Tooting Your Own Horn From Alabama in the Middle of the Night, and Other Words of Wisdom for Women in IT

My sister, Cathy Amis Griffith, worked for Burroughs Corporation in the 1970s.  I sat down to ask her about what it was like working in the IT industry as a woman then.  Part 2 will follow next month. 

How did you get into the IT industry?

I graduated from the University of Georgia in 1974 with a degree in Special Education, taught for three years and discovered that I could not pay my bills. I applied to Burroughs Corporation for a position as a software sales and support rep [in Chattanooga, TN]. I did not have a clue what the job was. The requirements were a BS degree, which I had, and I got the job. I went to training and was in classes with ninety percent women, which I found out later was unusual. Because of Affirmative Action they were trying to bump up their numbers by hiring us all as software sales and support. The hardware salesmen were still men, for the most part. In the office I worked in there was me and one guy, and later when Burroughs merged with Sperry Univac and we became Unisys there was another software support person who came in from that. She and I were the only two women in the office other than the secretary and the receptionist.

You said that later you became a programmer? What was the distribution of men and women like in general?

The particular package that I learned was a wholesale distribution package and it was written in COBOL, and people needed modifications. The two choices were Burroughs could get paid to make the fix, or they could pay an outside programmer. So they sent me to COBOL school. I made minor changes, I was not a designer of any software, mine were mostly print programs and stuff like that, custom calculations maybe but nothing fancy. I was the one who went in and set up computer systems and taught the operators how to run them. My title was systems analyst because I knew Burroughs’ proprietary operating system and their wholesale distribution software package. As a matter of fact, I knew it so well that I taught the people who manned the hotline in Pennsylvania. There were a lot of women in that job, but I only had one manager the whole time I worked for Burroughs or Unisys who was a woman, and she had had pretty much the same job as me initially, but had gotten promoted out of Birmingham.

I will mention…The last few years I worked out of the Atlanta district and region. Because I knew this particular package if there was an installation of that software anywhere in the Atlanta area I’d come down and spend weeks at the Hyatt Ravinia, come down on Monday and leave on Friday. One day I was just talking to this guy who was the same kind of person as me. Same years of experience, doing the same basic thing, installation and software, and something was said about how much money he made and I went back to my room and was sick. Because it was a big damn difference. Several thousand dollars a year, which was not chump change in 1982.

Did you ever get flak from men for being in the profession?

Not from the guys I worked with. They were all salesmen, and they didn’t know shit about the damn programs, and that’s the truth. They didn’t know shit. They wore their nice ties and their lovely suits and their shiny shoes, and I came in a nice suit and a silk blouse, but I was the one who knew how the stuff worked, so they were nice to me. Ninety-nine percent of them were nice to me, and if they weren’t it was at their peril, because they were shooting themselves in the foot. I do remember one guy who was ugly to me because something didn’t work one time. He threw a big fit and I just didn’t say a word. He came back the next day and brought me biscuits and apologized because he knew that if he made an enemy of me he was going to lose his installation. He didn’t have a clue how the dang thing worked. He could turn it on, but he didn’t know how to do general ledger, accounts payable, accounts receivable, all that stuff, I was the one who knew how to install it and how to make it work and how to talk to the people in the business about setting up product codes and everything. So I didn’t really get any flak directly. This particular guy was a…what’s the word I’m trying to say? Besides “ass.” He really thought less of me because I was female, and I knew that, so after he was ugly to me I probably held his feet to the fire worse than anybody else. I was never ugly to him. But there were a lot of guys for whom I stayed up all night long trying to make sure their customer’s computer did not bomb out, because it would have hurt them. It was my job to a certain degree, and I took it seriously, but they were also very grateful for everything I did and we were kind of a team, whereas this guy thought more of himself than anybody else.

Did you ever run into customers assuming that you didn’t know what you were talking about?

Yes, that did happen some. For the most part operators were women. The people who did the accounting were women in most of the businesses, so there was no problem. Once we got started, we were fine. Sometimes…but if you know what you’re talking about, even if it’s the biggest jackass in the world who wants the information you have, most jackasses are smart enough to listen. Every once in a while you run into a manager who wants to tell everybody what to do whether he knows or not, and I was pretty perceptive and knew how to handle people…I learned how to handle people. There was a guy in, I believe it was Birmingham, Alabama, who was from a different country. Everybody warned me before I went over there that they had an in-company dining room and the women weren’t allowed to sit with the men. Now…I’m there, they are paying me by the hour and all of my expenses, so if I eat there that’s to their advantage. If I don’t eat there, I go out to lunch and they still pay for it. People told me “you need to watch out for this guy, he doesn’t think much of women, he’s a bully and he’ll jump down your throat,” etc. His whole accounting department were men, all of the computer people were men, there were no women in there at all.  I was the only woman. So, I thought to myself, hmm, just how am I going to handle this? Because there’s something about me that I just can’t… I’m not going to sit with people I don’t know just because I’m female. I’m going to sit with the guys I’m working with, or I’ll go somewhere else. I said that out loud to the guys. Well, we went to the lunch room and I sat down in the lunch room every single day I was there and ate lunch with those men and that manager never came in the cafeteria one time when I was there.  I found out that even though he was all this, woman-eater, whatever, he was married to a red-headed Irish woman, and I thought, “I know how to handle him.” Every time I met that man in the hall, every time I saw him, I put on that Southern charm and grinned and said, “Well, hello Mr. So-and-so, how are you today? Let me tell you how great it’s going in the DP department, oh honey you’re just going to love this! It’s wonderful, your guys are so smart!” and I’d just go right on my way, every time. I forced him to speak to me every time I crossed his path, and he never said shit to me. He’d chewed my manager out unmercifully and made her cry. But he never did me, he never crossed me, not once.

I ask this because that is what I have heard from friends of mine who work in IT now. Sometimes the customer won’t believe they are the person there to fix the computer.

I do think that in the beginning that there were some questions in some people’s minds, but once they knew that I knew…and it didn’t take long for that to happen, because once their customer calls at six o’clock on a Thursday night, and says “I can’t get payroll to run, and I’ve got to give out two hundred checks in the morning, what am I going to do?” The salesman would call me and I’d get on the phone with the operator. Once those things happened and they knew that I knew my job I didn’t have that much trouble. There was a time or two where that one salesman, and he was really kind of a thorn in my side, took credit for what I did. But I got smart enough that…you do have to toot your own horn. I was busting my ass. The school system in DeKalb County Alabama, every once in a while their payroll would blow up. We’re talking teachers, you know, and they only get paid once a month. Every once in a while I’d have to go down there and I’d be there until two or three in the morning. I realized that nobody really knew I was doing that, except for the customer. So the next time I went to Alabama in the middle of the night, I called my branch manager about midnight and said, “Ray, I just want to let you know I’m down here at the DeKalb County Board of Education and I believe I’ve got this taken care of. I believe their payroll’s going to run and everything’s going to be all right by morning.” And he’d say, “All right, good job.” He never knew what I was doing and I decided the only way to let him know was to let him know. And it made a difference. Then we got a new branch manager. I came in one day about 9 o’clock, and I mean I had been…for weeks, just killing myself. I’d leave at five in the morning for Bumblefuck, Alabama and work til seven or eight at night and drive home, get to sleep and get up and do it again, day after day after day, trying to get these new software packages to run. If they were within driving distance I didn’t stay overnight. So anyway, I come dragging in at nine o’clock one morning, and he called me in his office. He said, “You know, Cathy, I just don’t think you’re setting a good example for these new salesmen, coming in at nine o’clock,” and I said, “Let me tell you something. I more than make up after five what I miss between eight and nine. You obviously don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” and turned around and walked out. And he apologized to me…because I started calling that sorry sonofabitch at  midnight too, saying “Dennis! Did you know so-and-so’s accounts payable blew up yesterday afternoon? I’ve been here for six hours and fixed all their errors and run the update program and they’ll be able to run their accounts payable checks. I just wanted to let you know that it’s taken care of.”

I had no expectations…you know, I did find out that guy made more money than me and it pissed me off, but it wasn’t because I had this across the board assumption that I was being shit upon. I had no idea. I didn’t expect it, I had a job and was making good money. I was wearing nice suits and dressing up, I thought I had a good job. And when I went back to teaching, the discrepancy between business and teaching was the shocker. Because it was at least ten thousand, if not more. I wasn’t self-aware enough for the most part to feel like I was being put upon, but I did work at making people recognize my worth, because I realized that wasn’t a gimme. I didn’t think of it as being a female thing, just as…if you do a really good job, it’s not always enough. You have to let people know that you’re doing the job, period.

I did realize that we were something special, because there was a whole class of women. They had a big training center where they fed us and we all stayed in the dorms. We went to downtown Conshohocken every Thursday night and danced disco. It was really a lot of fun, and it was a lot like being in college. We would all be in the computer lab at night and would sing together. We knew that we were something, because whenever our class would come in everybody would turn and look. We were all kind of proud of that, but at the time I just wanted a job. I didn’t know what it was. Honest to God, when they said, “software sales and support” I said “Yeah, yeah, oh yeah, I’m definitely interested” but really I didn’t have a damn clue. Once I got into it I was fine.

In 1977 I was twenty-five years old, and a lot of them were right out of college. I’m sure I was discriminated against. You stop to think, well why were they hiring so many women? It was to get their numbers up. But we didn’t think of it in those terms, we thought we were being given an opportunity. The door cracked open and we all ran through it.

Come back next month for the rest of this great interview! To hold you over, here’s a sound clip of Cathy, describing Batch processing, Piggly Wiggly, and “mini-computers” the size of a couch.