Continuing with my Women in VoIP Series, I’d like to introduce you all to Helen Robison (in case you haven’t heard of her before, whom I’m sure you have!). Helen works as the Director of Product Development for Clarus Systems, Inc., and has been working in the telecommunications industry for over 20 years, VoIP for 10. You may also know of her as the “ISDN Goddess.”
What is your VoIP industry history?
After finishing university with a degree in chemical engineering, I experimented with different careers in academia, medicine, etc. such that my parents feared I was in danger of becoming a professional student. Under their suggestion to “get a job,” I accepted an assembly language programming job at a startup company that manufactured telecom equipment for small service providers. Several startups later, I had become a PSTN protocol expert (e.g. T1 / E1 ISDN BRI and PRI) working on a fiber optic network solution to upgrade the telephony infrastructure for the newly-unified Germany where ISDN was the only economic option.
In 1994, an opportunity arose for me to join Cisco Systems where my VoIP journey began several years later. Cisco was very attracted to my service provider network and software development experience. My official indoctrination to VoIP was in 1998, as a senior software development engineer working on the Cisco access router software which terminated Internet data and modem voice calls from the PSTN ISDN network and sent them over IP. The newly-created Cisco Access BU decided to create a voice gateway – terminating human voice calls from the PSTN and sending them over IP. My expertise in ISDN Q.931 proved useful as part of the development team since the VoIP H.225 protocol is essentially ISDN Q.931 over IP.
I very much enjoyed working with my male coworkers. Many of them in customer support would seek me out to leverage my ISDN and voice expertise. I still remember the thrill of receiving a call from one developer noting he was calling me for the first time over VoIP using the software I’d help create.
In 2000, I moved from software development to technical marketing in service provider solutions engineering. During this period, I worked on service provider solutions such as transit VoIP, and hosted or managed business voice with the Cisco Unified Communications Manager (CUCM). I also began critical work investigating issues around voice quality in complex hybrid PSTN – IP networks.
It’s amazing to think back now how the industry used to only consider delay and jitter, ignoring causes of echo and the need to design networks for minimal packet loss. I wrote technical papers and magazine articles, gave a lot (too many!) talks, and applied for several patents.
Before departing Cisco recently to join Clarus Systems as director of product management, I was product manager for a service provider solution for intercompany TelePresence – an immersive, ultra-ultra high quality voice and video IP-based service between different enterprises.
What is it like working as a woman in the VoIP world?
During my tenure in VoIP, I have seen perhaps one woman to every 20 men working in this market, and have often been in meetings where I was the only women in a room of 50 to 100 men. At times, there have been some personality conflicts which may have been gender related, but for the most part I viewed my male colleagues as a band of brothers. Occasionally, I would feel left out of “boys’ night out” events. On the whole, I believe that many of these VoIP colleagues would have welcomed more women into the fray.
In fact, I built up so much mutual respect with my co-workers that I was affectionately given the moniker of “ISDN Goddess.” Since I was helping many of the sales engineers with customer issues, they started addressing their emails to me with “Dear ISDN Goddess, can you help…?” It was flattering at meetings and trade shows to have both male and female colleagues come up to me and comment how they always wanted to meet the “ISDN Goddess” in person.
What are some of your networking/marketing methods?
Trade shows have always been a good source of networking but social networking sites, many of which are integrating VoIP or related technologies, are emerging as well. I can recall many times at a trade show being mistaken for the trade show coordinator when in fact I was the sole domain expert. ‘Booth babes’ aside, I was always of the mindset that, to be taken seriously as a thought leader, it was always important to dress like a professional and not go too trendy. It is key to pay attention to your appearance so you are perceived and respected for your knowledge and expertise.
How is it working with men in VoIP?
Being a woman in a male-dominated industry has not given me any special advantages, especially as a single parent with a teenager. I always admired Cisco’s telecommuting program because the company respected the fact that you have lives outside of the work walls and were in tune to the need to work specific hours from whatever location.
I remember once presenting to our global sales force at a meeting in Amsterdam where I was the only women presenting a session on VoIP and related quality and traffic issues. I had the highest rated talk with the most valuable information – I am proud of that achievement. I was later asked to give the same talk to Tier1 service provider customers and my session was extended from one to four hours due to the intense interest. That experience demonstrated to me that Cisco had the confidence too in me — not as a woman in an all male forum — but as an expert with domain knowledge.
What do you see for the future of women in VoIP?
In product management, especially related to voice service management, it is rare that women hold these positions and sometimes it is challenging to gain thought leadership and credibility due to industry preconceptions over specific roles. In fact, I fell right into such a situation. I was at a hospital and saw a woman in a white lab coat and didn’t look at her badge. I assumed she was a nurse but in fact was the doctor. I apologized profusely and vowed not to make that assumption in the future for anyone.
In terms of the future of women in VoIP, I see it more broadly as the future of women in collaboration technology. VoIP has evolved into an integrated part of multimedia IP that encompasses voice, video, data and an overall collaborative experience empowered by unified communications. Today, we use what were VoIP deployments for IP-based voice, instant messaging, or multimedia calls utilizing presence information. Given the enormous potential in this emerging technology, the market should encourage more women to get involved. I hope that my tenure in VoIP will serve as an inspiration for other women to become more involved in technology overall. To any woman considering entering this field, I’d say; “Come on in, the water is fine!”