In our Women in Web interview series, Meta Q meets up with women around the world to find out more about their path, their passion and how they think the web industry could improve. We’ll be sharing insight from the bright minds of female designers, developers, architects, strategists and business owners.
Our latest interview is with award-winning web producer Elizabeth “Betsy” Kimak. Kimak specializes in creating compelling web experiences for executive-level public engagement initiatives such as web properties for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the 2008 Denver Convention Host Committee, and the City and County of Denver. Betsy was named a 2012 Webby Honoree and a 2010 Pixel Awards People's Champ Winner for Sandrific.com, an interactive Google Maps photography mashup. She has been a Webby Awards judge since 2009, and is currently serving as the first-ever Digital Chair of the Art Director’s Club of Denver.
MQ: Tell us about your work in 140 characters or less.
BK: I conceptualize, build and execute innovative digital experiences.
MQ: How/why did you get into the web industry? Why do you stick with it?
BK: I fell into the industry by accident. Even though I grew up around computers (still have my C64), I never saw technology as a profession. I studied psychology, not computer science or art. I intended to go to medical school. Then I saw the web and was smitten. I examined the source code of every website I visited, which were mostly those of net artists. That left a huge impression on me: I've always viewed the web as a medium for expression…art, storytelling, and sharing information. The web has been an ever-present aspect of my career, in one form or another, for the past 15 years.
MQ: What was your first web-related job? What was that like?
BK: My first real web job was managing the Help Desk for the University of Denver in the late 90s - as its first employee! We did everything from changing passwords to installing hardware, but most of our time was spent getting people connected to the school's dial-up modem pool and showing them how to use the web once they got online. Technology was changing fast and many organizations were publishing their first websites. Everyone was issued a UNIX account - I taught professors how to chmod directories and introduced them to Google. It was wild fun.
MQ: What does a typical workday look like for you?
BK: There really isn’t one, and I love that. One day I’m sketching design concepts with a client, the next I’m writing PHP functions. Right now, I’m launching a new facet of my business with a product platform, so I’m doing a lot of a lot of back end development.
“The web amazes me every day, but I’m not happy if I’m not pushing its edges somewhere.”
MQ: How do you stay passionate about your work? What do you do to refocus when you're having a bad day?
BK: The web amazes me every day, but I’m not happy if I’m not pushing its edges somewhere. Personal projects and side collaborations are my outlet: they keep me engaged and excited, and I always come away learning something new.
When I'm stuck on a problem the only thing that ever resolves it is to walk away. Read something. Take a shower. Sleep on it. I've solved a lot of problems that way, and sometimes even write code in my sleep. On really bad days, I try to spend time with someone outside of the industry. That always puts my geek stress back into perspective.
MQ: Do you think women face different challenges than men in the web industry? How so?
BK: Perhaps the greatest challenge we face is countering the perception that women aren’t technical, and that stems from a lack of accessible role models. I've been lucky, on nearly every team I have worked with women: support technicians, programmers, database administrators, graphic designers, technical managers. And they were all smarter and more talented than me.
But recent studies on women in technology indicate that many are leaving the industry right when they hit their mid-career stride, often to change professions. That leaves a void for the rest of us. We need to find better ways to retain these women: appointing them to key projects, providing greater visibility in executive positions, and offering more choices that make it possible for women to envision career paths.
If I could change one thing about the web industry it would be:
BK: How unhealthy it is, generally. Designers and developers work long hours hunching over computers, which puts us at risk for all sorts of physical ailments. To combat it over the long haul you have to adopt an active lifestyle - take frequent breaks and exercise regularly. There’s also tremendous pressure to stay current with our skills, and that’s very stressful. While we all thrive on creative challenges, sometimes we don't realize how exhausting it can be. Try to incorporate mind/body activities like yoga and meditation into your daily regime, and make sleep a priority. Stop the all-night hackathons.
My favorite website/web project I worked on is:
BK: They’ve all been favorites. When I left government to freelance I gave myself permission to choose things I really want to work on, and many of my projects have been pro bono work. I spent a lot of time on enterprise-level teams where projects often took years to complete. So I wanted to find ways to use my skills most effectively, in ways that have tangible impact on people and communities.
My favorite website/web project someone else did is:
“Don’t be afraid to break things; if you don’t, you’ll never know how to fix them. I try to break something every day.”
If I had one piece of advice for a woman trying to break into the web industry it would be:
BK: Don’t be afraid to break things; if you don’t, you'll never know how to fix them. Technology can be intimidating and it will help you gain confidence. I’m self-taught - it’s the only way I ever learned anything. I try to break something every day.