Be like Ada

Today is international Ada Lovelace Day. Don’t know who Ada Lovelace was? Well, that’s part of the problem.

See, a while back I pledged to post on this day about a woman in technology who I admire. The pledge is part of a campaign to raise the profile of women’s contributions to the field. More importantly to me is the collective effort to define role models for young women considering a career in high tech — and who are likely daunted by the overwhelming gender discrepancy therein. It’s astonishing, really, considering how limitless the field is and how generally egalitarian the overall vibe is of the tech scene. But you don’t need charts and surveys to know that things are out of whack. Just get yourself to a tech conference. It’s a sausage fest.

I’ve had the luck of working with dozens of talented women in my decade-plus of employment at IBM and my generally geeky wanderings have given me the privilege of meeting many more.

But today I want to tell you about Jennifer Martin. Jen’s a Creative Director in the Chicago Center for Solution Innovation in IBM. I’ve worked with her for most of the last eight years. Her title belies her unique skills in information architecture and user interaction design. Jen is an expert in bridging the gap between end-user requirements, usability, and design that can be easily translated into a coded thing.

If you’ve ever wondered where the magic happens between an idea and a piece of code, it is with the information architecture — and Jen is a magician of the highest order. Except that it isn’t sorcery. Far from it: IA, as it is called, is wickedly difficult to do well because the devil is most certainly in the details. That page with boxes and arrows on it might look like it represents how you think your app will work, but hand it to a developer who needs to code for every eventuality or hand it to a graphic designer who needs to know what functions really do and nine times out of ten it will be back to the drawing board.

Not with Jen. She’s fluent in the language of both user needs and developer requirements — a false distinction I’m perpetuating even by writing it that way. Design is design and when you get it right it is mostly incontrovertible. Jen gets it right. (And she’s got her priorities in line too.)

Don’t believe me? Have a look at a few of the projects I’ve worked on with her. Eternal Egypt, a challenge to design a seamless experience across a website, PDA’s, mobile phones, and a standalone kiosk. Or, The Forbidden City: Beyond Space and Time, truly the bleeding edge of information design as Jen took to designing an experience in a custom, multi-user virtual world for the Palace Museum in Beijing. I’ll stop there not for lack of other examples or to mitigate Jen’s embarrassment at this post, but because in a way this isn’t the point at all.

Jen Martin is just an example herself. She doesn’t design circuits (though there are plenty of women who do). She’s not a stereotypical geek or the female caricature portrayed in so man male-designed games. She’s just someone who had talent, chose a very high-technology field underserved by that talent, and made a name for herself. We need more like her. Many, many more.

So girls — or ladies, if you’re considering a career change (and who isn’t during this economic apocalypse?) — know that you’ll be in good company if technology interests you. And remember that the popular image of the pocket-protecter wearing man in ill-fitting clothes is just an image. Like any stereotype, it can be erased. You have the undo.