Tech Women

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Start up organization brings together professional women from northeast Wisconsin working in IT-related careers

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

Women in Technology Wisconsin President-elect Vicki Leinbach described herself as an 18-year-old as “one of those people who took calculus in college just because it was an easy A.”

She said she always liked math in school and fell in love with her very first computer programming class her senior year of high school. This was back in the 1980s, in the dark ages of the COBOL system, with its Magic Marker-green screen and bland black typeface.

“When you’re programming, you know if you’ve done it right or wrong, so I love the logic piece of it,” said Leinbach, all grown up now and chief information officer with outdoor power equipment manufacturer Ariens Co. in Brillion. She oversees information technology for the multi-national company. “I always liked things that gave me an answer.”

Before Leinbach came to Ariens a year ago, she spent 15 years as CIO at office furniture-maker KI in Green Bay.

What WIT is

WIT (Women In Technology) Wisconsin, Inc. is a still newish nonprofit with the threefold aim of:

• Attracting, retaining and developing the current generation of women in technology careers;

• Encouraging college-age women to go into tech careers (through its WIT OnCampus leg); and

• Bringing tech enthusiasm to girls in K-12 grades (via its WIT4Girls program).

At its first two meetings in April and May at Butte des Morts Country Club in Appleton, some 200 women from 65 companies attended. They came from Manitowoc, Sheboygan, Fond du Lac, the Fox Cities, Green Bay, Beaver Dam, West Bend and Oshkosh. Membership hit the 1,600 mark earlier this summer.

WIT Wisconsin held its first annual meeting this past July 13.

Female CIOs few and far between

Danica Killam is applications services manager for Jewelers Mutual Insurance in Neenah. She manages a team of developers and specialists and works on programming projects for the niche market insurance carrier. For WIT Wisconsin, Killam is brand ambassador for Jewelers Mutual, which means she spreads the word about WIT at her workplace.

Like Leinbach, Killam also was in high school when computers were making their way to the average person. Her parents had a big PC at home, and just for fun, Killam would program it. She developed programs for her manufacturing/sales-VP dad and his sales staff that helped determine his return on investment.

“I thought that was so cool,” Killam said of the programs. “The logic of it and putting things together made a lot of sense to me. Working with him made it easier. My dad completely trusted me.”

Both women’s positions carry a lot of responsibility.

“If something’s going wrong with the computers when you come to work, it’s my fault,” Leinbach said.

But it can be lonely at the top. Leinbach said not a single woman works in the IT department at Ariens’ corporate headquarters in Brillion, and company-wide, women in IT for Ariens numbers only five.

Killam said women comprise about half of her tech department at Jewelers Mutual. Nationwide, the ratio is less than one in four.

Of the 4.3 million people in the United States who are employed in computer or mathematical occupations, more than 3 million are not women. That means women comprise a little more than a quarter of those employed in computer and math jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. These jobs include computer and information research scientists, computer systems analysts, information security analysts, web and software developers and programmers.

In general, they’re jobs that often pay well. The national average weekly salary for all information technology jobs is $2,109 – or $109,618 per year – according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

Finding like minds

The idea for a more regional tech network for women came from some on-the-job observations. As business development manager for Appleton-based Excelion Partners, WIT’s current president and co-founder Michelle Schuler works with IT departments from many companies.

Not many technology departments are heavily peopled by women, let alone headed by them, but something surprised Schuler about the few that were.

“The more I was talking to women, I was realizing these women from different companies weren’t talking to each other,” Schuler said. “I was surprised they didn’t know each other.”

An informal tally found about seven women who headed the information technology departments of northeast Wisconsin companies.

“They were interested in how do we meet, how do we start talking strategically and start sharing ideas together,” said Schuler’s co-founder, Kathy Fredrickson, a marketing consultant with iMark Consultants.

So one of their aims in forming Women In Technology was figuring out how to bring women in tech careers together to collaborate, share ideas, disseminate knowledge, and learn from each other’s experience. And of course, spread their passion to girls and young women in school, too.

“While they (the women CIOs in northeast Wisconsin) aren’t all in WIT yet, they’re interested in meeting each other and sharing things like leadership examples, succession plan advice, internet security tips, how to keep up with technology” and other topics, Fredrickson said.

Square root of friendship

Schuler and Fredrickson are longtime friends who were roommates at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater more than 20 years ago, where Schuler majored in business and finance and Frederickson majored in business and marketing.

After college, they both got jobs in the Fox Cities and joined Women In Management, becoming among the organization’s youngest members in the late 1990s, according to Fredrickson.

“Even in the first years of our careers, we were attracted to organizations that would help us grow professionally and personally,” Fredrickson said.

That drive to develop in their careers hasn’t diminished by a byte. WIT Wisconsin aims to help women grow with and into their technology careers and rise in those careers so they don’t end up bailing out and going into another line of work.

It’s about “How do we keep people in our companies, how do we make succession plans and personal development plans to make people want to stay in our organizations, and develop in those technology fields instead of going to the Chicagos, the Californias, the New Yorks of the world,” Leinbach explained.

‘Dearth of talent’

Many companies have voiced concern in recent years about the dwindling of technology talent in Wisconsin, especially northeast Wisconsin. The demand in those careers is expected to skyrocket, while some say the supply of those with technology savvy is predicted to drop.

“There’s really a dearth of talent in this area,” said Paul Mueller, corporate information officer with Thrivent Financial in Appleton. “The demand is growing but the workforce is shrinking in this field. Colleges and universities are graduating fewer people (with technology-related degrees) now than they did 10 or 15 years ago.”

He speculated that IT jobs still aren’t seen as overly desirable, despite the pervasiveness of technology in practically all areas of our lives.

“We’re continually trying to reinforce the benefits of a career in IT, create the appropriate training and educational opportunities, expose the job opportunities and the great internship programs, reach down into K-12 schools to get a groundswell of interest created so more kids are pursuing the field,” he said.

Of the 475 IT employees at Thrivent’s Appleton and Minneapolis locations, 165 are women. Of the 300 at the Appleton location, 120 are women, Mueller said. Thrivent added 60 positions to its IT staff in 2014, and right now, it’s recruiting for upwards of 30 open spots in IT, Mueller said.

Thrivent’s not alone in expanding its IT workforce. Ariens will be hiring 15 more IT staffers in 2016, according to Leinbach. Not all positions will be located in Brillion. Additionally, Neenah-based J.J. Keller & Associates announced in July that it plans to add 100 technology positions by the end of this year.

Hundreds of positions in IT are expected to be added to area companies over the next decade, Schuler and Fredrickson indicated.

“It’s not a question necessarily that women are leaving in droves because they don’t have the opportunities – companies have the opportunities,” Fredrickson said. “We need women to get into them. We need to add to the pipeline, with women getting into their first career in technology, discovering it as either someone taking a traditional path where they discover it in high school, or even women who have been out of a career and are looking at what they can do with additional training to get back into the workforce.”

On the right path

Jewelers Mutual’s Danica Killam had never belonged to a professional organization before joining WIT Wisconsin this past year. She said WIT’s concentration on technology lured her.

“This (group) seems a lot more driven with a very specific focus and mission that specifically relates to IT, and that really appealed to me, to network and relate to other women in the Valley who have similar goals in professional development ideas,” Killam said.

Thrivent’s Paul Mueller said he thinks WIT is already adding value to the region.

“I look at it as, ‘Is it assisting the overall expansion of IT in the region from a perspective of educating more people? Is it drawing more talent in, creating greater exposure to opportunities in technology? Is it creating more awareness?’ That’s how I look at the initiative,” Mueller said. “It’s a great cohort. Anything that can be done to bring more awareness and bring more people into the information technology workforce – whether it’s a cohort specifically for women or other cohorts – I think is real appropriate. I think we probably don’t have anything specifically tailored to women in technology in this geography.”

Based on participation and initial response to WIT Wisconsin, it’s being well received.

“I think it’s being perceived as a value, based on the participants that are going to the meetings and the membership they’re being met with early in the development of WIT,” Mueller said. “I think it’s being embraced very well.”

Lee Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.