An interview with Linux Australia's cover girl

It can be tough being a woman in an industry where almost four in five people are men. But that's just another challenge that Pia Waugh enjoys, alongside juggling her own consultancy, a research position at Macquarie University, running Linux Australia and Software Freedom International, and being otherwise heavily involved in the industry.

Liz Tay speaks with Waugh about her experiences, passion for technology and open source, and advice on how to take on the skills shortage in Australia.

What, and when, was your first job in IT?

I believe that I was 18 [or] 19, working as a technician and sales person for a small IT company in Revesby in Sydney. It was part-time, while I was at Uni, and it was quite enjoyable getting to pull things apart and play with things. That was my first paid IT job. It was mainly hardware, but also a bit of software; people coming in with screwed up computers and we had to fix them. It was fun.

What first sparked your interest in IT?

My mum was a techie so I've been using computers since I was four. Going through school I changed my mind many times, as we all did - you know, wanting to be a vet, or a Chinese medicine person, or in IT, or whatever. But I ended up falling back into IT because it's just a natural fit for me and I love technical work, and then I got into Linux and that propelled me more into IT.

Did school influence your decision to go into IT at all?

No, not at all. In fact, every IT teacher I've had has been completely useless. I went to a small country school up until Year 10, and there were only two of us interested in computers: one girl and one boy. And we used to fight like mad, because I was a PC girl and he was a Mac boy. And in Year 11 and 12, when I went to an all-girls' school which was a bit bigger, there were only probably half a dozen of us who were into computers. So I've never really had that many of my peers into it.

Did you ever find it difficult as a woman in IT?

It was never hard being a woman in IT. It's interesting, actually, because I think there are cultural expectations in countries like Australia and the US that you need to be masculine to be in a male-dominated industry. Whereas you go to countries like Malaysia, or Finland, or even Iran, and there's a lot more women in IT because there's not a gender association with IT, and thus they don't expect you to be masculine to go into IT. It's been interesting to look around the world and to understand that that is a cultural expectation and thus it is something that we can actually overcome.

I mean, I've had people assume that I've had to be a big, butch lesbian to be working with computers. But that's such a rarity. It's not even a butch thing for males to get into! [Laughs] So it's quite bizarre.

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What's one good experience that you've had, and one bad experience?

One good experience was being invited to go and use my technical skills to help solve social problems - helping set up a community center with loads of computers in Nhulunbuy, which is a tiny little remote community in the middle of Arnhem Land [in the Northern Territory]. So I guess the best experience for me is being able to use my skills to make the world better, rather than just as a career.

One bad experience was probably having a server crash and then having to do a 21 hour day to try and get it to install in exactly the right way so it didn't crash. That was Microsoft, and it was one of the last projects I worked on Windows. [Laughs]

Where are you currently working?

Currently, I've got a couple of gigs. First of all, I've got my own consulting practice that I run with my husband called Waugh Partners, where we do vendor-neutral Open Source consulting, industry development, strategic consulting, that kind of stuff.

I also work part-time at Macquarie University in a research position, looking at the use of open source in the research and higher education sector. So I'm sort of in both a research position and a technical position and an advisory position, so it's really awesome at the moment.

You're also quite active in the Linux and Open Source community, aren't you?

I was the first female president, and am currently vice-president, of Linux Australia. I've been involved with them for five years or so. I'm also president of Software Freedom International, which is an international non-profit group who run Software Freedom Day, looking at transparency and sustainability in technology.

I've been involved and I've spoken at loads of girls-in-IT events around Australia, and there's an event called TechGirls that I help run in the Central Coast [NSW]. TechGirls is again focused mainly on talking to school girls about IT and how it can be really fun and really exciting and completely different from the stereotypes.

I'm also involved in a project in Sydney where we're going to be going into schools and talking to girls and boys about IT generally because we think it's important that young males get to meet rocking female role models, and rocking male role models in IT. Our event is going to be kicking off probably mid-next year.

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What aspects of open source technology interest you most?

There are two aspects that interest me most about open source. The first is the community aspect - the fact that I can go anywhere in the world and sit down and have a coffee or a beer with someone who has the same underpinning values as me: the values of freedom, anyone getting involved in technology, anyone being able to make it from zero to hero. There's such a great support base.

I found, in the proprietary world, there's far less of a support base for technical people; finding information is hard, and often enough, because people don't have access to the source code, it takes a bit of guesswork to fix things. Whereas in the open source world, it really is so easy to get things fixed. It's technically such a brilliant set of solutions.

The second aspect about open source that I love is that you can innovate so much because you have access to what's going on. What you do create, you can trust because you can see the source code, and what you do create is sustainable because anyone can build on it in the future rather than having to start from scratch.

So I guess the sustainability and transparency of systems is something I care about deeply, because our lives are so based on technology. Why should my generation and future generations not be able to access our history, read our love letters and all this stuff that we've developed, just because our lives are recorded digitally?

Open source, for me, is a way of making sure that we can trust and rely upon technology that we use everyday to not limit our personal rights.

Have you any professional role models?

Bdale Garbee [Linux CTO of HP]. I listened to a talk of his about four years ago, because he was the project leader of the Debian project at the time. I'd just been nominated for president of Linux Australia, and had no idea about how to lead an organization. So I went and had a chat to him, and he is the one that talked to me about how to establish common values in the community in order to establish common goals, and he's just been such a great role model for me since then, both technically, in terms of the work that he does, and also professionally, in terms of how to build my own career, how to lead a community, and how to take this whole open source thing forward.

And - this is going to sound really w-nky, and I don't care - my husband, Jeff Waugh. He has done a lot in open source, he's just a great open source professional, and it's been really good working with him because we both have different skill-sets and so we're able to make those work together in our own company.

And can I have one more role model? My dad. He is a refrigeration mechanic and the savviest business-person I know. My mum and dad always have run multiple businesses and it's their business-savvy that has made me feel comfortable and confident with setting up our own business.

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What sorts of character traits do you think would recommend a woman to the industry?

Here's the thing. The reason that we called the event 'TechGirls' is that it's about technology. I go in to these talks and the first question I ask the students is 'How many of you have a mobile? How many of you use MSN? How many of you use the Internet?' All of the hands go up. The kids of today are more technologically gifted than any of the generations above them. They are already very comfortable using technology to solve problems, to do what they want to do, to communicate, to do assignments, whatever.

If you love playing with gadgets, if you love actually playing with technology, then I think you're quite suited to working in IT. If you like solving problems, if you like having challenges, learning, and being surrounded by smart people, I find IT has a lot of really great people that are a lot of fun, are very smart and challenging, and it's a great community to get involved in.

Because there's such a diverse amount of jobs out there, you don't need specific maths, science, programming, or even creative skills. There's a job for pretty much everyone in IT and so it's just a matter of jumping in feet first and having a bit of fun finding out what takes your fancy.

The industry you're describing sounds very inviting, but the fact is there is a very low ratio of IT women to men. Statistics compiled in 2005 by the Australia Bureau of Statistics show that women comprise only 20.5 per cent of the IT workforce. Why do you think this is so?

In Australia, apparently numbers are going down. This isn't the case in every country. I personally think that Australia is becoming more conservative, and thus the place of women is becoming more strictly defined - and I think that's really silly. I also feel that there is a lack of understanding about IT jobs in schools. Schools are about six years behind the industry and six years ago, we had a bust. So schools are actually telling their kids not to go into IT. Girls tend to be focused on careers at an earlier age than boys, so if a teacher tells them to not go into IT, they're probably going to listen more, and I think that contributes to it.

And there's this horrible stereotype of a nerd, that doesn't have much of a social life, or hygiene, and unfortunately that has gotten out there. So every time I get in front of these girls, I talk about how I'm very proud to be a geek, because a geek is a person who uses technology to do cool things.

How do you think companies or education providers can go about making the IT industry more appealing to girls?

The first thing we need to do is to assist teachers and careers advisors in schools to get a handle on the diversity of jobs available in IT, because at the moment, a lot of them just don't have the information and thus can't help encourage childrens interest when they do express an interest in computers. I've seen kids be told "no, don't go into IT, be a social worker" - not because the teacher is trying to turn them off IT, but because the teacher just doesn't know anything about IT. So the first thing that we need to do is to go to the younger education institutions and rectify the situation.

I think companies can make clearer what they're looking for. There are so many IT companies that don't care if you have a degree, for instance, because what they're looking for is experience. But if they better defined what they're looking for, perhaps we can build that into degrees and into TAFE courses and even into schools, so that the kids who don't have the experience are more likely to actually have the skills they're after. We have a massive gap between what's being taught is useful in IT and what actually is useful in IT.

So you think that the IT industry is difficult for people to get into because they just don't know where to start?

Absolutely. I had an example where a girl contacted me just basically saying that she's doing a sysadmin course at TAFE, she has no idea where to go, no idea about what experience to get. I told her about the Sydney Linux user group. She hadn't used a lot of Linux before, but she was pretty keen - she drove four hours to come to Sydney for this Linux user group meeting, and three weeks later I'd helped her get a placement as a junior in a Sydney ISP.

She just couldn't get that [on her own] because there's just no pathway to doing that. Most companies are looking for three or four years on the job, and how do kids get that? My first IT job was difficult to get, but from there on it was really simple.

So I think we need to try and look after that a little bit better, and help students get work experience. Work experience is being [removed] from schools, so how are they supposed to be able to go into a job?

One of the things I talk to them [young people] a lot about is volunteerism. If you go to a Web development company and you can say 'here are six websites I've already put together - one for my parents, one for my school...' then you're building up a portfolio that will help you.

I think that the biggest thing that young people can do today is to heavily get into volunteerism and involved in communities because it's those contacts and the portfolio that will help them get a good career.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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