Kathleen McGill

Inspirational Woman: Dr Kathleen McGill | Senior Professional Staff, Johns Hopkins University, Applied Physics Lab

Kathleen McGill

Dr Kathleen McGill is a member of the Senior Professional Staff in APL’s Asymmetric Operations Sector.

Kathleen McGill has contributed to the TCG Mobile Platform Work Group since 2011, became a MPWG Work Group co-chair in 2015, and received a TCG Key Contributor award in 2016. Her research at APL focuses on system security engineering, defensive cyber solutions, and trusted computing technologies for desktop, server, and mobile platforms.

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

I am a member of Senior Professional Staff at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) Asymmetric Operations Sector.  My research at APL focuses on system security engineering and Trusted Computing technologies. I currently serve as a subject matter expert on mobile Trusted Computing both internally to APL and to the government. I have actively contributed to the Trusted Computing Group (TCG) Mobile Platform Work Group (MPWG) since 2011, becoming a Mobile Platform Work Group Co-Chair in 2015, and receiving a TCG Key Contributor award in 2016.  I have also contributed to and published numerous technical specifications and informative reference documents such as the TCG Mobile Reference Architecture and the TCG Runtime Integrity Preservation in Mobile Devices.  The goal of my work at TCG is to advance the state of security of the mobile ecosystem so that consumers and businesses can safely conduct day-to-day business on their mobile devices.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

I regularly sat down to plan my education, which laid the basis for my career.  My parents have always placed a premium on development and education, and I always liked school.  In particular, I enjoyed science and technology, digging into difficult problems, often within a group, and learning by teaching each other. Early in college, I planned to study Physics at my Liberal Arts University and Engineering in Graduate School.  I ultimately wanted a career in applied research or engineering, but I wanted a well-rounded education to hone writing skills and broaden my exposure to other subjects.  In Graduate School, I fully embraced the collaboration and learning aligned with engineering and research. I was a Graduate Teaching Assistant for four years, in the fields of Physics, Mechanical Engineering and Parallel Computing. These efforts included planning and leading daily laboratory and tutorial sessions as well as regular office hours to prepare fellow students with the fundamentals of science. After that, I focused on my Ph.D. research in application resilience.  All of these efforts helped evolve where I wanted my career to go.  Not only did teaching and research help with my own development, but they also showed me that I wanted to continue both in my career.

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

With nine brothers and three sisters, I am no stranger to a male-dominated world.  At the University of Minnesota, I taught an occasional class in which I was the only woman in the room. That is a nice little anecdote, but it wasn’t really a challenge.  The shortage of women in my field was never too daunting for me.  I admit I may be remembering things with rose-colored glasses, though.  Perhaps the biggest challenge was when my career and my family life collided.  When returning to work after having each of my kids, I needed to establish new routines and figure out a plan on how to manage both roles. I also had to face and communicate the reality that, for me, my roles of Senior Professional Staff at APL and MPWG Co-Chair at TCG, were no longer my top priority.  I may have challenged some stereotypes in the technology arena, but I’ve had a lot of support at both APL and TCG, and I think I’ve found my way to success.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

My biggest career achievement is difficult to pinpoint. It might be earning my doctorate or it could be an accepted proposal or technology deployment sometime over the course of my career, but there’s not a single clear standout achievement for me. My career is probably better characterized by persistence. I’ve worked hard to make positive contributions in my field, and I think I’ve succeeded in doing that.  However, most of my achievements are incremental, nothing flashy.

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

I think there has been more than one major factor. Without privilege and hard work, I probably wouldn’t be in the same position today. I was fortunate enough to have a family that emphasized and fully supported my education and career. In addition, my parents had the resources to provide for my housing, safety, health, and education so that I could focus entirely on school when I was young.  Those beginnings set me on a path for success with very few barriers. Throughout my childhood, I was very hardworking and disciplined.  I was an excellent student, got Graduate Assistant positions to pay for Graduate School, and seized the career opportunities that came my way.  I wouldn’t have as much success in my career without this hard work. However, I know a lot of people work as hard or harder than I do but without the same life circumstances, and as a result they don’t enjoy the same career successes or quality of life that I have.

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

I think a little “hands on” experience goes a long way.  Whether that means hardware prototyping, coding, or designing and/or constructing something that will actually be used, there are many lessons learned in that kind of experience that will be valuable later in your career.  Most people who want to excel in technology end up leading people who do this kind of hands-on work or devising strategies for execution.  If you don’t have this kind of experience, you may make avoidable mistakes.  In addition, I think it’s fairly transparent whether you have this kind of experience to those who do and you can gain credibility with your teams if you demonstrate that you do.  For women in tech, this kind of credibility is particularly important because women are much less likely to be given the benefit of the doubt than men.

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

Yes, of course there are still barriers to success for women working in the sector.  For one, there are barriers for anyone living in poverty trying to get an education and enter the work force, such as the scarcity of affordable housing, food insecurity, affordable healthcare, childcare, and more.  I think many of these barriers affect women more than men.  The disparity in the number of women entering the technology work force helps perpetuate some of the problems of a male-dominated field.  There’s obviously no quick solution to overcoming these barriers. One thing I think I could do better is to focus on the barriers stopping women from gaining a career in technology in the first place more than the barriers to advancement for women who have already broken into tech fields.

I don’t mean to diminish the barriers to women looking to advance their careers in tech.  They do exist. I’m lucky to work at organizations like TCG and APL, that support and empower women in technology. It’s important to keep that momentum, help women who come up after me, and continue to nudge workplace culture forward to make organizations like these the norm. The more women in positions of leadership there are, the less these organizations will hinder advancement for women. I think the same thing goes for indigenous peoples and people of color.  We need diversity in leadership so that diverse perspectives are automatically there, rather than a homogenous leadership team trying to craft inclusive policies and practices.

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

Organizations need to hire more women in general and have benefits, like flexible schedules and maternity leave, for women having children. As a mother of four young children, I have been fortunate enough to take maternity leave with each child.  However, this is not the case for everyone, and it really makes a difference for women to know that they can stop for a few months without curbing their career.  Women shouldn’t have to choose between their career and motherhood. Within my roles, I have always managed to balance my work commitments and put my family first. For that, I credit the supportive teams and organizations around me for allowing to embrace a flexible work schedule to enable me to be the Mom I want to be without apology. This factor alone is a game-changer and something that not every female within the technology industry has the opportunity to receive. These are just a couple of examples that were impactful for me.  When organizations employ more women, they have numerous perspectives of women in the workplace.

There is 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?

Tough one!  Maybe universal paid maternity leave for all fields really or some early hands-on exposure to technology that might draw more women in and include an application that appeals to a teenage girl needs?  Maybe even big scholarships for women in science and technology for high school and college or simply devising programs that provide scholarships alongside some help with more basic needs such as affordable housing, food, healthcare, and childcare. All of these could help accelerate the number of women working in the sector.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech, eg Podcasts, networking events, books, conferences, websites etc?

I do tend to read and listen to a lot of female voices, and some things I’ve enjoyed recently include Michelle Obama’s Becoming, Tara Westover Educated, Happier with Gretchen Rubin podcast, and the By The Book podcast.  I do recommend finding a news source – whether in print, podcast, or another platform-that keeps you informed of whatever is going on in your field.  I’ve listened to a few of the podcasts on the TWIT network for that purpose.


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