Women in STEM with Kathy Land

2021 IEEE President
Published 08/14/2020
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Kathy-Land-IEEE-5REThe Diversity and Inclusion Task Force presents Women in STEM with Kathy Land, Program Manager for the United States Missile Defense Agency.

Kathy chose her career field because she wanted to make a difference – and she has. During her 30+ year career, Kathy has done everything from cell phone app development to massive multi-player online game development and complex systems/software development.

We are humbled to have had the opportunity to discuss goal setting, career growth, and advice for overcoming personal and professional obstacles with Kathy Land.


What is your current technical field and what made you choose that particular area of interest?

I self-identify as a computer scientist/software engineer. However, my job title is Program Manager, United States Missile Defense Agency. I chose this career field because I wanted to make a difference. The mission of the US Missile Defense Agency is to ‘defend the United States, its deployed forces, allies, and friends from missile attacks in all phases of flight.’ During my 30+ year career, I have done everything from cell phone app development to massive multi-player online game development and complex systems/software development. For me, there is no higher calling than to essentially defend the world against nuclear threat.

I strongly believe that leadership development is a lifelong journey. This journey is different for each person. I do not think I chose Computer Science, but rather, through a series of opportunities – we found each other. Any leadership ability is a sum of the activities and challenges we experience, opportunities we take and goals we set. They key for me, I think, was to recognize and take the opportunities presented and to set and achieve goals along the way.


What’s been your greatest challenge and your greatest reward in your professional career?

Moving from California to Florida, I was provided with my first hard-core programming job at the 46th Test Wing on Eglin Air Force Base. I was responsible for product development and, gradually, for teams of developers. The only problem, my teams did not understand software (nor systems) engineering. The age of the ‘cowboy programmer’ had led to serious dysfunction in the team environment, where many folks had to work on a single programmer product.  

It was during this time that I went back to school, with two small children at home, and a husband in graduate school. I was extremely busy. It was during this time that I found IEEE and the software and systems engineering standards. This provided me with accepted guidance to support team training for competencies like requirements management, configuration management, and quality assurance.

This job taught me to look to experts and authoritative sources to help me be as effective as possible and to share the information with others.  

Seeing this as another opportunity to share information regarding best practices, I began working with the IEEE Computer Society Standards Board and John-Wiley publishing, writing about how IEEE standards might be applied to support different programming efforts and software process methodologies. 

As anyone who has published within the IEEE peer review framework can attest, this was not an easy process, but was very rewarding once complete. No pain, no gain as they say.  I am sharing this, not to say – hey look at what I have done – but rather –if I have something to share, you do too! If I can do this, so can you.

There is something that you may know, based upon your unique experiences that you should share and publish. This is an important part of what I view as being a leader – giving back to the profession in the form of information sharing. This is readily acceptable and understood in academia, but not so much in industry and defense, where information often translates into a competitive edge.  

We all gain by information sharing. One of the most rewarding incidents that I have had in my career is when a gentleman approached me following a talk I gave and told me that one of my books had helped his company change and improve their work culture.



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What have you found rewarding about being an IEEE and/or Computer Society member and/or volunteer?

One of the great choices that I am so glad that I made was to become involved in IEEE and the IEEE Computer Society – it helped me define who I am both personally and technically. This is what I want to share with every individual working in technology. As I became involved, and saw how collaborative and how effective each person could be – how you could empower other volunteers and together collectively make positive changes to our profession – I was hooked!

As the world’s largest technical professional society, IEEE’s core purpose is to foster technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity. Our members are vibrant, diverse engineering and technological professionals who are committed to elevating their professional image, expanding their global network, connecting with peers locally, and giving back to their community.

IEEE brings together, not only engineers, but also technologists from the fields of computer sciences and information technology, physical science, biological and medical science, mathematics, technical communications, education, management and law and policy.

Within IEEE, I found like-minded people, engaged in work of a similar nature. I was pushed to examine different perspectives and approaches and challenged to keep current. I found  resources—both professional and personal—that helped me reach the goals I set. 

It was my experience as a volunteer that has encouraged me to devote my time and energy to IEEE, and I know that every volunteer I meet values being part of our technical professional community. The strength of IEEE is built from the bottom up. Those who attend society and local meetings, share their knowledge and experience, and help with the heavy lifting of coordinating and communicating IEEE activities, are the ones who make IEEE strong.


How did your professional journey begin?

Part of who we all are is a direct result of our environment and the actions we take. So, understanding that is important to understanding how I began, and I think it has implications to others who may be starting out. Not everyone has a nice neat ‘academic’ beginning.   

In 1984, I graduated from the University of Georgia (UGA). The year I graduated is the year UGA established a computer science department, keep in mind… that 1984 saw the peak of women in computer science nationally. All I remember is that I avoided the Computer Engineering building on campus where the lights were on all night and classroom success was based upon an accurately stacked set of key punch cards, not something I found attractive at the time. 

I don’t want to foot stomp how fast things were changing, but I do want to point out that two major things happened in the early ’80s that directly affected me.  These were the introductions of the IBM PC and the Macintosh. I found that I intuitively understood how these systems operated and was able to expand this knowledge to larger computer systems and found an opportunity to share my knowledge with others new to the field.

There is a saying ‘better to be lucky than good’, and when I landed my first job working for the UGA Genetics Department, while waiting for my husband to finish a Master’s Degree, this was the case. I found myself as the operator of an IBM mainframe system responsible for layout of complex genetic tables to support grant proposals. I learned a few things about the Drosophila Melanogaster (the common fruit fly) as well as the IBM mainframe system.  

The computer science landscape for women in the 1960’s and 1970’s was vastly different from that of 1980’s. During the 1980’s and 1990’s computer science lost some of its perceived ‘newness’ and employers were willing and able to hire anyone – women included. The field lost its exclusivity and barriers were removed. By the time I came into the field – the key punch was on its way out.  I never heard the term ‘keypunch girl’. Programming was no longer a group activity and had shifted to become the product of the individual programmer. 

Following marriage and moving to California to support my husband’s job, I was able to parlay my computer experience into an introductory job with the Pacific Missile Test Center as the first Computer Systems Specialist. Here, I was provided formal training on VAX and HP systems.  

It was during this time – the wild, wild, west of computing – that I found myself in the field. The biggest challenges were not gender-based, but rather trying to keep up with the changing technical landscape. It was a great and exciting time.


What’s the one piece of advice you would give to a young person just starting out in their career?

I have been responsible for delivering software and systems products for years. As the hiring manager for the teams that build and deliver these items, it is critical that the team members posses both the hard and soft skills necessary to deliver the desired capabilities. I found out pretty quicky, early in my career, that I could hire the most technically talented programmer – but if this person could not communicate – in the simplest terms with a customer – then they were lacking is a critical skill that was required for requirements development and design – essential to sucessful product development and delivery.

Additionally, recent data that I found is pretty striking.  It reflects that 72% of CEOs believe that soft skills are more important to the success of their business than hard skills. That 94% of recruiters believe that soft skills outweigh experience. And that 94% of recruiting professionals believe an employee with stronger soft skills has a better chance of being promoted to a leadership position than an employee with more years of experience, but with weaker soft skills.

So my advice to young people working in tech fields is develop in these critical five soft skills:  Communication, Teamwork, Critical & Analytical Thinking, Interpersonal Skills, and Work Ethic. They should highlight these skills on their resume, which will differentiate them from the field of candidates when applying for jobs, but also enable them to outperform early in their careers.


Read more interviews from computing thought leaders:
Jyotika Athavale | Dr. Juan Gilbert | Cecilia Metra