CATALYSTS INTERVIEW: Sarah Mascher Wallace

Sarah Mascher Wallace (she/her/hers, they/them/theirs) was a former business intelligence developer at The University of Iowa and served as a co-chair for the OneIT Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI) Committee. Her non-traditional technical background and career path framed her nuanced definition of an IT professional and enabled her to expand the workforce pipeline to include more individuals with diverse experiences and cultivate a sense of belonging among her colleagues. With future aspirations as a leader, she embraces recognition garnered as a DEI champion to inspire change in her organization.

Can you give us an overview of your career and how it’s evolved specifically at the University of Iowa?

I consider myself an accidental IT professional. While I was a student at The University of Iowa studying mathematics, I worked at the help desk for a time, but I wasn’t considering IT to be part of my future career. However, in that position, there were opportunities to get exposure to other specific IT roles. So I got recommended for a few short-term application development projects, and after I graduated, I had all this IT experience. And that’s what prompted me to become a full-time help desk staff member.

Eventually, I got brought into one of the application development teams on campus. I worked there for several years, and I had a special interest in report development. That interest led me to explore joining our business intelligence group, and that’s where I’m working today.

You presented on diversity, belonging, and allyship last year. Can you tell us why you feel these three principles are essential for a data professional to embody?

The important part that we want to convey for data professionals is that bias is not just a social construct. Biases can unintentionally impact the way that we interact with data. For example, when you take a survey, a demographic question may include your gender. But sometimes, those options listed are your biological sex. And there’s a better understanding that gender and sex are discrete attributes.

Another example was when data was stored, gender was stored as binary values for better data compression, as in zero for female, one for male. Not only does that omit the option for intersex but visually, I think it’s probably a little distressful to store a value for a female as the equivalency of nothing. I know that’s not how binary works, but you can understand why that would be a disturbing realization.

Our societal understanding of the dimensions of gender has changed. But those societal understandings still feed into our bias. Now, our understanding is evolving, and we’re taking steps to make more accurate and representative data. 

Some identities are historically marginalized, and that's not through any malicious action usually, but through a lack of awareness and representation.

The rest of the presentation was applicable to any professional, though. On diversity, we all stand to understand more about the differences present among our colleagues. We each bring a rich tapestry of ideas, expressions, experiences, and perspectives, and those each uniquely characterize us. Some identities are historically marginalized, and that’s not through any malicious action usually, but through a lack of awareness and representation. 

The belonging component addresses equity and inclusion in the forms they present themselves, such as bias. In an ideal world, equality would be possible, but we live in an imperfect world.

Lastly, there are different ways where we can create a more inclusive environment for our colleagues by taking deliberate and intentional action. We need to continue to be present for our peers who didn’t just start experiencing hardships last year. It has been a lifelong struggle.

As the committee Co-Chair of DEI at UI OneIT, what initiatives is your committee currently advocating for or planning for that you’re excited about?

As a committee, we’ve been focusing on communicating the importance of DEI and celebrating work done outside of the committee. We also verify that our action plan aligns with any changes to the campus-wide action plan. We’re also establishing a roadmap for completing the components related to the action plan. After co-leading the Women in Technology Group for six years, the needs of women, trans, non-binary people, and other underserved gender identities are near and dear to my heart.

There are many different identity groups that need to be celebrated, recognized, and helped. As a committee, I hope we can do all of them justice. But on a very personal level, I’m excited about DEI being part of our organizational makeup, like our metaphorical DNA, if you will. So, DEI is often an afterthought or something optional that can be deprioritized. But some staff have to live with the consequences of any inaction daily. It doesn’t go away for them just because it’s not important to other people.

If we want to recruit and retain a diverse pool of staff, we need to understand why they don’t feel like they belong and then commit to change. I think with the support of this committee, that is becoming more of a possibility.

If we want to recruit and retain a diverse pool of staff, we need to understand why they don't feel like they belong and then commit to change.

What are some tried and true principles that you feel are translatable throughout your career path at the University of Iowa?

First, building a network of peers, mentors, and sponsors. I’ve gained a lot of knowledge from those relationships, and it has opened many opportunities for me. Thinking back to earlier in my career, my allies and advocates influenced others when my voice didn’t carry much weight. Currently, I continue to rely on those networks to get work done. I also pay that kindness forward and provide my mentees the resources and support they need and connect them with those individuals.

You also must be your own advocate and find your voice. Your sponsors are important, but they can only take you so far, and you can just as quickly be a cheerleader for yourself.

Furthermore, understand your limits. We each have different thresholds. We can’t ever compare our best work or output to anybody else’s. It’s important to remember that there’s no shame in taking a mental health day every once in a while if you need it.

Lastly, don’t ever stop learning. We all have opportunities to grow regardless of where we are in our careers. I frequently cringe at work that I did six months ago. If I’m not feeling embarrassed by my past work, I think that means that I haven’t done enough self-improvement to have built a critical eye to analyze the things I did wrong. And that means I didn’t learn how to make those better. That’s how I gauge my progress.

How do you encourage innovation, passion, and idea-sharing in the Eastern Iowa community?

The best way to bring new ideas is to be present and speak up. There are many tech-related communities and resources in this area. There’s a Slack workspace for Tech Corridor, and there are meet-ups for I-380 PASS, NewBoCo, Iowa Tech Checks, and that’s to name a few. It’s imperative to go to those groups, learn what you can do to help, and speak up when the opportunity presents itself.

You have to value what you individually bring to the table. I don’t have a traditional IT background, which means that I can provide a different perspective in these groups. Knowing how I am different brings value because I can advocate from that different perspective.

What was your passion growing up, and what did you envision for your career?

If I had to pick one thing that I was passionate about, it was probably music specifically the violin because it’s the instrument I played the longest. 

I was encouraged (or influenced) from a young age that I was supposed to pursue a discipline in STEM. It just so happened that I liked science and math, but beyond that, I never really had a specific career in mind.

I became interested in music and math around the same age, and when I write code, it’s melodic, and oddly, it’s why I can’t listen to music when I’m doing complicated work because it’s like a cacophony in my head.

Tell us about any mentors you may have had and how they influenced where you are today.

I give a lot of credit to my work team leads and supervisors. Especially the ones that recognized my interests and passions and the ones that were willing to take up a little extra time to help me create a professional connection, even if it meant losing me to a different team as a result.

I am also grateful to my peers for being my mentors. I’m often surprised and inspired by the work they do. And it pushes me to work a little harder so that I can be as successful as other people my age or in similar places in their careers.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a tech career path or leadership role?

I’ve heard a metaphor describing a tech career path as a jungle gym, but I visualize it more like rock climbing. Like a jungle gym, the path isn’t always singular, and sometimes the way up means that you have to move laterally or even down. But I don’t think there needs to be one single apex. You could reach a plateau in your career and decide that you want to rest there, but there are still options to climb up a little further if you choose to. Careers in technology are uniquely qualified to enable multiple paths.

Despite not having worked officially in any of these areas, my roles in IT have exposed me to desktop support, systems administration, InfoSec, and project management. There’s nothing wrong with pivoting your career choice if it happens to be from one domain into technology. IT benefits from those different experiences and knowledge. Anyone can learn to code. It’s just a matter of having the right encouragement.

For those aspiring to a leadership position, there’s no one definition of success, and there’s not just one type of leader. People should independently learn skills to become a leader, such as researching leadership qualities, taking workshops, or pursuing an advanced degree. Opportunities can come from unexpected places. It’s always best to prepare for whatever might come next.

I’m not a leader on any org chart, but I’ve still generated a lot of influence as an individual contributor because I’m passionate about the DEI work I do. This is the kind of leader that I like to be. I don’t think that you need to aspire to become a CIO to be fulfilled in your career journey.

Caring about diversity doesn't just stop because the 'right person' was hired. It's considering that that individual is more than just a checkbox. You can't justify adding diversity for your financial and resource gains and forget that your workplace culture needs to adapt to make those people from diverse backgrounds feel like they belong.

Why do you feel it’s important to have people of different backgrounds in technology? And what would you describe or define as different backgrounds?

There’s a lot of research about business improvements that come from having diversity in teams: better productivity, different innovations, and faster turnaround. It’s encouraging to your future pipeline of staff to see people more like them. Sometimes knowing about the risks that have come historically with the lack of diversity can be a little more salient.

When seat belts were introduced in cars, women and children were disproportionately injured because testing was done on the average proportions of an adult man. Or, early versions of image recognition software incorrectly categorized people of color as animals because the training data was predominantly white individuals. Those dominant identities are not to blame, but they lack experiences representing the individuals impacted by that work.

Caring about diversity doesn’t just stop because the “right person” was hired. It’s considering that that individual is more than just a checkbox. You can’t justify adding diversity for your financial and resource gains and forget that your workplace culture needs to adapt to make those people from diverse backgrounds feel like they belong. Celebrating diversity isn’t just a reflection of your company’s self-image, and it’s not about the marketability, raw numbers, meeting a quota, or recovering from your mistakes.

How would you like to see talent development and workforce grow in Iowa as you look to the future?

One thing I would like to see is doing away with this idea that “technology is only meant for nerdy people sitting in a dark room typing on a computer.” There are different ways to represent technologists. There’s not just one mold that fits that definition.

One fortunate thing about working specifically in Iowa is that there are some of the best education programs here. Pursuing studies and careers in STEM and applying it to different fields needs to be encouraged from a formative age. And educators are in a situation to provide that guidance and support. I believe that programming courses should be an expectation for K-12 education, in the same way, that mathematics courses are.

Tech education instills understanding the goal or the end product creatively, troubleshooting or working through a problem, and experimenting until something ends up working. That thought process is more important than any specific technical skill. Valuing those skills will enable a broader range of individuals who can come to our future IT workforce.

Tech education instills understanding the goal or the end product creatively, troubleshooting or working through a problem, and experimenting until something ends up working. That thought process is more important than any specific technical skill.

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