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Silicon Valley pioneer shares employment strategies, addresses gender bias

Lydia Snow

July 25, 2021

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The device on which you're reading this article is most likely protected and encrypted by technology tracing back to Dr. Carolyn Turbyfill, the inventor of modern firewall appliances.

Although years passed before Turbyfill's developments hit the mainstream, she sparked, witnessed, and directed the origins of fundamental digital security technology - which, nowadays, has transformed into what she described as a "whole set of products for authentication and privacy" incorporated by everyday computer users. Specifically, she mentioned firewall appliances, firewall farms, and firewall services as some of the many forms into which her innovations have evolved.

At Sun Microsystems, a company currently incorporated in the Oracle brand, Turbyfill devoted years to the perfection of encryption and filtering processes, aspiring to fully secure communications between online networks. Astounded by the pure initiative required to accomplish these tasks, Bill Gates himself once telephoned Turbyfill and her team to inquire into their formula for success!

Upon graduating from Cornell University, Turbyfill applied to Tandem, an eagerly-hiring Silicon Valley software startup. However, after becoming conscious of the proprietary, exclusive nature of Tandem's operating systems and programming languages, she decided to scope out a more welcoming workplace - a workplace which contained goals and responsibilities she could better comprehend. Due to her efficiency with handling computer servers, she landed a position at Sun.

"With startups rising and falling, there's much more uncertainty in the job market," Turbyfill said. She explained her discovery that fast, seamless job changes can often exist as a legitimate solution to workplace dissatisfaction. "I used to think that you have to have at least five years [of] experience before you can change your job. But in Silicon Valley, that's all up in smoke," she said.

"MAY I SPEAK TO THE VICE PRESIDENT:" PRACTICAL WORKPLACE ADVANCEMENT

In the early days of her career, which she spent testing servers and writing performance papers, Turbyfill noticed a recurring flaw in Sun's engineering processes: the pairing of high-performance components with dated, non-functional parts. "The systems weren't architected as a whole," Turbyfill noted, adding that "they brought varying capabilities that really weren't synergistic with each other." For this reason, Turbyfill ambitiously approached Sun's vice president and offered him assistance, explaining the problem and noting its relevance to his department. By making this move, she left an instant impression. "He gave me a job on the spot," she said. "I didn't have any reports, and I didn't have a budget, but that actually turned out to be a huge advantage because I learned a lot of leadership without authority."

"If you don't have leadership capabilities, you make a terrible manager," Turbyfill noted, detailing the specifics of these leadership capabilities. "A lot of managing doesn't consist of telling people what to do. It consists of courage; encouraging people to be the best that they can be."

In Turbyfill's eyes, large-scale company success begins with tactful delegation of assignments. During her career, she analyzed development proposals, along with relevant data such as staffing and budgets, to set trajectories for Sun employees' projects.

Turbyfill's consensus-building abilities turned out to be her secret weapon for workplace success. As a service systems architect, Turbyfill regularly visited the company's various groups to evaluate their current performance. "I sometimes thought I was being Socratic, and I would go in and ask questions instead of telling people the answer," she said. While supervising employees' formation of projects, she circulated their suggestions among other company members and constantly ensured the crediting of all ideas to their respective inventors.

"I also propagandized them at the same time," she joked, mentioning how she introduced relevant company values and skills to her employees in exchange for their proposition of brilliant ideas. Her workplace smarts "spread out in the Sun culture," leading to eventual adoption by management higher-ups.

COMPUTER SKILLS AND PEOPLE SKILLS: VALUABLE PERSPECTIVES ON HIRING AND MANAGEMENT

Turbyfill is a virtuoso of unconventional workplace leadership and cooperation. Throughout her experience with the dynamics of the corporate world, she has learned to better manage her sense of control. Along with computer science, she also studied psychology in college, which increased her awareness towards others' needs. In order to foster personal growth and heighten levels of well-being, Turbyfill and her fellow students attempted to establish a non-judgemental atmosphere - accounting for a system of interactions she defined as "a win-win situation."

After years of computer science experience at Sun, where overseers trained employees to approach all situations from a similarly empathetic perspective, Turbyfill learned that win-win attitudes are not guaranteed to work, as responses to them may vary. "If you're playing win-win and the other person is playing win-lose, and you keep volunteering information, being honest, [and] trying to be helpful, they just use all of the openness you have to attack you," Turbyfill said, jokingly referring to this volatile setup as "win-lose your dinner." Combining a knack for understanding others with a knack for practicality, Turbyfill stumbled upon a perfect in-between for workplace interactions, gaining gradual familiarity with how to get in touch with her "inner jerk" and embrace the purpose of approaching problems directly yet tactfully.

Turbyfill, who believes companies should actively search for women in need of jobs, claims to maintain a "different approach to hiring." The only proper way to establish female-inclusive workplaces, according to her, is to hire a lot of women - and specifically, to hire adequately skilled women. "I've interviewed many, many people," she said, "and I know when somebody good comes to the door, and I don't care if it's the first person or the 50th person."

Turbyfill anticipated the responses of hiring engineers who claimed she unfairly and prematurely shortened the hiring process. "I would just put in the first three people who applied and let the engineers all interview them," she explained, adding that this sampling approach allowed the engineers to make adequate comparisons between those random applicants and the applicants she selected for hiring.

Her professionalism extended into her responses to applicants' failures. "If a woman comes through and doesn't make it, then I sit down and tell her what she needs to do, or what she needs to expect," Turbyfill said of her guidelines for dealing with unsuccessful applicants. She always intended to consistently provide women with support and preparation for change, regardless of their circumstances.

WOMAN WITH A PLAN: ESCAPING THE GENDER PARTIALITY TRAP

Regarding involvement in technology fields, Turbyfill claimed that some women have definitely "progressed to very high levels," adding that they "also still face discrimination, some people more than others." She can definitely testify to witnessing sexism and bias firsthand, and on a constant basis. "You stick out, whether anybody says anything to you or not," Turbyfill said of being a woman in a STEM field. "It's sort of like being royalty, where the cameras are on all the time and you have to mind your image."

"Never ever in my student or professional career did I ever go out with anybody who was a computer scientist, and that made all the difference in the world," Turbyfill noted, explaining that romantic competition often ensues in situations with a majority of one gender and a minority of another. "It's a numbers game," she joked. Throughout her stint in computer science academics, she often studied with other male students under the sole intention of obtaining help with schoolwork, but ended up receiving romantic advances from them as well. "There are some people who just ask anybody out," Turbyfill said.

Turbyfill scathingly noted that sometimes, men are just plain "wonky," treating women in ways they have no control over. She recalled times during her college days when male students unleashed anxiety about upcoming exams in a domineering manner - directing irate outbursts towards any susceptible or marginalized individuals, especially women. In Turbyfill's experience, chauvinistic behavior of this sort occurred amidst more than just peer-to-peer interactions. She recalled one college professor who accused her of bringing him food in order to manipulate her grades, as well as another who stuttered while talking to her, but who spoke soberly in all other conversations.

"I think that's just something in human history, the way we're wired," Turbyfill said of male chauvinism and sexual harassment, "so keeping an eye on [it] is important." For instance, Turbyfill explained how to address individuals who make hiring decisions based on unhealthy personal prejudices. "If you have an engineer that's really biased, just don't count them in the results. I always told my people [that] everybody had an opinion but not everybody had a vote," she said.

In order to stay afloat amongst opposition, women must seek out mentors, Turbyfill advised. "Find a mentor in whatever stage of life that you're in," she specified - explaining the radical role of mentorship, which companies can easily establish through employee coaching, in equipping women with determined mindsets. She recounted her experience with college graduates who, concerned about facing sexism and confused about what constitutes a supportive or unsupportive workplace, found the incentive to function as part of a team upon receiving her mentorship.

In Turbyfill's perspective, with a combination of respect for others and respect for oneself, tactful communication, and access to support networks like WITI, women can stake their place in the technology industry. "People underestimated me consistently. But actually, I used that to work to my advantage," she declared.

Don't miss Dr. Carolyn Turbyfill's upcoming WITI event, "The Future of Work." Tune in here on Thursday, July 29, from 12-1 PM PST, to participate in the session.

A Women in Technology International Hall of Fame member since 2009, Dr. Carolyn Turbyfill supported WITI by implementing its programs among Silicon Valley workplaces. View her Hall of Fame entry here.

Follow Dr. Carolyn Turbyfill on Linkedin here.

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