one browser hold you back. You now have plenty of real world examples (Google Apps, Digg, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) to back you up on this!
  4. Help prepare for the future. Remind those in decision-making roles that the more time you spend looking backwards at the old, the less time you have to prepare for the new. Since I haven't met a business owner (small, corporate, or otherwise) who doesn't like "new", this should snap them back to their primary focus of strategies that save money and provide for the future.
  5. Don't make yourself look like an ass. If I'm one of those poor souls still stuck supporting (or, perhaps worse, using) IE6 and I'm trying to hire someone, do you think I'm going to hire the person who's been hating on that browser all over the interwebs? Umm, no.

I know folks are going to jump in with all sorts of comments about me not thinking about Ajax-y web apps or super beautiful design-y sites. The thing is, I do work on and continue to lead a team which works on these types of sites and apps, and yes, we're supporting IE6 in all cases. No, it's not to pixel perfection. No, the functionality we build for a new browser isn't 100% replicated. But these sites aren't as far off as you might think* -- and in the cases where I'm using hacks or JS shims to get IE6 into compliance, I also have easy code management techniques for dropping support.

*In fact, very recently, after preparing business and design teams to accept far less functionality in IE6, my team delivered a cool animated design-y thing that worked perfectly in that browser! (It's not live yet, but I'll update this when it is.)

So take the time to inform and to educate about browser differences and support strategies. Enthusiastically suggest alternatives to your team. Track your browser metrics and get happy about those numbers changing. Say a small thank you to those at Microsoft who are working to improve IE. Get inside the IE6 user's head and present their story, not your own tale of woe. If you need help, ask for it.

Seriously, it'll save you from looking like an ass.

Kimberly Blessing

How To Get Your Conference or Training Request Approved

5 min read

I'm a strong believer in continual learning and keeping abreast of one's field, not only because I like learning so much, but also because I know that a lack of learning leads to stagnation, boredom, and poor quality work. Most of the developers I know are also passionate about learning, and so they, like me, are always seeking to learn and discuss and debate and code. Even though we primarily function in the online space, there's nothing like doing all of that learning and engaging face to face -- so we love to attend conferences and off-site training.

Web Forms Panel at SXSW by Ari Stiles

But conferences and training often mean travel and registration fees, and sometimes managers and executives can't see spending money on these things -- maybe they don't quite understand the importance of investing in their people, or maybe skill development doesn't seem necessary to support the business. In any case, it's up to you, the individual, to do some convincing. If you're in this situation, what can you?

Build a Strong Case

Research the event(s) you're interested in, gathering dates and locations, presenter bios, and comments from previous attendees. Craft a proposal which summarizes this research and presents a strong business case for you to attend. Will you learn skills relevant to an upcoming project? Will you build skills which could have made a recent project go more smoothly, and will also help in the future? Will you be exposed to industry or domain knowledge which will better serve your organization in some way? Link the event directly to your work. Summarize the costs, including registration, travel, and meals, and if you can, estimate the ROI.

Request Funding

I think this is the part that scares people -- asking for money. But let me share a true story: In the first few years of my career, I never asked my bosses for training or conference money. I went to the classes they offered to me, and otherwise I requested time off to attend conferences on my own dime. Then my boss discovered that I was doing this. While he was thrilled that I was taking the initiative, he was concerned. (Was I planning on leaving? Did I think that I wasn't worthy of the investment?) At that moment he made me realize that just because I get a paycheck from my employer doesn't mean that their obligation to me ends there. He made sure I got my vacation days comp'd and reimbursed the training expenses, and from then on, I went to my bosses (and in grad school, my department chair/dean) with my conference and training requests.

It's great if you happen to know how much budget your company/department/team has allocated for training, travel and events. But even if you don't, always start by asking for full funding of your training/conference registration and travel. If you're the only person going to the event, or if the event is somehow more associated with your role than someone else's, you probably have a stronger case for full funding. Be sure to ask early to ensure the maximum budget is available to you.

But what do you do if your request is denied?

Negotiate!

If you really want to attend that event, don't give up! There are a variety of ways to get there, if you're willing to work for it.

  • Try before you buy. If your organization is considering sending a group to an event or doing some on-site training, ask the boss to send you to assess the event or trainer before sending a whole team or bringing a trainer on-site. As a manager, I've made many a training and conference decision on the feedback of a few key individuals who were sent out to do reconnaissance. As a trainer, I've met many folks at conferences where we've discussed the needs of the organization and how I can help, which I think made it easier for the folks in charge to decide on hiring me later.
  • Strength in numbers. Contact the event organizers and find out how many people you'd need in order to get a group discount. Then rally a group of coworkers around the idea of attending, and convince the boss to send a group. Yes, more people makes it more expensive, but more people asking places greater emphasis on the need for someone to attend and bring the knowledge back to share.
  • Volunteer. If you're trying to go to a conference where volunteers are needed, you can usually get free admission if you volunteer. Or, if you have a large blog or Twitter following, ask the event organizers if they will give you credit for referring others to register for the event; that credit may cover part or all of your registration fee.
  • Ask for partial funding. If you can come up with part of the funding (like travel costs) then ask your boss to support you by paying the rest (like registration). Again, if you have a large following on your blog or Twitter, you may be able to solicit donations to help cover costs. In either case, share in the goodwill by promising to share what you learn afterwards.
  • Finally, if you must: send yourself. If you can afford to pay your own way, sell your boss on letting you go -- without having to use vacation time. At this point I'd say that you're going for your own personal development and you needn't commit to sharing what you learn when you return. However I'd also caution you to not be stingy -- if do share what you learn, you're making a better case to be funded in the future.

What other approaches have you used to get funding to attend conferences or training? Have you tried these techniques only to still be rejected? Please share in the comments so we can all learn.

Kimberly Blessing

Planning for and Managing Browser Support

1 min read

With a flurry of new browsers hitting users’ computers and mobile devices this year, everyone involved with the Web has had to scramble to ensure that their sites are compatible with the latest and greatest. This has left many Web professionals and business teams wondering, “What browsers should my site support?” Kimberly Blessing helps you answer that question.

At Peachpit.

Kimberly Blessing

Planning for and Managing Browser Support

1 min read

With a flurry of new browsers hitting users’ computers and mobile devices this year, everyone involved with the Web has had to scramble to ensure that their sites are compatible with the latest and greatest. This has left many Web professionals and business teams wondering, “What browsers should my site support?” Kimberly Blessing helps you answer that question.

Read my article at Peachpit and let me know what you think! And stay tuned for my next article on optimization...

Kimberly Blessing

Tips for Women in the Workplace

5 min read

From the New York Times, The Mismeasure of Woman:

"For the first time, women make up half the work force. The Shriver Report, out just last week, found that mothers are the major breadwinners in 40 percent of families. We have a female speaker of the House and a female secretary of state. Thirty-two women have served as governors. Thirty-eight have served as senators. Four out of eight Ivy League presidents are women. Great news, right? Well, not exactly. In fact, it couldn’t be more spectacularly misleading."

Sadly, it's true: making up half of the workforce has not brought women equality in the workplace. American work places are still largely ill-suited for us and our employers do not fully recognize or taking advantage of our talents. What's more, we're still far too often demeaned, belittled, and treated as sex objects -- usually behind closed doors, but sometimes publicly, too. What must women continue to do to gain equal footing?

In Ten Things Companies -- and Women -- Can Do To Get Ahead, employers are reminded that a lack of gender diversity in executive and board positions hurts both the company, as well as professional women, and provides some great tips for companies seeking to increase female presence. While all of the tips were good, those which I'd personally recommend, from personal experience, include: (emphasis mine)

  • Make Mentoring a Priority: Research shows that mentoring programs can be powerful tools for advancing the careers of professional women. Every young professional can benefit from having a mentor. But for women in male-dominated corporate environments, the need is even greater. Women with mentors, research finds, are more likely to apply for promotions.
  • Retain Your Best Women: What does it take to keep talented women in your organization? Asking them directly is a good place to start in getting an answer. However, research finds that flexible work hours, generous maternity leave benefits and coaching for women returning to the workforce can make a difference.
  • Measure Your Results: When companies put goals in writing and track their results, things gets done. Companies need to know where they stand and make managers accountable for the level of gender diversity in their organizations.
  • Move Beyond Tokenism: According to McKinsey, companies with three or more women in senior management scored higher on measures of organizational excellence than companies with no women at the top. It is not enough to add a woman here or there. The best performers build a critical mass that gives women the power to have their views heard.

The article also provides some suggestions for women -- again, all good tips. Here are the ones I'm always telling other women:

  • Dare to Apply: McKinsey, citing internal research from HP, found that "women apply for open jobs only if they think they meet 100 percent of the criteria listed, whereas men respond to the posting if they feel they meet 60 percent of the requirements." That by itself, if it holds true across the corporate world, could be holding back a lot of talented women.
  • Know What You are Good At: Instead of just focusing on what you are lacking, take time to inventory what you have to offer. Evaluate your potential based on your skills and competencies, not merely the jobs you have held in the past. Many of your skills could be applicable in jobs -- or in fields -- you have not considered.
  • Know What Success Means to You and Move Toward It: If you want to get somewhere, it helps to know where you are going. In the book "Stepping Out of Line: Lessons for Women Who Want It Their Way...In Life, In Love, and At Work," author Nell Merlino says: "You have to see it before you can devise a plan to get there."

Some of the best advice I've read lately comes from an unlikely source -- Forbes. (They've published a number of sexist pieces in the past year or two.) The article states what many people won't acknowledge, telling women: "Sexism, whatever you call it, hasn't disappeared. But it's better to know exactly what you're up against." Amongst their list of unwritten rules: (emphasis mine)

  • Men get the benefit of the doubt. Men generally get hired on their promise and women on their demonstrated experience. Men are usually taken at their word, while women get challenged more, required to deliver data and substantiation for their views.
  • You won't get sufficient feedback. Professional development depends upon rigorous, comprehensive, ongoing feedback. Your (male) boss may not feel comfortable delivering that information to you. You need to be direct in asking for it from him and from other colleagues and team members.
  • Women are rendered invisible until they demonstrate otherwise. If you want to be noticed, you've got to offer your ideas, approach a mentor, ask for the assignments, build a network, convey your aspirations and communicate your achievements.

I feel very lucky to have worked with some great women and men in the course of my career who -- regardless of whether or not they acknowledged that sexism still exists -- proactively mentored me, instructed me, and helped me overcome any roadblocks which could have set me back. Still, I see too many environments in which sexism, however subtle, is part of the status quo and managers and leaders are unprepared (and, sadly, sometimes unwilling) to change their own behaviors, as well as those of their teams. I realize that I make people uncomfortable in raising these issues and pushing to address them. But what others must realize is that I live according to a rule my mother taught me long ago, which is reiterated in the Forbes article by Ann Daly, and which I can't say often enough to other women: "Don't let them sabotage your ambitions".