Get to Know Jill Gostin
“I didn’t know much about it, but I knew it involved computers.” That’s what stuck out in my mind when I asked her how she had first become interested in computers, and she told the story of seeing computer punch cards for the first time.
Today, Jill is a Principal Research Scientist and the Deputy Director of the Information and Communications Laboratory at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) and is currently on the Society’s Board of Governors and the Membership and Geographic Activities Board as the Vice Chair for Geographic Activities. In 2016, Jill won the Georgia Women in Technology (WIT) Woman of the Year award for the medium business category (251 to 2,500) employees.
But we are skipping to the end of the story, so let’s go back to the beginning….
The Logic’s the Thing
Jill’s first interaction with computers was in Kindergarten. Her older sister Carole had returned home from college and brought used punch cards from her computer class. Carole gave them to Jill to play with and color on. Jill explained that she knew little about them, their purpose, or the way they worked; she just knew they involved computers.
Jill would go on an attend Greenville College, in Greenville, Illinois, where she majored in math. She loved the focus and logic applied in her classes, and first had the sense this was the path she wanted for her career. Greenville was where she took her first computer science class. She quickly learned how the logic from her math classes directly related to the logic necessary to be successful in her computer science class. She quickly added CS as a minor to her course work. When asked about the challenges of being a woman in math and computer science classes in the early 1980s, she said, “It would be typical to be one of a few females in the lower level classes, but more often than not, when I reached my junior and senior level classes, I was the only female in the class.” She said group projects tended to be the most “challenging” depending on who was in the class, and at times it was more difficult to provide “valuable contributions” in certain groups.
The Need for Application
“Math majors tend to be professors. I wanted nothing to do with teaching as it wasn’t my calling. I only wanted to do applied mathematics and applied computer science,” Jill recounts her plans after graduation. She says she applied everywhere, got called in for an interview at GTRI, and the rest is history—having been there since 1985 when she started out as a research scientist.
She started out on radar projects. Even though her knowledge on radar was limited, she picked it up day-by-day on the job and through professional education classes GTRI had provided—she has taught some of these very classes herself—while relying on her math and CS background to develop algorithms, write software, and design test methodologies.
Jill started working part-time with GTRI while her children were young, and during this time, she saw the value of volunteering and giving back to the local Atlanta Computer Science, STEM community and the industry as a whole. Also during this time, she revived the IEEE Computer Society Atlanta Chapter, which had over 700 members, but was essentially an inactive chapter. After spending 14 months looking for someone to chair the chapter, she decided to do it herself. Jill wanted to start the revival of the Chapter off with a bang, and couldn’t think of anyone better to do it than Kathy Land. “I had already known Kathy, through my work with the Missile Defense Agency. Then I found out she was involved at the Society level, so I invited her to come speak at our first meeting.” The meeting was a success and her vision saw the Chapter take off to new heights.
She points out and would suggest to any new chapter (or any chapter looking to become active again) “to hold a variety of events to get a sense of what interests your specific members. Don’t just assume everyone wants the same thing. Try to attract a broad base to get an idea of what people are interested in. You’ll find that the people attending different events are not the same people. It’s okay if not every member shows up to every event. After you have appealed to a broad group, you will find a core group forming.”
When Jill chaired the Atlanta Chapter, the chapter was fairly young with new professionals. Her simple survey from the first meeting with Kathy revealed they didn’t want in-depth technical lectures, especially after having spent a full day at work. They wanted tours of facilities and demos, so she organized trips to the Atlanta Department of Transportation and a Georgia Power Facility to learn about their computing needs.
Mentor Even When You Think No One is Watching
Last year, Jill won the Georgia Women in Technology (WIT) Woman of the Year award for the medium business category (251 to 2500 employees). On the award Jill said, “It was a huge honor to win the WIT award. There were close to 1000 people in attendance, and the Atlanta Business Chronicle carried stories about each winner. Since winning, we (large, medium, small business winners) have done a radio interview and have participated in several women in engineering panel discussions.”
In recapping her acceptance speech Jill emphasized the importance of mentorship. She said, “I thanked my mentors and encouraged others to find mentors and to be mentors… and to realize that they may be mentoring others without really knowing it (you never know who is watching/learning!). I also talked about the fact that even the most successful of us have our self-doubts, and other obstacles—but that we should all view those obstacles as challenges and opportunities to show our ability to adapt and overcome rather than viewing them as roadblocks and dead ends.”
Changing the Face of Computer Science
Another key moment for Jill, involving her future path and the future of the industry, was when she returned to work full time and attended a conference that she hadn’t been to in nearly 12 years. She had participated in the conference during her early years at GTRI and continued to do so until she began working part time. The conference had about 500 attendees each year—roughly 20 of whom were women. When she returned for the first time, expecting to see new faces, she was disappointed. It was the same 500 people and the same 20 or so women. At this moment, she wanted to help involve more women and young people in the industry and mentor them along the way.
She looked for volunteer opportunities at GTRI and in the local community, but found what she was looking for at IEEE and the IEEE Computer Society. She started small, volunteering for awards or management committees, working her way to more prominent roles. Jill built up on these experiences to improve the awards program at GTRI. She has since worked her way up the ladder, starting her second consecutive term on as a Board of Governor for the IEEE Computer Society. All of her past work with the local Atlanta Chapter makes her an invaluable person on the Membership and Geographic Activities Board as the Vice Chair for Geographic Activities. She is also the IEEE Sensors Council Vice President, Finance.
She will admit that her having spent her entire career at GTRI has limited her view, but she still sees that there is little increase in the number of women in the profession and that “women in technology still face the same issues today as when she was starting out in the field.” Recently, she was asked to judge InVenture Prize, and was “blown away” by the projects—such as a cauterizing “pen” with a special safety tip, and a camping/remote access water purification system. Jill walks away from such competitions excited for what the future may bring, but fears there is a disconnect, especially among young woman. They create these wonderful humanitarian type solutions, but when they go to select a profession, they travel a more traditional route like a doctor. Now, there is nothing wrong with being a doctor, but she believes that at this point the path to real humanitarian change “is through technology.”
As I wrapped up my interview, I asked her a fairly loaded and open ended question that took her a bit by surprise: her hopes for the industry in the future. She said, “she wants to see as many women in the field as men, and children learning basic coding and programming as early as the 1st or 2nd grade.” She recalled how excited her kids were at that age—running home to show her the “cool animations they had learned how to do that day on PowerPoint. Children at that age are developing their logic skills. They have it and are formulating thoughts, so why not have them use logic to build something on a computer.”