WiAC Interview: Amy Rich, Manager of Release Engineering Operations at Mozilla Corporation

In a new Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC) interview series, we focus on sysadmins. This week we hear from Amy Rich. I first met Rich when she was the Q&A columnist for Sys Admin magazine. Now she works at Mozilla, in addition to wearing a few other hats.

RE: Tell us about yourself and what you currently do.

AR: I've been a sysadmin for over 20 years at a variety of companies, owned my own consulting business, helped organize multiple sysadmin conferences, and written professionally on the topic of UNIX systems administration. I'm a member of USENIX and SAGE, and a founding member of LOPSA. In my head, I frame what I love about my job as "bringing order from chaos."

These days I work at Mozilla and play the part of both of sysadmin and manager of the Release Engineering Operations IT team. We provide the infrastructure that performs automated builds and unit and timing tests for Firefox, Firefox OS, and Thunderbird across all the platforms we support. We manage an extremely heterogeneous combination of ancient and bleeding-edge hardware and Oses, including nearly 2000 nodes running: Windows XP, W7, and W8; Fedora 12, Ubuntu 12, CentOS 5, CentOS 6, and RHEL 6; OS X 10.6, 10.7, and 10.8; Android 2.2 on ARMv7 (tegras), Android 4.0 on ARMv7 (pandas), and Firefox OS on ARMv7 (pandas). When a new OS hits the beta phase, we're already working to deploy it for product testing before it's released.

In my spare time I'm a sea kayaker, board/card game addict, Star Wars LEGO nerd, horrible guitar player, fan of sci-fi and fantasy books and movies, and enjoy taking pictures of the places I travel to.

RE: How did you get started as a sysadmin?

AR: I was studying to be a Aeronautical Engineer, but college was expensive so I obtained a work study job as a lab monitor in one of the PC CAD labs in the Engineering department. During my sophomore year, the professor who ran the lab asked me if I'd take a take over maintenance of the HP3000 in the Engineering graduate office.

It was a hard and fast tumble into system administration from there, and by the end of that school year I had purchased my own Sun 3/60, gave up being a rocket scientist and changed my major to CS, and got hired as a work study by the CS department (where I worked way more than my allotted 10 hours a week and had root access on all machines, including the professors'). When I graduated, I had two years of pretty solid sysadmin skills in a heterogeneous environment behind me and got a dream job working as a sysadmin for the X Consortium.

RE: What are the biggest changes you've seen for sysadmins and system administration since you started?

AR: The biggest change, of course, is that hardly any company can exist without some form of IT these days. Computers and the Internet, and the people who manage them, have become ubiquitous in the work place. The profession is looked on as being critical for the continued success of the business instead of folks playing around with an academic/government experiment in the building's basement.

End-user interfaces have gotten simpler, and back end systems have gotten much more complex. The field has become more specialized and compartmentalized as it has matured and grown, so these days you have the option of having either depth or breadth of knowledge, but not both across the spectrum. The simple, repetitive tasks have been automated, and there's a larger focus on stability and reliability.

RE: Which resources would you recommend to women admins?

AR: There are some women-specific resources out there, but my opinion is that a mix of men and women meshes the strengths of both and yields the best results. I would recommend the same resources to both genders:

  • Attend and present at local and national user group meetings and conferences that focus on a specific portion of technology or ones that focus on system administration as a whole. Getting out there and meeting people face to face can be invaluable the next time you're looking to get help on a problem, fill a job, or find a job.
  • Make good use of vendor and sysadmin online communities for researching technical issues. I still use google to find information on a weekly basis.
  • Read the blogs of some well-known people in the IT field who talk about their work.
  • If you're looking for access to well-written reference material, Safara Online is worth its weight in electronic gold. 

RE: If you could give one piece of career advice to women admins, what would it be?

AR: Do things that terrify you, and make mistakes. Seriously. 

One of the dirty secrets almost all adult humans hide is that we believe we're intellectual frauds and that other people will discover we're faking it. It's the little voice in our heads who threatens us with fear of exposure and ridicule that holds us back and prevents us from throwing ourselves at something with passionate abandon. No one is born an expert, though, and no one gets there without making a lot of mistakes along the way. The key is to learn something from each mistake and to make different ones next time.

As a corollary, be kind to other people when they screw up, and help them learn if you can. Not only will you earn yourself some loyal peers/workmates, but you'll eventually find yourself in a position where they return the favor. Fostering an environment of creativity, education, and exploration is just as important for adults as it is for young children. We're all still winging it and trying to figure things out as we go.

RE: What suggestions do you have for employers to help make their systems administration roles and company culture more inviting to women?

AR: These aren't exclusive to drawing women, but, in my experience, some of the big things that people look for are:

  • Competitive salaries, obviously, and the opportunity for professional growth
  • Flexible work schedules and the ability to work from home
  • The ability to detach from work and recharge (at night, on the weekends, on vacation... the requirements vary based on the person)
  • Good personal and family benefits
  • Knowing that one's opinion is valued by one's peers and superiors
  • Knowing that one works on something useful and important
  • The environment of creativity, education, and exploration I mention above

RE: What do you think Mozilla does right culture-wise? And what suggestions would you offer to Mozilla to help the company attract a more diverse pool of qualified job applicants?

AR: The IT department at Mozilla, specifically, hits pretty much all of the "what people want" points I've highlighted above, making it an excellent place to work. Ironically, the fact that many of us work remotely fosters a greater sense of friendship and camaraderie because we are always virtually together in a big room on irc. A few times of year we also get together in person for focused work weeks where we brainstorm, plan, present, and socialize.

Mozilla is a global company that, as a point of pride, has an enormously diverse collection of people, especially if you add in our contributors. Like most tech companies, we are still predominantly male, though. We've added a women's working group to support and encourage our female employees, but the distributed nature and some people's feelings of isolation make that hard to sustain.

One of the big selling points of working for Mozilla is our company mission. I therefore think that one of the things we could do to attract more women is to show what impact our company has on the issues that women care about. Why should women want to be a part of our company mission in general? How are we working to make their world, specifically, better.

RE: Anything you'd like to add?

AR: Feel to ping to me on g+ if you want to talk about IT (or even my hobbies). We at Mozilla are always looking for talented people to join us, and will soon be posting more jobs for FY2013 as well: http://careers.mozilla.org/en-US/

Also read:

WiAC Interview: Dawn Foster, Puppet Labs Community Lead

Please join us for the 2nd USENIX Women in Advanced Computing Summit (WiAC '13), June 27 in San Jose, California.

WiAC '13: Call for Participation

Proposal Deadline: March 13

In the 2nd USENIX Women in Advanced Computing Summit (WiAC '13), we will continue to bring the technical community together to discuss some of the challenges women face in the professional computing world. Beyond mere discussion, we hope to engage all attendees to share ideas, best practices, and knowledge to move us forward in our professional capacity as technical people.


Topics will depend upon the speakers and workshop faciltators we schedule for the day. We hope to cover such topics as improving your personal brand, dealing with negative people and stereotypes, and finding ways to support yourself or find support. We welcome your ideas to make this a productive day of discourse.

WiAC '13 is looking for relevant and engaging speakers and workshop faciltators for our event on June 27, 2013, in San Jose, CA. WiAC brings together women from various computing backgrounds, as well as those who are in support of technical women, in order to:

  • Identify issues facing women in computing today
  • Improve the role of women in computing
  • Engage both genders in safe and helpful dialogue on the issues
  • Provide tools and guidance to enable attendees to improve their value to industry

Some possible topics for speakers include:

  • "How I got here": Finding a path to success and lessons learned along the way
  • Getting noticed and receiving recognition for your work
  • Surviving the male-dominated culture of computing
  • Why computing needs more women and what to do about it
  • How to tell if your work environment is toxic and strategies to cope
  • Building your brand (e.g., your public persona in such places as LinkedIn, your résumé; how people perceive you at work)
  • Encouraging other women: those interested in a career in computing, as well as your peers and coworkers

Some possible workshop topics include:

  • How to tell if a company is supportive of women
  • How to write or adapt a solid technical résumé
  • Enabling a work/life balance when work seems to dominate
  • Negotiating: salary, benefits, flexible schedules, etc.
  • Coaching/mentoring: how to get started on either side of the table

At the first WiAC in 2012, we welcomed teens and college students interested in computing to join the graduate students and professionals at WiAC. Again we welcome young adults to the event and would like to have some break-out sessions that directly address issues they may be facing. Some possible topics for teens and college students include:

  • Résumé building
  • Getting started in computing
    • Online courses such as Stanford’s CS 101 and Coursera
    • Learning Web sites (e.g., how to program)
    • Build your own computer, network, Web site, and/or apps
    • Working with a teacher
  • An introduction to computing professions
  • Why go into computing at all? Is computing only for boys? Is it too geeky?

Logistics & Submission Instructions

This will be a one-day summit. Speakers should be prepared for interactive sessions with the audience. Workshop facilitators should be prepared to challenge the status quo and provide real-world examples and strategies to help attendees walk away with tools and ideas to improve their professional lives. Presentations should stimulate healthy discussion among the summit participants.

Submissions in the form of a brief proposal are welcome through March 30, 2012. Please submit your proposal via email to wiac13chairs@usenix.org; you can also reach the chairs via that email address with any questions or comments.

Presentation details will be communicated to the presenters of accepted talks and workshops on March 29, 2013.