Jennifer Marsman: A Tale of GitHub and Ballgowns

20 Dec 2015

Jennifer Marsman: A Tale of GitHub and Ballgowns

Dona’s had the pleasure of knowing OF Jennifer Marsman for many years, but only had the pleasure of meeting this lovely, brilliant, hilarious lady during during a rendition of her infamous Career Advice To the Tune of Glee. Since then, Dona knew they had to be best friends forever. Read on to find out more about Jennifer’s amazing job, her style and her advice for the next gen of people who want her job!

Tell us a little about you.

I have one of the coolest jobs at Microsoft.  I get paid to play with all of our cool new technology for developers, and then go out and share what I’ve learned, by speaking at conferences, blogging, tweeting, and webcasting.  I’m fortunate to work from home most days if I’m not travelling.

On a personal note, I’m happily married with 3 incredible kids.  I love reading, theatre, and ballet.  I’ve read all of the “Song of Ice and Fire” books (that’s the book series that the “Game of Thrones” TV show is based on), and I can settle Catan like a boss.

Tell us about what you’re wearing.

Dona and Beth caught up with me in Houston, where we were all participating in the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.  Unfortunately, that was near the end of a month of travel for me, so for this impromptu photo shoot, I didn’t bring a wide range of clothing.

But!  Earlier this year, I spoke at a GitHub conference called CodeConf in Nashville, and they gave it a “country” theme where all of the speakers got authentic cowboy boots by J.B. Dillon, and I even got a GitHub belt buckle like the MC of the event wore, which are custom-made on Etsy.  Since the Grace Hopper Celebration was in Houston, I decided to bring my fun cowboy accessories with me, and rocked out the cowboy boots and GitHub belt buckle one day with my Microsoft shirt.

The dress I’m wearing is from BCBG.  I love long, flowy dresses.  I adore navy blue and brown, and wear altogether too much of those colors.

In terms of jewelry, I wear two rings that I never take off: my wedding ring on my left hand and a sapphire ring on my right hand. The latter was a gift from my grandfather on my 13th birthday, which I’ve always treasured. I wear earrings every day as well, but those I switch up based on my clothing.

How did your style evolve to what it is now?

I have to speak at a lot of conferences in my role at work.  When I first started out, I dressed more “business casual” in skirts or nice slacks.  After being asked if I was in sales or recruiting a million times, I started wearing jeans and t-shirts to fit in with the “developer” guys.  This is sad, but there was a noticeable difference in the way I was treated when I looked the part.  It’s great that Dona and Beth are leading this charge with their blog, highlighting the fundamental idea behind #iLookLikeAnEngineer, that we come in lots of different looks which are equally valid.

A second fashion evolution that comes to mind is my wardrobe after having kids: I became very anti-dry-clean-only.  I still have young kids (under the age of 2), and it’s just not practical to wear clothes that need to be dry-cleaned when you are constantly holding little cuties with sticky hands and runny noses.  Everything I wear needs to be able to go into my own washing machine.  Ann Taylor has some nice quality pieces that can still be machine-washed.

Finally, let’s discuss maternity fashion!  There’s a major style evolution that needs to happen when you become pregnant, as your normal clothes suddenly no longer fit and different looks may be more flattering with your cute baby bump.  My sister Christina found a great boutique called Patty Mama; their clothes are beautiful and have held up very well.  I lived in this sweater in dark brown through multiple pregnancies; the fabric is not too thick which is perfect when you are pregnant and always warm.  I also recommend buying a pair of not-too-expensive jeans or dress pants in one size bigger than your normal size when you become pregnant.  These are great when your stomach is getting bigger, but it’s not big enough for real maternity clothes yet.  Then they come in handy again when your stomach is slimming back down, and you are dying to get out of maternity pants with stretchy waistbands but you can’t quite fit back into your normal size yet.  Finally, scarves and fun jewelry can dress up a simple maternity top, and you can still wear them after the baby comes and your body returns to normal.

Do you have any style icons or favorite brands?

If I could choose one person’s entire closet to steal, it would be Kate Middleton. (I’m trying to get fascinators to catch on in the US…no luck yet!) I like tailored, classic pieces. Currently, in the fall, I like layering a blazer or a jacket over a top with jeans, and adding a scarf for extra elegance (and warmth!). Another go-to look is leggings with a long sweater and boots. (This is super comfy when you’re just working from home.)

Any advice for a young person thinking about getting into a STEM field?

I work with students often in my role.  I’ve been asked for advice enough that I decided to have fun with it, and created a presentation where I map popular songs to career advice.

But for Dona and Beth, some new content:

Stick with math, even if you don’t enjoy it now.  I hated math in elementary school.  Memorizing multiplication tables was not fun.  But once you master the basics, wow!  Algebra was the best thing ever.  Figuring out the value of x was like solving a puzzle.

Technology evolves quickly, so this is not a field where you get your degree and you’re done.  But that also gives you nice off-ramps and on-ramps during your career.  If I wanted to take a few years off and stay home with the kids, I could.  Then when I’m preparing to come back to work, I just study up on whatever the latest language/technology/platform is.  Let’s say HTML6 has just come out, and there’s a demand for people who know it.  Guess what?  EVERYONE is just learning it now, so you’re not behind!  It gives you a nice on-ramp to come back.

Above all, find your passion.  There are so many cool subfields just in computer engineering: virtual reality, artificial intelligence, gaming, compilers, operating systems, natural user interfaces, databases, web design…you will be working for at least 8 hours/day for most of your life, so don’t waste it on something that you don’t love.

What would you say is the project you’ve done that you’re proudest of?

When I was a software developer working for Microsoft in Redmond, we built a Natural User Interface Platform.  I had just graduated from college and was the most junior developer on the team, so at the beginning, I owned Logging (whoo hoo!).  But I set out to do the BEST LOGGING EVER, and because I contributed quality work, I continued to get more and more responsibilities.  By the end of my time on that team, I was developing our intent processor for grouping clusters of similar search sessions together, for which I was awarded a patent.  (So whatever you are doing – do it 110%.)

Currently, I’m working on using EEG (brain waves) and machine learning to perform lie detection.  I have the EPOC+ headset from Emotiv that reads EEG, and I put it on my husband and had him lie and answer truthfully to a series of questions.  I fed this labelled dataset into Azure Machine Learning to build a classifier which predicts whether he is telling the truth or lying.  I’m continuing this research now, looking at more sophisticated methods of feature extraction to build a classifier that would work on anyone.

Finally, I’m extremely proud of my 3 kids.  They amaze me every day with their empathy, intelligence, and curiosity.

Are there any misconceptions about STEM fields that you’d like to clear up?

The technology field is sometimes portrayed as very isolated work.  In the media, we see programmers holed up in their offices (or their basements) cranking out code.  We do this sometimes, but in reality, building software is very much a team sport.  As a software developer, I worked daily with program managers who helped chart the vision and specify the software’s behavior and with testers who would use very creative techniques to catch as many bugs as possible before the software went out the door.

Anything else you’d like to share with the audience?

Believe in yourself! There is a phenomenon known as impostor syndrome, in which high-achieving people feel like impostors or frauds that are not truly deserving of their success. They feel like they are fooling everyone else into believing they are more intelligent than they actually are, and will one day be exposed as an impostor. Impostor syndrome affects people across the board, but it is especially common in women.

I can share a personal example. Many years ago, a colleague and I were scheduled to present a day-long event with many technical sessions at a large corporation, and we were dividing the session topics between us. One of the topics was Silverlight, which had just been released at the time. I didn’t really feel like I knew Silverlight that well…I had read some blog posts, seen a video or two, and downloaded some demos, but I hadn’t written any of my own code with it yet. My colleague said that he knew Silverlight pretty well, so we agreed that he would present it. Fast-forward to his talk: he presented a marketing slide deck to developers (which is never a good idea), didn’t show any demos (since Silverlight is a visual presentation-layer technology, you can’t fully appreciate it without seeing it in action), and didn’t do so well answering questions. It turns out that he had just seen the Silverlight announcements, and yet he felt confident enough that he “knew” Silverlight from that, whereas I (with more actual knowledge, in this particular instance) did not.

In my job, I have seen so many success stories, especially in the “women in tech” space. Women who are pregnant during demanding times like graduate school, single moms, women from cultures where they weren’t encouraged to work – these ladies all worked through difficult situations and emerged triumphant. Don’t stop believing in yourself; with the right mindset, we can all accomplish great things.

What is the best way (if any) for people to follow you on social media?

I use Facebook for personal stuff (i.e. pictures of my kids) and Twitter for work-related stuff.  If you are interested in machine learning or other tech topics, you are welcome to follow me on Twitter or subscribe to my blog.

We are simply obsessed with Jen’s GitHub belt (must have!), film noir-esque photo shoot (a first for us!) and fantastic, practical career advice. We love that this powerful woman is a technical overachiever as well as being a dedicated parent and an excellent friend. We did this photoshoot, literally by cellphone light outside the Grace Hopper conference center before an evening of networking and learning. That kind of multi-tasking is what Jennifer excels at and a skill we admire tremendously. Till next time! 


Dona & Beth