STEMinist Profile: Rebecca Miller-Webster, Director of Technology, Gracious Eloise

Rebecca Miller-Webster

Rebecca Miller-Webster

Director of Technology
Gracious Eloise

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I randomly took a Computer Science class my freshman year of college, because I liked the internet.   I ended up not only doing really well, but enjoying it.  I struggled for the next couple years with the idea of being a computer scientist — I had a hard time rectifying who I was/wanted to be and the image I had of who a programmer was.  I continued taking Computer Science classes and doing research with a professor as well as taking Women’s Studies classes.  In what would have been my junior year, I took a year off with the goal of getting an internship as a programmer to see if it was something I wanted to do.

I ended up working full-time as a programmer for a friend’s husband’s small consulting firm and I loved it! I was working with non-profits and government agencies, I worked at home and had lots of flexibility, and I loved the challenge of solving problems and helping people.  I transfered schools (for other reasons) after that and due to credit transferring issues, I got a BA in Women’s Studies and an MS in Computer Science.  I continued to work at the consulting firm while finishing school and also did worked on websites for others here and there.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I think the coolest project I’ve worked on is my current job at Gracious Eloise. Gracious Eloise is making handwriting digital and handwritten notes as easy as email. I came on when the handwriting replication software was finished (created by 5 Ph.Ds – it’s a hard problem!) and was responsible for building the web application from scratch and gluing the handwriting replication software together with the web app. I was the only programmer, so I got to choose the technology and make all the decisions — it was scary, but also really exciting. In the end it was so cool to spend months working on this project and then launch it and have people use it.

I also really like being a part of business decisions, which you can do at start-ups and small companies. This particular project is also neat because there are so many applications — from non-profits and elected officials to retail and PR to brides and consumes. One of the coolest things about being a programmer is that everyone – every industry, every type of company – needs programmers and applications. I’ve worked at an investment bank, start-ups, as a freelancer, at a University, a small consulting firm and in industries as varied as banking, education, and non-profits. It’s a great way to make a great living helping people and solving problems in whatever area you’re interested in

Role models and heroes:
My mom is probably my biggest role model. She got a Ph.D. in physiology in 1976 and worked as a research scientist for 30 years. Whenever I struggle with the challenges of being a women in a male-dominated field, I can also turn to her for advice, comfort, and also a reminder that it’s gotten so much better since her time. Since she retired, she’s gotten another Master’s degree and tried a bunch of other jobs. She’s currently in school for Physical Therapy … she just never stops learning and trying new things! It’s inspiring.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love being in technology for a lot of reasons, but the main one is that I want to help people solve problems and make their lives easier or better. By creating applications, I can do that. I love talking and working with the users of the application I create and the challenge of translating their problems into technical features. I love the excitement when people use an app that really helps them for the first time. The other big thing I love about STEM is that, because technology is always changing, I am always learning. Sometimes it can feel overwhelming, but mostly it’s exciting and keeps me interested. There’s always a new technology and a new app and a new problem.

I also think this has made me a better person — it’s taught me to dig beyond what people are saying to get to the crux of their issue; it’s gotten me comfortable with feeling like I have no idea what I’m doing and learning new things constantly (which is a great life skill!); it’s taught me that there are lots of solutions to a problem and not everyone will like mine and that’s OK.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Stick with it and try to find an internship or other work experience early on. I found that working as a computer scientist and studying as one were totally different and I loved working and wasn’t as interested in the studying. Research and industry are two totally different ball games and schools tend to focus on research, because, well, that’s what they do! Also, I found that it was much easier being a women in a male-dominated field while working then studying. It may be different in other types of engineering or at different schools though.

Lastly, I would suggest you consider an all-girls colleges and smaller schools. I started at Smith College and although I left, I think a lot about the differences between Smith and the big Engineering school in a University I ended up at. I don’t think I would have gotten into Computer Science and stayed with it if I hadn’t started in such a welcoming and supportive environment. I just think that is harder to create when you have Engineering split from the rest of the school. Also, when Engineering and Science aren’t split out, it gives you more of an opportunity to explore.

Favorite website or app:
I’m all about apps that make my life easier and help me organize. I love Dropbox for sharing files between my computers and with co-workers and friends. I also love the Early Edition iPad app, which helps me keep up to date on tech and other topics in a not-annoying, icky-blog-reader kind of way.

Twitter: @rmillerwebster

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