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An 'amazing opportunity'

Speed read
  • Women who work in network engineering may feel isolated in their careers
  • WINS program funds selected women to work on the SCinet network at SC conference
  • Participants come away with new skills, new mentors, and new attitudes

“I’ve always been under the impression that there aren’t that many women in this industry,” says Brenna Meade, a network engineer at the University of Denver. “But coming here and seeing how many women are actually here—and what they do and speaking with them and realizing that we have a lot of similarities—that’s been my main takeaway. That there are other people like me out there.”

Women in IT Networking at SC (WINS) is a DOE- & NSF-funded program that supports talented early to mid-career women to help build SCinet, the high-speed network that powers SC, the world’s largest supercomputing conference.

Meade was one of five women selected to participate in the WINS (Women in IT Networking at SC) program at SC18 in Dallas, TX, this year.

Each year since 2015, WINS has funded early-to-mid career women to join the team that builds SCinet, the multi-Terabit network that underpins the world’s largest supercomputing conference. The idea is a sort of boot-camp of hands-on experience, plus the additional perk of working side-by-side with some of the best minds in the field.

The 2018 WINS participants universally cite hands-on participation as the number one benefit of the program. From running cable and scoping fiber to working with vendors and improving their communications skills, each woman had to get out of her comfort zone and expand her skill set—fast.

“We’re doing the kind of project that would take an average team weeks to do, but we’re doing it in days,” says Jessa Westclark, a network specialist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst

<strong>Complete coverage.</strong> Loren Adams and other members of the SCinet wireless team installed more than 300 wireless access points, providing coverage across 1 million square feet of exhibit space in the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center Dallas. Courtesy WINS.“You actually have to do the hard work,” says Erika Kindlimann, a security engineer at United Shore. “You are able to play with new tools and learn all the new technologies you don’t use at your regular work. You are pretty much in constant training. 

Loren Adams, a network engineer from Georgia State University who worked on the SCinet wireless team, agrees. “I learned how to run cable, which I had never done before. I learned a lot of RF theory and wireless technology and troubleshooting in general. I have learned what hard work is like.”

But this isn’t just a tutorial experience set up to help the women improve their skills. SCinet is a real network, depended upon by SC’s organizers, exhibitors, and over 13,000 attendees.

“If we don’t do our job right, the demos don’t work, the wireless doesn’t work,” says Westclark, a member of the SCinet commodity group that takes the internet from the racks installed by the routing team and gets it out to the wireless access points and meeting rooms throughout the convention center.

The end result for participants is not just leveling up their hard skills but acquiring the mental attitude that comes from knowing you have what it takes to get the job done.

<strong>Clarity and confidence.</strong> The 2018 WINS award winners will take new skills and approaches back to their home institutions—plus a renewed sense of confidence and clarity about their career path. Courtesy WINS.As Kalina Dunn, a network engineer from Indiana University’s GlobalNOC puts it, “I’ve taken on a new sense of confidence that I never knew existed. I’ve learned so much that I can take back to my job at home and apply every single day.”

For some, the gains stretch beyond the short-term of taking new skills and approaches back to their home institutions. Erika Kindlimann says the WINS experience helped clarify her career path: “It has opened my mind to what I really want to do—I want to keep doing cybersecurity. I have learned a lot of basics and now I know what I have to improve.”

That kind of clarity is extra important for women working at smaller institutions where they may be a very small minority in their workplace—and may find themselves doubting whether or not this is a field where they really belong.

“I have another former WINS member on my team, and she’s been a really great mentor,” says Brenna Meade. “I’ve learned that I have a future here. It’s really cool to see where you can be and where you could be going. That’s such a great part of WINS.”

The praise doesn’t stop there. “Amazing” was the word most of the WINS participants used to describe their experience with the program. All of them say they would recommend the program to others. (Applications to participate in next year’s WINS program will open in March 2019.)

“You meet a lot of women—and you meet a lot of men who really want to support you and mentor you,” says Meade. “I think that really adds something to your perspective on the industry. I think everyone should do it.”

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