Inspirational Woman: Mirjam Kühne | Chair, RIPE

Mirjam Kuhne

Having graduated with a degree in Computer Science from the Technical University in Berlin, Mirjam Kühne landed a junior administrative role at the RIPE NCC in the early 1990s when the organisation had merely 6 employees.

As the Internet grew exponentially, so did the RIPE NCC, and Mirjam proactively took on more responsibilities including setting up the Communications department. After several years serving as a Senior Community Builder, she succeeded Hans Petter Holen as the new Chair of RIPE, a role in which she currently serves.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

I studied Computer Science at the Technical University in Berlin, Germany, but after working at the University I decided I didn’t want to pursue an academic career. I found a job in the field of Internet and IP addressing at the RIPE NCC in Amsterdam – an area of work which was at the time relatively new. Since then, I have worked in several not-for-profits in the Internet industry, mostly as a community builder bridging the gap between the technical community and others interested in Internet-related matters.

The RIPE NCC is a not-for profit membership association that is responsible for allocating and registering IP addresses to Internet service providers and other companies and entities within Europe and beyond (the service region actually covers 76 countries, so it is very broad and diverse!) It is also the Secretariat for the RIPE community.

Last year, I was selected as the Chair of the RIPE community. The RIPE community was founded over 30 years ago to promote the Internet Protocol and what was later known as the Internet. RIPE is not a legal entity and is primarily comprised of network operators – people who are responsible for the operation and maintenance of the underlying technical Internet infrastructure. Decisions made by the community are based on consensus and collaboration. The community has always followed a ‘bottom up’ consensus-driven approach to decision making. My role is to make sure the community functions well, follows its own procedures and processes, and that everyone is heard.

My election actually marked the first time the RIPE Chair was selected by the wider community via a nominations and consensus process – prior to this, Chairs would be appointed by the previous Chair. It makes my election all the more special knowing that I was chosen by the RIPE community.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No, not really. In school I was actually interested in arts and history, and then I thought about studying psychology. However, I was fortunate enough that during the last two years at school we had a fantastic maths teacher. That really opened the door to other possibilities. Instead of becoming a child psychologist or an art historian, I decided to study computer science. This was quite a new subject at the university at the time and it was exciting to be part of it. There were few women (even though there are probably even fewer now) and we organised tutorials for women and in general helped each other out.

I was always interested in both technology and communications – maybe that’s why I ended up working in the Internet. Having a technical background definitely helped me become accepted in the technical community, while my communications skills helped to build a large ‘social’ network.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

Oh yes, absolutely. I had quite a steep career journey early on which resulted in a burn-out and a bit of a midlife crisis by the time I was 30. I had to take a break, and after that I decided to take a step back by accepting a job that took me out of the spotlight. I used that time to become stronger mentally which helps me now in my new role. I think recognising when you need to take a step back in order to build up your strength is extremely important and should be considered as such.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

I would say the fact that I was nominated and unanimously chosen as the Chair of the RIPE Community is my biggest achievement to date. I was happy to see that my diplomacy, communications and community building skills were recognised. It is a job not without its challenges: there are many different interests and opinions that have to be balanced within the community.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

People say I can get on with everybody! I believe that by being authentic and credible and by taking everyone and every opinion seriously, I earned respect in the community. It works well in an open community full of passionate and strong characters.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

I think it is important to realise what you are good at, what your skills are and what you like doing. Trying to be someone else or trying to fit into a role that isn’t yours will ultimately not make you happy in the end. It can also be helpful to find good mentors or role models. Throughout my career, I had a lot of support and guidance from people around me which definitely helped me to find the right path.

There is a wide variety of jobs in technology. You don’t necessarily have to become a software developer. Look at me: I am now the Chair of a large community of mostly very technical people, but I haven’t written a line of code in years!

We also need other skills in the technical world. I still find the whole field of network operations fascinating, and I see young women taking up jobs as peering coordinators or network administrators. These are usually jobs that combine a number of diverse skills.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, and if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

Yes, I believe there are still barriers. As I mentioned, one teacher can make a huge difference. We need to start early on to encourage girls and women to keep their options open and to find subjects they truly enjoy and excel in, not just the subjects they think girls are supposed to be good at, such as humanities.

Role models are very important, too. Women in visible roles encourage other women to pursue those career paths, which is another reason why I’m so proud to hold the role of RIPE Chair – to represent that opportunity to women around me.

Also later in their career, I think women are often hindered by inflexible circumstances at work or in society. At the RIPE NCC for example, we provide childcare to those parents who need it for all our large community meetings. This allows people to participate who would otherwise have to stay at home looking after their children.

What do you think companies can do to support and progress and the careers of women working in technology?

There are a great number of studies out there that show how a different hiring strategy can significantly increase the number of women applying for a job. Changing the “geek” culture of tech companies to a more open and inclusive environment which is attractive to women definitely helps. Importantly, when you come closer to the top (and in this ever-changing world), flexibility is key: for example around work hours and location.

And I think we all have to keep raising awareness. I remember I once presented at a technical conference and while I stood there looking down from the stage, I realised there was not a single woman in the audience. When I brought this up in public, people were a little embarrassed, but it certainly resonated and the situation improved over time.

There are currently only 17 per cent of women working in tech. If you could wave a magic wand, what is the one thing you would do to accelerate the pace of change for women in the industry?

That is a good question. If anything, I have only seen the numbers drop over the last few years. On the other hand, companies are desperately looking for experts, for instance in security. I believe we need to stop hiring “what we’re used to” and “what we are comfortable with” and be more daring to increase various aspects of diversity.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

Russ White’s history of networking, and RIPE Labs, which is a trusted source of information for those interested in Internet technology or networking: https://labs.ripe.net/