Software Engineering Department Manager Kathy Applebaum knows a thing or two about development, whether that means building in Ignition or helping her students at Sacramento State University gain the skills they’ll need to succeed. Since joining Inductive Automation back when there were only a half-dozen developers, she has casually broken barriers and refuted misconceptions about women in technology. Most of all, Kathy has remained grounded, still wide-eyed about her ability to take an idea and make it a reality, plus have fun doing it.
We recently caught up with Kathy to discuss her education, how software engineering informs her teaching and vice versa, progress in the technology space, “pine tree therapy,” and some advice for young women who are interested in tech careers. Read on to learn more:
First, can you tell us about your background in software development? How did you get started in the industry?
I’ve always loved math and logic, and when I got my first computer in high school (an early Apple) I spent more time writing programs for it than playing any of the games. The fact that you could have an idea and then make it a reality was so amazing!
When I got to college, though, they didn’t use personal computers. Instead all the programs were typed onto 80-column punch cards and you didn’t find out until the next morning that you made a mistake. That didn’t appeal to me, so I decided to major in math and statistics instead, and went to work for an actuarial firm.
Fast-forward a few decades and I realized that programming was much more fun now that fast, powerful desktop computers were the standard, and I decided to go back to school to get a Master’s in Computer Science. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else.
You started at IA as a Junior Software Developer and have progressed through to a Software Engineering Department Manager. What was your experience like when you started at IA?
I feel like I joined IA at a perfect time in my career. We had half a dozen developers when I started, which meant I got to work on just about every area of the product and discover what areas I really enjoyed. And Carl and Colby have been great at giving me opportunities and challenges to help me grow professionally.
Your resume is very impressive; in fact, you’re a lecturer at Sacramento State University while working your current role. How does your teaching inform your work in Software Engineering?
I love teaching because I get to help students with their careers and give them a roadmap of where they want to go, which is similar to managing a team.
I also appreciate the opportunities for mentorship, both at Sac State and IA. A lot of the upper division classes are project-based, so my students get experience doing real-world work, and when you get to IA, you get to deal with real-world problems.
What about vice versa? How does your software engineering work inform your teaching?
One thing I constantly keep in mind while teaching is, “What would I expect from a recent college graduate during their first month working for me?” I try to emphasize those skills, even if they aren’t part of the actual curriculum, because I want to give every one of my students the best chance at success that I can.
What can students today do to succeed in software engineering?
Develop a sense of curiosity! Interesting jobs in any part of tech (not just software engineering) involve working on things where you can’t just cut and paste a solution. My students who have been the most successful are the ones who ask themselves a lot of “what if” questions and then use what they’ve already learned to help find out the answer.
As a female engineer, you’ve seen a lot of progress in the technology space. What has it been like to experience that progress firsthand?
In the early 1990s I did think about going back to software but the sexism I encountered then made it really not enjoyable. We still have quite a ways to go in this industry — only about 30% of my students are women — but we’ve made so much progress in the last 30 years that it’s a completely different experience now. I can’t wait to see what the next 30 years will bring.
Do you have advice for young women who are interested in making a career in engineering or technology?
Remember that people who sound the most confident are often blowing smoke. There’s a percentage of male students who love to brag about code they’ve written or their hardware knowledge, but when you dig deeper there’s no substance behind the bragging. But too many of my female students listen to that bragging and let it undermine their own confidence.
And ignore anyone who says engineering is not for women. It definitely is for women!
What successes are you most proud of as an engineer?
One of the things I’m most proud of at IA has been my work on the translation system and localization. Helping make Ignition even more useful on the plant floor for every worker is such a great feeling.
What are your favorite parts of working at IA?
Definitely the people, both my co-workers and our customers.
I love the culture of respect we have for each other here. We’re all knowledgeable professionals and we’re working for the same goal — to make and help people use an amazing piece of software.
And our customers are equally amazing. Every single time I see a project they’re working on, I’m blown away by how creative they are and how different every single project is.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I’m out hiking or biking almost every weekend with my husband and my best friend somewhere in Northern California. I call it my “pine tree therapy” — being out in nature with good company is the best.
I’m also a contemporary quilter and I do both art quilts and modern takes on traditional patterns. One thing a lot of my co-workers may not know is I was a professional quilter for almost 10 years and I’ve had pieces in international quilt shows.
Favorite employee perk?
Poppy Pass (which is a day pass for California state parks). A lot of companies say they think work–life balance is important, but IA really walks the walk and the Poppy Pass is just one example of that. I’ve been using the Poppy Pass almost every weekend to get out into nature, clear my head, and see our wonderful California state parks.
Interested in joining our team?