Large universities may be great at fostering new discoveries and technologies, but their internal departmental structure isn’t always very innovative. One notable exception is the Information Networking Institute (INI) at Carnegie Mellon University, a program that is thriving under the stellar leadership of director Dena Haritos Tsamitis.
Her career is strikingly similar to that of a startup entrepreneur. Since taking over as director, she has grown the INI substantially, both in enrollment and diversity.
I found her story intriguing and inspiring and had the chance to ask her about her career path.
Why did you choose to pursue a career in technology?
As a child, I remember playing a career board game designed for girls. The career options were teacher, stewardess, nurse, and model. Although my parents didn’t encourage me to pursue a college degree, I was an English major at the University of Pittsburgh with the intent of eventually becoming an English teacher—one of the professions in the board game.
My life plans changed when I moved to Greece to marry the guy I met during summer vacation there a year earlier. I dropped out of Pitt, became a certified English language instructor and started a family. Fast forward, with two children in tow, I moved back to the U.S. to complete my degree. I was curious about technology and decided to study information science at Pitt. My journey in tech officially began and I was hooked.
While in school, I did my time as a Cobol programmer to pay the bills and gain work experience. I was good at it but programming was not the work I envisioned and I questioned whether it was the right choice to pursue a career in technology. My advisor, the late Dr. Ida Flynn, explained that programming is a stepping stone for some and a career path for others. She convinced me that with so many different paths in technology, my opportunities were boundless. Dr. Flynn was right: before I graduated, I had seven job offers for very different roles in technology!
I accepted a position as a systems analyst at a pharmaceutical company in the Midwest and designed the information architecture for one the first intranets before the term had even been coined. Our team did something that had never been done before: distribute learning via the intranet to 30,000 employees worldwide in 160 countries. That’s where it clicked for me how technology can transform the teaching and learning process.
Shortly after my third child was born, I moved back home to Pittsburgh to be close to my parents, whose health was declining. I became the first telecommuter for my Indianapolis-based company. I decided to go back to school for my master’s in instructional technology to advance my knowledge and skills in the growing field of technology-enhanced education. In my final semester of the program, I stumbled upon an opportunity at Carnegie Mellon University. In 2001, I was asked to consult on an exciting project to lead the design of the delivery and assessment of a master’s degree program to be offered abroad–in Athens, Greece of all places. Shortly after I embarked on this exciting new project in my parents’ homeland of Greece, they passed away within months of each other. I viewed the project as a way to honor their memories and the lessons and values they instilled in me.
After the program was successfully launched, I was offered the position of associate director of the Information Networking Institute, which I gladly accepted in 2002, and was appointed director two years later in 2004 (as my marriage ended). As a single mother of three children, I furthered my commitment to a career in higher education by earning a doctorate in higher education management through an executive program from the University of Pennsylvania.
I have now found my calling. In my current role, I use technology to innovate the teaching and learning environment, enhance the student experience as well as develop and deliver new engineering programs globally to prepare students for career paths in information networking, security and mobility. Coding was a stepping stone to a career as a professor and academic department head at Carnegie Mellon that I would have never imagined as a child playing that career board game.
Who influenced your career path?
Curiosity, instinct, and personal circumstances in my life led me in different directions and to new opportunities. I forged my own path. Education has always been my passion and at the core of my career aspirations. Combining it with technology is what ultimately propelled my career and inspired me to continuously seek innovation in all that I do.
My Pitt advisor Dr. Flynn persuaded me that I didn’t have to go down a single road in the field of technology to be successful. Her guidance about the diverse pathways in technology is the same advice I give to my students today, and I am forever grateful that she supported my academic journey.
Do you think you have to work harder than a man in your position for acceptance, status, and/or respect?
What advice do you have for young women considering a career in technology?
- Be authentic and create your own path. Don’t try to change who you are to fit into a role. Bring your unique perspective, insights and talents to your role.
- Put yourself outside of your comfort zone. If you’re comfortable, you’re not learning and growing. Don’t be afraid to fail because that’s when you learn the most important and lasting lessons.
- Acknowledge your power and use it for good. Learn how to use technology to solve limitations or societal problems that exist today. Keep in mind that the technologies you design may contribute to societal problems through unintended consequences.
Does gender or ethnicity affect your hiring decisions?
Research suggests that when you bring together a diverse group of people in the workplace, there is greater innovation and creative problem-solving. When hiring, I urge my team to seek someone who brings new perspectives. I discourage them from considering if this person will “fit” into our group. It’s essential that we integrate diverse perspectives, rather than hiring people who look like you, talk like you and think like you.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?
Along with an estimated 70 percent of the U.S. population, I’ve had to overcome the impostor syndrome. First-generation college students, women and underrepresented minorities are especially vulnerable.
Over the years, I’ve observed impostor syndrome in many of my engineering graduate students. Put yourself in their shoes–these brilliant women and men come from the top of their classes among the best schools in the U.S. and around the world to study and advance their knowledge at CMU. Once here, they look around and realize that they don’t stand out quite like they did back home in their undergrad programs and that they are among a diverse group of very talented and intelligent students. Self-doubt creeps in. Do I belong? Am I as smart as my classmates? Will I be successful?
It’s essential for us to acknowledge our unique talents and strengths, rather than attributing success to being lucky or “in the right place at the right time.” One way to do this is by making a list of your accomplishments to remind yourself of just how talented you are. This is just one of the strategies I’ve adopted and customized to help myself and others overcome impostor syndrome. I’ll be share more of these strategies very soon on my LinkedIn blog.
What accomplishment has made you the proudest?
I was a single mother balancing my career alongside the many challenges that come with raising three kids. On some days, I was able to enjoy quality time with my family. Other days, for example, when I was in the midst of reviewing graduate school applications to my programs at Carnegie Mellon, I couldn’t be at my daughter’s soccer game or there for my son’s prom pictures. I did the best I knew how to do and now strive to offer both myself and my team the opportunity to enjoy work-life integration.
I firmly believe in the message of Ann Marie Slaughter’s 2014 TED Talk “Can we all ‘have it all’” that “if family comes first, work does not come second. Life comes together”.
I’ve very proud of the warm, welcoming and supportive culture that I’ve created for my department. I encourage them to create synergy among all areas of their life: their personal well-being, family, friends, community, and other important elements of their lives so they can be more present, effective and productive at work.
I’ve had the opportunity to redesign the physical space of our department to reflect these principles. Motivated by the challenges I faced as a nursing mother, I included a wellness and a lactation room in our building renovation, providing a space for members of the university community to practice self-care or spend quiet time with their child.
Our “kitchen,” also known as the “collaborative space,” brings together members of our team at various times during the workday over a cup of coffee or snack. These informal gatherings have led to the exchange of ideas or collaboration among team members across functional areas who might not otherwise work together.
I reinforce this work-life philosophy as the first tenet of our team charter, which we revisit annually at our annual offsite retreat–an annual gathering where family members are also included in all meals and social events. Our growing INI family comes together every year at this event and seems very much like a family reunion–in Ann Marie Slaughter’s words – “life coming together.”
What are your goals for the future?
My story has been one of discovery and reinvention. When I played that career board game as a child, I could not have imagined that I would be where I am today. I realize that the gender role messages embedded in my upbringing did not create a barrier for me but rather an opportunity to forge my own path. I approach and appreciate each day as a gift. Each day brings opportunity to discover and learn new things about myself and my purpose in life. New opportunities will come, and if it’s right for me, I’ll seize the moment.
Images courtesy of Dr. Dena Haritos Tsamitis.