WiAC Interview: Mary Arras, Sr. System Engineer at The Nature Conservancy

In a new Women in Advanced Computing (WiAC) interview series, we focus on sysadmins. This week we hear from Mary Arras, Sr. System Engineer at The Nature Conservancy.

RE: Briefly tell us about yourself and what you currently do.

MA: Most of the work I am doing these days is with Microsoft products, though my heart definitely belongs to Linux/UNIX. The organization I work for is working through a Major Systems Initiative to upgrade pretty much everything over a period of time. Some of those systems are transitioning to Windows-based platforms from UNIX or Linux, so a lot of my team's work these days is helping folks get used to working in the new environment, as well as designing how those new systems will be deployed and managing the various environments through production. I am the lead infrastructure administrator for Microsoft products, so another part of my time is spent wrangling Active Directory/Citrix/Exchange and other Microsoft/Windows-based applications. Finally, I do participate in security reviews, both certification and accreditation, for new systems and services.

RE: How did you get started as a sysadmin?

MA: I started in tech support but had done some training on Novell products. I was interested in becoming a webmaster of the old school — everything from graphics down to provisioning the telecom connection — so I was learning about everything I could computer-oriented. When I started working for The Nature Conservancy, I was actually a volunteer first, between contract jobs, then a contractor for them, then a junior network administrator on staff.

There was a UNIX administrator, a WinFrame administrator, a Banyan administrator, and a Cisco networking engineer when I started on the Network Services team. I got thrown all the Windows/Microsoft stuff, then the Linux stuff when that started showing up. At one point I was trying to decide if I wanted to focus more on the development side of technology, or on operations, and I decided operations was more appealing because it was more of a generalist's field. So I started learning more about operating systems and networking and computer security. At one point we did not have any security staff so I got do some work on that side of things: IDS, policies, incident response, etc. As we've gotten larger as a department, my job started specializing and when more Microsoft products started showing up I had the most experience, so I stuck with that as my primary responsibility on our team. About eight years ago we got a really fantastic UNIX administrator on staff who has very deep security knowledge, so I've been taking that knowledge into my engineering work now that I work on a lot of new systems deployments.

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

MA: For me personally the biggest change has been seeing everything get so specialized. Part of that is because my organization was "growing up" in terms of its technology capabilities while I have been here. But part of it is also because there are more sophisticated products more widely available. So you can focus on being, for example, just a VMware administrator or just a SAN administrator or just a firewall administrator and make a career of that, which was not as much the case when I was starting out.

From a technology standpoint, the biggest change has been the move back to shared processing (e.g., virtualization) for operating systems. This has made a huge difference in our ability to get things done in a timely and efficient manner vs. needing to deal with dedicated hardware. Being a nonprofit, we have resources, but we try to be very efficient about how we use them, so we were constantly trying to get our hardware supply line in sync with organizational needs. Being able to be more general about how we approach that kind of resource allocation has made a big difference.

RE: Which resources would you recommend to women admins?

MA: I would recommend no matter what you are going to administrate, go read the "greats" on system/network administration: Nemeth; Frisch; I found Radia Perlman's book Interconnections: Bridges, Routers, Switches, and Internetworking Protocols just phenomenal. And writing this list is the first time I ever noticed those are all women — how cool is that?

Even though you can google an answer or you may not be doing UNIX administration specifically, there is so much knowledge about how operations should be and can be done embedded both in our UNIX/Linux systems operate and in the manuals and guides those who have gone before us have written, it will make a huge difference in your knowledge and effectiveness to have this information on hand. Subtle things, like how you should organize a file system, as well as not so subtle things, as understanding how data flows done improperly can expose your data to people who should not be able to access it at all or why switches work the way they do. These folks have been doing operations literally as long as I've been alive. They know their stuff.

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

MA: Aim high from the start. I failed to take advantage of some opportunities early in my career because I thought I was not qualified for some positions that came my way, only to later find out that I was more qualified than the people who eventually were hired into some of those positions. I got lucky and ended up with a great team and wouldn't change that aspect for anything. But I do wonder sometimes what would have happened if I had followed a different path earlier. If someone mentions you might be able to do something and if you are interested and think you are even a little bit qualified for that position, jump on it. Dive in as deep and as fast as you can. Most likely you can do it as well or even better than anyone else. Worst case, you will learn a lot and be able to apply that wherever you end up. You may even find out you hate whatever it is, but you'll know for sure, which is better than wondering later on.

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

MA: The biggest thing I noticed where I am now versus where I have worked before here is no sexism. Having a zero tolerance policy for that kind of thing makes it a lot easier. Having women in senior management — not just in IT, but in the organization as a whole — sends a really strong message about who is welcome in an organization and who is not. In addition, don't ignore the ways race also matters. It is okay to make a workplace a good place for white women, but it is better (IMO) to make it a better place for all women. For me personally, I also appreciated that TNC has had domestic partner benefits since I started there. My partner is employed and so it is not something we've really needed to take advantage of, but knowing it is there is a selling point between two places if they are otherwise similar.

RE: How has mentoring (being a mentor or mentee) influenced your career?

MA: I have been an informal mentor a handful of folks over the years. I enjoy helping folks, of course, but the best benefit for me has been mentoring helps me keep in touch with the coolness of what I do, and up to date on what is out there. One thing I have learned is that while I enjoy that kind of informal role, the more formal aspect of being a manager is not really my preference. I like building things myself too much.

To participate in this interview series, please email me at: rikki AT usenix DOT org

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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.