by Lysa Salsbury
This week, I’m delighted to profile a respected colleague and friend, Leah Andrews. Leah is the web coordinator for the division of Student Affairs at the University of Idaho. She’s a consummate professional whom I greatly admire, and a warm and generous individual with a wicked sense of humor. Within days of joining the Student Affairs web team, she managed to initiate (and within weeks, accomplish) for the Women’s Center what we had been waiting months for—transferring our website to a new content management system, and updating the layout to match the University’s new web template. She also helped us to create a brand-new stand-alone website for the LGBTQA Office. Leah has provided immeasurable (read: patient beyond belief) support to us as we try to become proficient Sitecore web authors. It’s a delight to get to highlight her skills and knowledge.
Tell us a little bit about yourself—give us the full-on, unabridged Leah Story.
I grew up wanting to be a writer. I think I inherited the mantra “never boring” from my mother. It didn’t matter to me what I ended up doing or where I ended up going, I just didn’t want to be bored or dissatisfied. I studied journalism with a minor in German at U-Idaho, and worked as a newspaper reporter for a while, eventually getting into marketing and public relations. I lived in Germany for a year, and also taught and traveled in China for two years. I was always interested in science, and did technical writing for a year, and worked for the College of Engineering as their Public Information Officer, as well as working as a Communications Assistant for the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium, and doing Marketing and Recruitment for University Housing at U-Idaho. I was drawn to jobs where I could write about science.
Each Marketing and PR position I had always had a website component, so I started to learn. First, I learned how to edit pages using HTML, and then I dipped my toes in the waters of website building just a little further to learn how to create tables and links. In the beginning, it was all really basic, but each time, I was surrounded by wonderful teachers and mentors who would patiently explain the process. It often felt like being in the Wizard of Oz and getting to step behind the curtain. I was pretty certain I didn’t belong there, but it was interesting and exciting, and I started to understand more and more.
How did you come to have a career in technology?
It’s funny, this is really the first position I’ve held that’s classified as a technology job. All of my previous employment revolved more around writing, with certain aspects that involved a basic understanding of websites, or at least a willingness to learn. In this job, I still get to use writing and editing skills at times, but the web component is suddenly at the forefront. I still get nervous when I’m around people who know much more than I do about technology. I worry that someone will figure out I’m a fake and send me away, but it isn’t like that. I’m part of a fantastic team of web coordinators who are incredibly inclusive and dedicated to helping each other. Many of us come from fields that are not based in technology, so we also bring other strengths to the table. I taught English in China for 18 months before I came to this job, and I really enjoy being able to teach others how to use the content management system. So much of learning about technology is like learning a different language. At first it all seems insurmountable, and you need someone to help you break it down and make it manageable, to answer questions and create a lesson plan that introduces the concept first, and then asks the learner to start using those concepts in a non-threatening environment.
I still get a kick out of the fact that I have two staff meetings each week, one with Student Affairs professionals, and we sit around a table and make eye contact and use paper notepads and pens to take notes. Then I go to the web team meeting and everyone has a laptop open, and we type our meeting notes on shared documents so we can all add items at the same time and see who is editing the document and what has been changed. Sometimes we just meet virtually using our laptops and cameras if the weather is really bad or everyone is crunched for time. We would never do that for a Student Affairs meeting. They are both important meetings and both attended by groups of people that care greatly about their work and about each other, but sometimes I feel like I belong to two different worlds here on campus.
What are some of the challenges and/or highlights of being a female IT professional?
I really enjoy this job. I’m constantly learning new things and I’m in an environment where I’m supported and at the same time challenged to learn from others and to bring new things I’ve tried or learned to the group to see if they can stand up not only under my own logic but that of others with different experience and different perspectives. In high school, I knew I was a nerd, but it was one of those things you tried to shake so that boys might still ask you to go to a dance. Being a web coordinator is nothing like that. I love being a nerd. I still wear high-heeled shoes that make podiatrists cringe, and I’m first in line when it’s bonus time at the Clinique counter, but I can also make jokes about infinite loops (linking a page back to the same page, not advisable). I wear my Firefly Jayne shirts to the gym or hanging out on the weekends now, whereas when I was in PR, I only bought things on Thinkgeek for my partner. There is something really nice about embracing the term “nerd” and realizing that this is an area I really enjoy being a part of.
I work with a team that was pretty much a 50/50 split between women and men—now with a few new hires, there are more women than men on the team. I know a lot of times in tech jobs that isn’t the case, but our team is really even, so it isn’t like going to a meeting with all men and being the only woman in the room. I think I would still enjoy the job even if I were the only woman on the team, but there is something really pleasant about having a balanced team and not feeling “othered” when you enter a room.
At the end of the day, if I do my job well, it means that I’ve found ways to convey the message of different areas in Student Affairs and hopefully, I’ve made it easier to reach students. I want to embrace technology that students are most comfortable using, and I want to use that to help them find information they need and want, information that will make their experience at college safer, and more meaningful and rewarding.
Can you tell us a story about a time you really loved your job?
I love my job most days. I really enjoy making things possible for other people. I like watching others learn how to use the content management system, I like getting phone calls when someone can’t make something work and I get to help figure out why. I like that I learn new things on a relatively constant basis.
As far as specific examples, I guess my favorite moments in this job have been the opportunities to help create new websites or re-imagine websites, like the Women’s Center website, the LGBTQA Office website, and the Campus Recreation website. Soon there will be a brand new Health Education website—these are all websites that help students and provide important resources. I get excited about the content I’m able to make available. I love coming up with new ways to collect data, or new ways to help people connect or voice concerns. These are all things that really matter, and I get to be part of that process.
What advice would you give young women thinking about entering technology fields?
Don’t decide to not look into these fields because you think you’ll be the only woman in your classes. Don’t give up on something that you might find really challenging and fulfilling, and don’t think that technology doesn’t make a difference or impact people. The thing I love about technology is that you can create ways to communicate information or collect data, and even once you’ve finished the process, it keeps working after you’ve completed the project. You continue to help people connect with one another, find help, share information with others, and save people time. Your work matters so much more than you can ever imagine at the beginning.
I wish I had looked into this field when I was going to college. I was never a huge fan of math in high school. I excelled at English, history, languages, and debate, but I didn’t really know that there were places where technology and communication intersected, and the things I was good at in high school all involved the same sort of analytical thinking and logic that I come across on a daily basis in this job. The problem solving that we get to do here is fun, and the result is being able to communicate ideas that are valuable and important, and perhaps even ideas that change lives. They are definitely ideas that enhance lives.