Telle Whitney



University of Utah – Bachelor’s Degree, Computer Science

Caltech – Ph.D., Computer Science

Telle Whitney was a student at the University of Utah as she attempted to carve our her career path. There was just one catch, though: she had no idea what she wanted to do with the rest of her life! Close to admitting defeat, Telle took an interest test that gave her high compatibility scores with computer science. Then, during her senior year, a faculty member took notice and introduced Telle to well-known computer scientist Ivan Sutherland. At the time, Ivan was starting a department at Caltech and inspired, Telle followed to attend graduate school and obtain her Ph.D. in the program.

During Telle’s college career, chip design was becoming a bigger focus, so after she graduated, she moved to Silicon Valley and worked in the semiconductor industry, creating chips and the software that helped people design them for 20 years. While Telle held senior technical management positions at Actel and Malleable Technologies, it was another woman who truly changed her career path.

In the mid-eighties, after moving to the Bay Area, Telle met Anita Borg. The two became close friends and together created the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. A few years later, Anita founded the Institute for Women in Technology, which the Grace Hopper Celebration became a part of. At the time, Telle was working at a startup and was there for Anita with moral support, but wasn’t particularly involved in the day-to-day business. However, two years after launching the Institute, Anita was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. And along with Anita’s health, the Institute was in trouble, so Telle stepped in. “I got involved initially to help Anita out for a few months after she sold the company,” Telle says. “I promised the Board I would help them find a new president. That was 12 years ago!” (Telle now serves as president and CEO of the Institute.)

The biggest factor that has served me well is persistence. I really keep showing up, no matter what happens, and then just make it happen.

Every young girl dreams of what she wants to be when she grows up. Did you always dream of working in the technology industry?

I certainly had no exposure to computer science or engineering when I was growing up. In fact, when I first went to college, I studied theater. I didn’t know (yet) that I loved computer science.

While an undergrad at the University of Utah, I was ready to give up. I had no idea what I should do, so I took an interest test. The results showed computer programming as a fit. So, I took a class taught by a female professor, and felt like I had finally come home.

Female role models are increasing in tech, but when you were growing up, there weren’t that many women involved in the industry. Who did you look up to?

Most of my mentors and role models were men. This is not uncommon for women of my era. For whatever reason, I didn’t have a problem making that jump that whatever I wanted, if I saw it in somebody, I went for it.

What advice do you have for other women who are just beginning their careers?

Ask for what you want. Women typically don’t ask, but it’s the single most important change that I’d like to see women make.

Also, believe in yourself. A lack of confidence is just an artifact, so do whatever it takes to get past that to really, truly believe in yourself.

Many women have said that they feel they have to be the “loud female” in the room in order to have their voice heard by male peers. Have you ever felt this way?

I worked in a world where I always was the only woman, but my style is a little different. I was never afraid to speak up. I wouldn’t necessarily be the loudest voice in the room, but I’d make sure I was heard. And if not at that second in that meeting, then I would make sure I talked to the people who were in charge.

The thing that’s quite different about small companies is that when you’re experiencing a strong growth period, leadership is desperate for people to take responsibility and just get a job done. The way I became successful was simply by getting something done and delivering results in these small companies.

What do you feel has been a secret to your success?

The biggest factor that has served me well is persistence. I really keep showing up, no matter what happens, and then just make it happen.

What characteristics and qualities do you look for when interviewing job candidates for your team?

The Anita Borg Institute has a great team of about 25 people, including two staff members in India. When you meet our staff, the most unique thing you’ll notice about them is the passion they bring. I was just speaking with someone who joined us this year, and one of the things she was saying was that when she met her peers, she was just amazed at the passion they had for the work we do. So, that’s the first thing.

We also allow people to bring their whole self to work. We allow time for whatever that is to them – kids, dogs, or whatever else. We expect our team to deliver results, but also to have a life.

What do you want our readers to know about your working in tech?

There are many different choices with a career in tech — the opportunities runt he gamut. For anyone intrigued by the idea, I’d note it’s important to develop skills, because there’s a base of computing that will serve you no matter what you do. Even if you end up becoming an artist, it’s good to have a basic set of skills in computing.

Where do you envision the Grace Hopper Conference going in the next two, three, five years?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Grace Hopper as a platform. I think one of the best parts of the conference is that smaller groups can come together, and I’d like to find ways to continue to enhance the small group experience.

We have a lot of students and a lot of recruiting at the conference, but the recruiting isn’t what the conference is about. We have recruiters who are eager for top talent, and for students that feels very affirming to have people after them! But really, what I want is to have organizations where women thrive. I expect we will continue to provide content for women to help them understand how great they are — and how great they can be. I also expect we’ll provide ways for communities to convene, and help organizations move along the dial and create places for women to thrive.