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WITI Women | Nuala O'Connor Kelly

Nuala O'Connor KellyNuala O'Connor Kelly


Nuala O'Connor Kelly joined the Technology Administration as Chief Counsel on March 18, 2002. Prior to joining TA, O'Connor Kelly served as Deputy Director of the Office of Policy and Strategic Planning within Secretary Donald L. Evans's team at the Department of Commerce.

Prior to her service in the Bush Administration, Ms. O'Connor Kelly served as Vice President-Data Protection and Chief Privacy Officer for Emerging Technologies of the online media services company, DoubleClick. O'Connor Kelly helped found the company's first data protection department and was responsible for the creation of privacy and data protection policies and procedures throughout the company and for the company's clients and partners. O'Connor Kelly also served as the company's first deputy general counsel for privacy and was instrumental in the company's work with the Federal Trade Commission, the state Attorneys General, and with private sector trade associations and class action litigation.

Ms. O'Connor Kelly is a frequent speaker on electronic commerce, and has been an attorney with the law firms of Sidley & Austin, Hudson Cook, and Venable, Baetjer, Howard & Civiletti in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the bar in Washington, D.C. and Maryland.

WITI Spent Some Time With Nuala O'Connor Kelly and Here Is What She Had to Say:

WITI: What is your educational background and what was the most important thing you learned in school?

Naula O'Connor Kelly: I have an undergraduate degree from Princeton, a master's in education from Harvard and a law degree from Georgetown. I think the most important lessons I learned at school were outside of the formal classroom- from my classmates and colleagues. In particular, communication skills both, as a speaker and as a listener. In graduate school, I learned to refine my listening skills. A professor of mine told me, "What you need to do is tell the noise from the signal." This has served me well, in Washington and elsewhere, in the deluge of information that we all process each day trying to figure out which issues we really need to worry about and which will resolve themselves without much or any--intervention. I guess that's somewhat tangentially related to the concept of "information literacy" that we're seeing emerge in teaching children about their use of the Internet. And in law school, of course, you learn not only to listen, but also to probe for more information.

W: Who is your hero or mentor and why has she/he been so inspirational to your life?

NOK: I've been very fortunate to have several mentors, both men and women, especially at key turning points in my career; when I first began to practice law, when I took a leap to a smaller firm as a partner, when I left the law firm world to go into high-tech law and policy and even now, as I've joined the government relatively recently. (Some of them are probably even reading this, as they're WITI members, so without naming names, thank you!)

The person who's been on my mind a great deal lately, and whose courage in her career has really been inspirational to me, is actually my own sister. She really paved the way for me in our family, as she was the first to attend college in this country (my family moved from Northern Ireland to New York when I was very young), and she went immediately to law school and into private practice of law, at a time when there were few women in leadership positions in that field. She's managed to balance a healthy, happy and really wonderful family--a great husband and four kids--as well as a great corporate law job, and do it all elegantly (and what appears to be, but is, of course, not) effortlessly. She has had to make difficult decisions along the way, about the amount of time she was willing to commit to work, and about the types of jobs she was willing and able to take, and she has borne witness to greater and lesser efforts to assist women in the workplace, especially women with family responsibilities. She's also taught me, by example, to work hard, and to expect to be treated (and rewarded) fairly for that work, and to speak up for what you want, which is very hard to do--I think especially for women.

W: What was your first job and what experience did you gain from it?

NOK: Well, my very, very first paid job was in high school, when I worked in a florist, for a woman small-business owner. I saw how challenging it is to run a small company and make ends meet. And I saw that customer service is everything- people want to and deserve to be treated with respect whether they're buying a bunch of daisies or spending ten thousand dollars on wedding flowers. That's a pretty simple but powerful lesson in any business.

W: What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?

NOK: That's a hard one. I've been extremely fortunate to have some great career experiences in law, in a high tech company, and in the government. However, having done it over the years with lesser and greater success, I think balancing a successful marriage and two busy careers is probably the hardest, but the most rewarding thing I've been a part of, and that's something that of course that takes more than one person to do. I'm unbelievably fortunate to have a husband who is joyful at my career progression, and who has encouraged me to take risks--probably greater risks that I would on my own--and who is alternately a mentor, an advisor, a cheerleader, a catalyst, and a partner.

W: What has been your greatest challenge and what did you learn from it?

NOK: I've had a number of surprising challenges, both personally and professionally, when I found myself in a position that neither was where I expected or wanted to be. What I learned from these challenges is that you are ultimately responsible for the course your life and your career takes, and that if you're not happy with where you are, you have the ability, in fact, the responsibility, to change it. And to not wait around for someone else to fix it for you. That's not to say that you can't ask for help along the way, but you must get off your duff and make an effort first.

I've found that getting rid of the little voice inside your head that says "but this is the way your life/career SHOULD be progressing" is very difficult, but once done, very freeing. The hardest job change for me was leaving law (also leaving Washington and friends and my home of nearly ten years) and moving to a high-tech company in New York. I sweated that decision, because I felt that I should stay at a big, secure law firm; how could I leave law; would I even still be considered a lawyer? (Some of you may laugh at that, but I'm sure you'll understand that when you've gone to school or been trained to do one thing, it's very difficult to imagine leaving that identity, even if you're not necessarily thrilled with it). What turned out to be the biggest career risk I've taken also turned out to be the biggest reward- that was an unimaginably exciting time to be at that particular company, and I grew tremendously from the experience.

When I finally summoned the courage to make that leap (and there were certainly people who thought it was a crazy move), what finally helped me make the decision was the very clear opportunity to grow, to be challenged, to try something new, to learn. That's the litmus test I've since used for every opportunity, and that doesn't make for the easiest choices, or jobs, but certainly for some pretty interesting ones!

W: What do you see as the single most interesting element of your work?

NOK: As chief counsel for technology at the Department of Commerce, I come into contact with a very wide array of policy issues and technologies on a daily basis. I'm truly a geek at heart, and as such, I get very excited by new gadgets, gizmos, and systems, and meeting exciting people with new ideas about how technology can make the world a better place. However, I must say that the most interesting element of life as a public servant is the underlying commitment to serve the country. Where, in the private sector, employees are driven by a desire to see a company grow and prosper, and to get the right answers for a company and its clients, as a public servant, the thing that drives me, that gets me up in the morning, is a constant desire to do what's right for the country, and that's a pretty broad mission! So, while I would strive to do what's right in any position, the ultimate- client-- the person whose needs must be served, is now this country, not a particular industry or company. That's a very interesting, thought-provoking and complex aspect of government service.

W: Why did you choose your current career path and if you could do it all over, would you change anything?

NOK: I don't think I chose my current career path as much as it chose me. At several key points in my career I was willing, for either extremely wise (in hindsight) or possibly foolhardy (in reality) reasons, to take risks that took me out of a fairly narrow path. I went from graduate school in education policy to law school, which took me into higher-ed finance and into banking law generally, then to bank privacy and online banking, to online privacy law generally, to online and high tech policy, and to tech policy in the government. Looking back now, in hindsight, it looks like a more fluid progression, but at any one stop along the way, I could not honestly have predicted where my career would take me. So, while all along, I've tried to sit down and make a plan, it's rarely worked out the way I've expected. Most of all I've been willing to take a risk, even when it forced me-- off plan. And I've been willing to move quickly, to change jobs, to expand my knowledge and continue learning.

W: What advances in your field do you envision over the next 10 years?

NOK: In technology generally, I see the expansion of technology into everyday living. One of our overarching policy issues at the Technology Administration and at Commerce is the adoption of broadband, and the drivers that will lead to that growth. In particular, I've recently visited several EU countries to study the use of technology in their classrooms, and I've also been working on the adoption of telework policies at Commerce. As basic connectivity reaches into the home, I think the possibilities for its use are boundless. I also have always seen technology, in particular, Internet connectivity, as a huge boon for women, who are increasingly stretched between the demands of home and work. However, I'm pleased to note that one of the first users of our telework pilot in TA is a male colleague of mine, and his job satisfaction and productivity, I believe, have been very positively impacted, as well as his work-family balance. So technology in the home is not just about female users, it's about families.

W: What advice would you give to young women who want to enter into your field?

NOK: It depends upon which field! If it's public policy, I still think that my "real-world" experiences at a high-tech company, or in the private sector generally, make me more able to understand the policy implications of what we're doing at the Technology Administration than merely having a law degree and knowing how to read a statute. So my advice to "would-be policy wonks"- like me is to work in a field, which you wish to affect policy, to get some "real-world" experience. If you're talking about technology, I cannot think of a better field to enter right now, especially for women. My experience in the high-tech sector was that it is, relative to other fields, one that can be very welcoming to women, particularly those with a particular skill set, whether engineering, computer science or even law.

Hearkening back to my interest in education policy, we see kids beginning to formulate ideas (and prejudices) about potential career paths or college majors in very young grades. So our challenge as a country is to get more young girls interested in the sciences early in grade school and keep them interested through middle school. We have a number of programs throughout the federal government to do this, but I've seen even greater success from the private sector. You can imagine how powerful it is to have a person with "real-world" experience come into a classroom and share how math or science education helped them become- a biochemist, a doctor, an engineer. Now think about how powerful that message is coming from a woman or a person of color. We need to get those role models- all of you who are reading this- into the educational system and our schools, so that young girls choose from the widest array of career paths.

W: What strategies do you use to maintain balance in your life?

NOK: Well, if I were giving myself a report card, I'd definitely get "needs improvement" in this area. One of the biggest strategies I've employed is trying to treat as sacred our private family time, particularly on the weekends. And trying not to have every minute of every day scheduled (something I have often tended to do.). This means saying, no more than I'd like to, to invitations, to friends, to extraneous commitments. But when you tally up the number of hours you spend at work, thinking about work, worrying about work, it really can control your life; we've probably all been there at some point.

A few years ago I was on a conference call, while simultaneously e-mailing and talking to someone in my office. A very wise colleague, who was on the other line (a woman and an attorney at one of our outside law firms when I was at the company), knowing I was not paying full attention to the call, said gently, "You know, I've learned over time the value of really being in the moment." I'll confess her words of wisdom did not sink in on me that day, or probably for days or weeks or even months afterwards. But that's increasingly what I try to do when I'm at work- I'm at work, when I'm home- I'm home. It's very hard, and I see a lot of women having more trouble than men in "compartmentalizing", probably because we have very complex responsibilities and several important and disparate identities- worker, colleague, friend, wife, mother, etc. Now, that's not to say that my boundaries are not fluid, and that I don't occasionally work late or take time off during the workweek for family commitments. But I've learned that the little choices you make do eventually add up to a pattern. And that pattern should reflect your priorities, whatever they may be.

WITI would like to thank Ms. Kelly for her words and her time

If you wish to be featured in WITI Women or know of someone who you want to recommend for this segment, please email David Leighton at [email protected].

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