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Mostly women-only evening helps jobseekers with their resumes, interview skills and tech's bro culture

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - (L-R) Computational linguist Kendra Chalkley, recruiter Justin McFarlane and Jackie Wirz, assistant dean, Graduate Studies Student Affairs at Oregon Health & Science University, hanging out at PDX WIT which was held at Vacasa.

PDX Women in Tech — or PDX WIT — is not just for women.

The event is for "those who identify as women, non-binary and underrepresented in tech." The volunteer organization, which helps the underrepresented get into and stay in the tech industry, held an event called Get Hired Up! on Jan. 8, and there were more than a handful of men there. Many of them were volunteers, reading resumes and conducting mock interviews with the mostly twenty-something, mostly female attendees.

Jackie Wirz, assistant dean, Graduate Studies Student Affairs at Oregon Health & Science University, helps new graduates find work. She spoke with passion about the value of mostly female networking events.

"So many of us that have come up through the technical fields have spent our entire life walking into classrooms where we are the only female in that classroom," Wirz told the Business Tribune. That feeling is relentless. "Day after day, whether it's the classroom or the first work situations, it is really difficult sometimes, advocating for yourself as a woman in technology."

It is changing.

"But it's not changing fast enough. So being able to find the space where you can walk into a room and feel at home and feel recognized for the path that we have all taken, that's invaluable."

One of her students, Kendra Chalkley, just received a master's degree in computer science, specializing in machine learning. She is a computational linguist looking for her first tech job. She had tried to volunteer with Code for PDX, which is part of Code for America, and it didn't work out.

"I suspect that if any of the women who run this organization had been involved, I would have had a much better time connecting and getting the help that I needed to get started and then go volunteer for this very cool organization."

Chalkley had just met the evening's keynote speaker, Nicolle Merrill, a chatbot (software that simulates a conversation) specialist, and Chalkley told her only that morning she had made her first chatbot.

"It's actually really easy. You can import a chatbot utility from the natural language processing tool kit. And then you just like give it a set of inputs and what to say to the output. So, you say any sentence that includes the word 'actor' and I'm going to respond to with Brad Pitt, and that is the basics of the chatbot. Then you build it up to be more complicated."

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Author Nicolle Merrill, who spoke about how to get a remote job. Ask your boss and stalk firms on social were two tips.

Hiring algorithms

The entertainment for the night was Nicolle Merrill, author of "Punch Doubt in the Face: How to upskill, change careers, and beat the robots." Merrill explained how in studying the future of work, she discovered recruiter chatbots, which reach out to potential job seekers and engage them in written conversation. This led to a job for Merrill designing conversations for chatbots. Her message for the evening was how to get a job where you work remotely. No more commutes, no more water cooler, no more pants. She went to her boss and asked if she could do her job from Portland instead of San Francisco, and they said yes.

Merrill said remote jobs are not especially suited to any one gender.

"Remote work frees up time for caregivers, and a lot of times, they are women."

The flexibility of the work is the attraction. People have to learn to break their work into things they can do alone, at any hour and things they need to do in concert with others, either in chat rooms like Slack or Teams, or on video links.

"In order to be a good remote worker, you have to have good time management. And you have to understand the communication dynamic — you can't just turn to your coworker like in the office. You have to learn to troubleshoot if your boss is not there."

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Hazel Valdez of PDX Women in tech explains the rules for Get Hired Up! An evening of resume advice and mock interviews for women (and other genders) wanting to enter the Portland tech field.

Merrill stressed that as so many traditional jobs get digitized, such as administrative assistant, human resources, security, people are going to have to deal with chatbots, AI and robots. In the end, remote jobs are competitive now, so it takes work to get work.

Following people and companies on social media and posting interesting comments is one way to cut through the noise and get noticed from afar.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Jeff Smith, former union concrete carpenter, soon to be a full stack software developer.

Not all women

One of the men, Jeff Smith, was there with his wife. They are both now completing coding school at PDX Code Guild, inspired by a female friend who was also at the event.

Smith was most recently a union carpenter in construction, but he damaged his shoulder, and his doctor advised him to leave the trade.

"I am looking for some pre-interview information and a little bit of help with my résumé as a full-stack software developer," he said.

Smith recently learned coding from scratch, although he did have a spell doing web design in the 1990s, and then with a startup that was bought by Sun Microsystems in the 2000s. After getting pink-slipped with 8,400 other people, he went into real estate, and then was a personal assistant. "I was a house husband for a number of years, and that was the best job I ever had," he said.

Returning to software was a leap.

"I got back into it because I needed to do something. And this is a lot easier on the body than swinging a hammer," he said.

Smith lives in Fairview and will look for a job in the Portland area, but knows he can work anywhere with a good internet connection.

"I could be in Cabo San Lucas," he said with a smile, as the rain lashed the dark windows along Northwest 13th Avenue.

He says he got out of software in 2003 just as services like streaming came along. Now he wants to work helping people with limited access to use computers.

"Say, give someone in a wheelchair a non-VR way to go paddleboarding or kayaking. The technology already exists." He won't work for the government or a defense contractor. "No insurance, no banks. I find them all to be inherently evil."


Maggy Hong, a recent graduate in graphic design from Portland State University, was there looking for interview and portfolio help.

"Everyone's looking for digital stuff nowadays," Hong said. So, it's better to gear my work towards the tech industry — mobile apps, websites, and just anything digital."

Like most people, she stood with a card with a number on it, waiting to be called for a mock interview. Hong has had a few interviews in four months of job hunting and found PSU helpful.

"They actually bring in a lot of creatives and art directors to come speak with us. And they also have a thing called show and tell where they have professionals come talk about their experience in the industry as well."

Training day

One male chatting with Jackie Wirz of OHSU was recruiter Justin McFarlane. He works for 24 Seven Job Recruitment, which specializes in marketing. He regularly comes to help people with their résumés, and his team usually leaves with at least one person getting a job soon after.

It's a woman-only event, but that doesn't make much difference for him.

"Nowadays, the woman's workforce is growing and growing, and I think a lot of companies want to hire women. When it comes to women, I think there's a misunderstanding around culture. I think they value culture a lot. The environment they work in, and the values of the company or what they're getting out of a company, matters a lot more to them than just, say, the paycheck."

He says men tend to focus more on titles and paychecks. He also advises women on how to deal with being interviewed by a man who is "stone cold and showing no emotion." They need to rehearse and "get comfortable being themselves, being confident, and knowing what they've done. Because sometimes if there is someone to stonewall, they can be pretty effective on your confidence," said McFarlane.

Chalkley, the computational linguist, added, "There's a lot of stereotypes about men in tech, and they have a basis in reality. I think we can be so much more comfortable to be in a room full of women who know exactly the ways that women have been taken advantage of or not paid attention to in technical spaces before. It makes moving through a very difficult job-getting process a little bit easier."

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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