ESPN employees seek to get women involved in technology

By Eleanor Harte

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(Amanda Creegan/Daily Collegian)

(Amanda Creegan/Daily Collegian)

What’s the key to getting women involved in the technology industry? Showing students that women are building careers there, and that they’re not alone.

At least according to Maura Maloney – ESPN’s principal technology business operations analyst and a University of Massachusetts alumna.

Maloney spoke at UMass Thursday with four female colleagues, all of whom work with her in the technology division at ESPN. About 50 people were in attendance at the event, which was part of a series of TechTalks organized by the University to explore a wide range of technology topics.

The women spoke of the diverse paths that led them to ESPN; two of them didn’t have a major related to the field in which they now work.

“Two years ago when I graduated, if you’d asked me if I would now be working in technology I’d have said no way,” said Jessica Dang, who works as a portfolio coordinator but studied psychology in college.

The women talked about their roles at ESPN and the massive amount of work that goes into running a 24/7 network, much of which happens without the viewers even knowing.

“We might have 19 feeds coming in at one time, but you might just see one composite feed,” said Maureen Barend, who is the associate director of transmissions, running the distribution of the networks. “Others are going to digital platforms, allowing you to follow your favorite player or see other things that aren’t shown on television.”

Barend explained the complexity of taking in the different feeds that ESPN receives around the world and showing it to different markets. Viewers in Boston might be watching a New England team while the rest of the country is watching a different game that’s on at the same time. The challenge comes when there are contingencies – when a game runs long, for example, or if there’s breaking news to show. That’s when people need to think on their toes to solve problems.

ESPN supports close to 90,000 of these feeds per year from their headquarters in Bristol, Connecticut. The company culture there is very social, according to Farhanah Sheets, a software engineer.

“Being a woman in tech will only be a disadvantage if you let it,” she said.

“You often find yourself as the only woman in the room, but together we can help each other,” said Diane Larivee, who manages the data center.

At ESPN, employees are encouraged to learn from other departments to broaden their skillset, which they call cross training. It’s a common practice for an employee to approach an colleague from another department in the cafeteria and strike up a conversation with them. The women described it as an open environment.

“Because it’s a live television company, there is a high sense of urgency,” Barend said. “We don’t stop, ever. Holidays, weekends, it’s constant.”

Sheets studied computer science in college. She was often the only woman in her classes, which prepared her for being in the minority at ESPN too.

“My favorite thing was the classes where I was the only girl and I’d wait and see which guy would sit next to me – or which would be forced to,” she said.

She now works on back web applications and content management systems. Her team runs the push notifications that come to cell phones from ESPN apps, a process that she described as much more complicated than it looks.

The idea for the panel came out of an employee resource group that exists at ESPN called Women in Technology Careers, which is made up of all the female employees who work in technology at the network. According to Maloney, the aims of the group are to support each other, network, develop skills and recruit and retain women in the technology industry.

Maloney reached out to her sister, who works in the University’s Information Technology department. She wanted to hold a recruiting effort for women in tech to show them what job opportunities are available and to help the women realize that there are women building successful careers in tech jobs.

Allison Jameson, Information Technology communications coordinator, had a big role in making the event happen, in order to bring together the entire campus community.

“We wanted to highlight tech in different ways and this fit that very well,” she said.

Dang had some final words of advice for job seekers.

“Be open to new opportunities; the worst thing that happens is that someone says no,” she said.

Eleanor Harte can be reached at [email protected]