Episode 118 – Don’t Be Afraid to Experiment and Learn to Communicate in a Way That Makes People Feel Comfortable with Pamela Gay

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Phil’s guest on today’s podcast is Dr Pamela Gay. She is an astronomer, who also has strong IT skills which she uses to solve all kinds of science-related problems. Her focus is on getting as many people involved with and feeling enthusiastic about astronomy. She is a citizen scientist leader, advocate and enabler.

Her specialist IT areas include big data management, web design, mass communication and cloud utilization. She is also a science writer and presenter as well as a podcaster, blogger and public speaker.


(1.21) – So Pamela, can you expand on that introduction and tell us a little bit more about yourself? Pamela explains that at the most fundamental level she is someone who loves astronomy and playing on the internet. Basically, she is always seeking out ways to combine those two things.

Dr Gay is a member of the first PC generation. The first wave of children for whom access to a computer and the internet was a possibility. She has used a computer all of her life. Her experience of them goes right back to the days of cassette drives. She learned to type at the same time as she was learning to use crayons.

Her whole life, she has been discovering new ways to use the internet and has been stealing them and using them in pursuit of astronomy. Today, she has found like-minded people and is working with them to engage as many people as possible in the field. They are finding ways to get people to chat about all kinds of things. For example, getting people to work together to map actual new worlds in player groups, using the freeware application, Discord.

(2.44) – Phil asks Pamela whether she set out to combine astronomy with her interest in computers and the internet. Pamela responds by describing it as an “accident”. When she started at Michigan State University she had planned to go into international science policy. Mostly because she was listening too much to people who were telling her she could not be an astrophysicist, basically, because she was a girl.

In the end, she switched from taking a humanities major to astrophysics. Her international science policy goal had already led her to attend astronomy classes. While attending them she realised that astronomy was for her, so she switched her major.

The fact that she had already taken so many AP classes gave her a bunch of credits. A fact that freed up enough free time for her to be able to take computer science classes as well.

That is how she realised she had a natural aptitude for software development. At the time, that meant she had to get involved in the Computer Science (CS) and Computer Engineering (CE) fields to be able to put her talent to use. IT as a career was not yet a standalone thing.

Over the years, she has continued to tinker in those two fields, using them to solve problems. For example, programming software to solve the math equations she did not have enough knowledge to complete herself, or to program a telescope to change position without manual intervention.

(4.55) – Phil comments that it sounds as if the two passions complement, almost fuel, each other. This is something Pamela agrees with. In fact, she went on to say that is an understatement.

In the field of astronomy, all of the data is digital and there are vast quantities of it. So, using software is the only way to make sense of it. As a result, most astronomers try hard to teach themselves programming. Almost inevitably they end up having to hire an undergraduate to get it done.

So, Pamela finds her software abilities to be invaluable. Her computer classes thought her the fundamentals and gave her the necessary foundation to be able to continually grow her knowledge. For her programming is now a natural language. Whereas, for those who are self-taught it tends to remain a second language they continually grapple with.

(6.29) – Phil asks Pamela for a unique IT career tip. “Be extremely curious.” If you see a way to try something, don’t wait, just do it, especially if it does not cost anything to do. If you wait someone else will figure it out and you will not get any of the credit for that new thing you just worked out how to do.

(7.13) – Pamela is asked to share her worst career moment with the audience. She said that was probably when she was interviewing a student for a position on her team. He turned out not to be a suitable candidate. His answers to some of her questions were just awful, laughable, in fact. So much so that Pamela had problems holding things together and staying professional. The thing that made this incident so bad was the fact that Pamela and her team worked in an open office space. There was no properly closed-off room which she could use to conduct the interview. So, the entire staff could hear much of what was being said. For Pamela the whole experience was very awkward and one she would not want to experience again.

(9.51) – Phil asks Pamela what her best career moment was. For Pamela this is not a moment as such. It is something that she has learned over time that she feels has helped her and her team the most. Fairly early on, Pamela realized the value of not trying to push everyone into working the same way. She learned to trust her team to do a good job and to be as accommodating as possible.

Collaborative working has been the key to her success. Being able to build a diverse, constantly evolving team, composed of individuals with disparate skill sets has been essential.

However, the fact that the members of the team are so diverse means that she has had to learn to recognize and take account of their different needs. For example, introverts do their best work alone. They have the skill set to sit down focus and get tedious things done. But, they may want to do this at home or in a closed office so they are not disturbed.

Whereas, this would drive an extrovert mad. They need to interact with others. Recognizing this and allowing them the time to go out and mix with people and turn to them into volunteers is good for both them and the project.

She is also careful to move with the times, particularly when it comes to communication. Not so long ago the team communicated mainly through Google Hangouts. But, as soon as they realized that most of their volunteers were on Discord, they moved to that application, instead.

Pamela is also accommodating when it comes to her staff’s equipment preferences. For example, she will quite happily pay for a gaming chair if a member of her team feels more comfortable using one.

(12.36) – Phil commented that it sounds like Pamela is using different tools, depending on the person involved. Pamela says that is definitely the case. She comments that good people are hard to find. So, when she finds a good team member, she will bend over backwards to make sure that they stay.

(13.24) – Pamela what excites you about the future of the IT industry and careers? For Pamela it is the future of AR. She is looking forward to a time when she can wear something small that will turn her office wall into something that is the equivalent of a giant 4k monitor. She wants her workspace tools to be with her at all times. To, at the tap of a button, be able to type on a virtual screen. She is really looking forward to seeing more fluid and comfortable ways of working.

(14.46) – Pamela was one of the people who was given Google Glass to wear and test, so Phil asked her why she thought that product had to be shelved. In particular, whether she thought that it was because the technology was just too ahead of its time. Pamela explained that one of the biggest issues with Google Glass was the fact that people did not want to be around wearers. Mostly because they were afraid of their day to day life being recorded of their personal space being invaded. To succeed, future AR devices need to focus on augmenting, adding something to the lives of wearers, rather than capturing what they do in life.

The other problem was the tiny screen. It was so small that even something simple like reading a tweet was not easy. Smartwatches are already doing a better job of that.

(16.19) – What drew you to a career in IT, Pamela? It was definitely the fact that IT enabled her to easily interact with other people who loved astronomy. She loves the way she has gone from being able to share a page of astronomy jokes online, to being able to use the web to get ordinary people excited about space exploration. Those relatively simple things have enabled us to build up the knowledge we need to do so much more. For example, enable the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft to locate a rock on an asteroid, pick it up and bring it back to us.

(18.15) – What is the best career advice you have ever received? Pamela said it was – “Keep your friends close, keep your women friends closest.” She has found this to be very good advice.

People who are like you, who live similar lives, have more or less the same family responsibilities are the ones who truly understand your struggles. They are your most effective mentors and are the ones that can give you advice that actually works and helps you to get a good work-life balance.

(19.48) – If you were to start your IT career again, now, what would you do? Pamela said she would probably sit down with those that had defined machine learning. Instead of trying to learn things from scratch she would focus on interacting with those people who had already figured things out, so that she could realize her vision faster.

(20.41) – Phil asks Pamela what career objectives she is currently focusing on. Pamela said that she is trying to learn to be a better manager. In particular, she is trying to empower others more and not get in the way of her team getting things done.

She is also fighting the urge to do day to day tasks herself. For example, to recognize that coding is no longer her job and that she has to let someone else do it now that she is the manager.

(22.05) – What is the number one non-technical skill that has helped you the most in your IT career? Her best non-IT skill is being able to write in an engaging way, so that people want to read what she writes. To be able to do this, Pamela has had to learn to share her enthusiasm, so that she is more engaging.

(22.56) – Phil asks Pamela to share a final piece of career advice with the audience. Pamela says that it is important to be true to yourself. If you are a nerd, don’t be afraid to be open about that.

Don’t just talk about the work you are doing on social media. Share your passions as well. Doing so opens up the channels of communication to more people. It can open all sorts of doors for you. For example, one conversation that started out being about Battlestar Galactica ended up leading to a speaking conversation. You never know where things will lead, so be engaging, be human and be approachable. It will really help you to network.


(2.08) PAMELA – “My whole life, I’ve been seeing cool new interesting ways to use the internet and stealing them ruthlessly in the pursuit of astronomy.”

(6.57) PAMELA – “If you wait, you may not be the one who gets credit for that great new thing that you just figured out how to do.”

(12.06) PAMELA – “Communications is best done in the places where people are most comfortable.”

(23.06) PAMELA – “Be true to yourself when you’re communicating. If you’re a nerd, let your nerd flag fly.”



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