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Soft Power: women techies fit right in at Portland's Jama Software

An IT manager today is the equivalent of being a skilled autoworker last century: a living wage position, always in demand, riding the economic growth wave

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Rare female IT Managers at booming Jama software in Portland.  Devon Lee studied computer information systems at Aukland University in New Zealand and Portland Community College. Alexis Johnson majored in environmental science and math at Colorado College, and always worked in the schools computer department. They're not your average Information Technology people. No tattooed calves, no Gandalf beards, no Star Wars toys.

Devon Lee and Alexis Johnson keep the machines at Portland’s Jama (Chinese for “good code") software humming. Never mind that the company has grown so quickly that it's split between two offices nine blocks apart. That's the easy bit. The company provides four orange bikes and an orange skateboard for going between them, and these women travel with backpacks full of tools. There's also a Skype link between the cafeterias of both buildings.

Part of the job is the usual IT person stuff, fixing the email when it crashes and setting up new hires with laptops. But Lee and Johnson had to network the two buildings together when the company expanded. Lee spent hours in a hot, plywood cabin at the Jama South building installing servers and wrestling with CentOS, a Linux operating system. She has already moved three times with the company.

But tougher than that, they are responsible for baffling, shifting layers of technology that most of us would rather not think about. Jama makes software for the sort of fast, complex project management that people who make software have come to depend upon. Jama's main product is mostly SaaS, that is, sold as a service. Companies just want it to work and not worry about upgrades or hosting it. This means a large team works at keeping the software running for the customers.

One such guy is Robert Hopson, a Systems Engineer at Jama, or as Lee and Johnson call him, a DevOps (Development and operations) Guru. He says they “collaborate back and forward” in a “self-contained version of our cloud infrastructure” within the company, which they help keep running.

So not only do these IT people have to keep the network up for the people who keep other networks up, they have to make themselves understood around the office.

Just as life today offers multiple ways to deal with the blizzard of messages, so the postmodern workplace demands you know how to communicate. Hopson, Johnson and Lee mostly use instant messaging (built by another Portland company, Jive).

“If I'm having a conversation, the useful part is not the other person's picture, it's that we're looking at the same text,” Hopson says of the strings of numbers, letters and punctuation that are his environment. He will escalate to phone or email if need be.

Lee wrote a guide (in Jive of course) for staff communication. To paraphrase: Customers like GoToMeeting (videoconferencing); conference calls are good if you use the right microphones; there are plenty of conference rooms for show and tells, “stand up” meetings and ‘what are you working on?’ “jams”; there's the Portal video link between buildings; instant messaging in Jive; ye olde email, and good old Face to Face.

“Sometimes I need to stroll across the building, depending on how antsy I am,” says Lee, who also teaches Hot Yoga. “And the walk between buildings is a nice 10 minute stroll when you need to get out.”

Part of their job is getting everyone to open a ticket for their requests.

“We rely on ticket system to track workload,” says Lee. “So when there are recurring problems, we can go back and search for patterns, see when it happened and to whom. We're good at logging stuff.”

It'll soon be all change again.

Jama South only opened in November 2013 but the company is already set to move to one big building this fall, “2&T” as it's known at SW Second Ave and Taylor St. Then Lee and Johnson will have to pack up all the computers and rebuild their network. There's a ticket for that.

Jama’s Product Delivery Platform software is for companies that want to keep everyone on the same page. If Company X is building a game, a campaign, or a car, the interface allows everyone to see where everyone else is on the project, what the latest changes are, and who said what to whom. Everything is logged.

This used to be done by people schlepping Word documents back and forth at each other, which can lead to timewasting errors when someone is working on an old version. Which might not matter much if your produce is a free phone app. But the private space company SpaceX is using it to build rockets.

“Jama uses social media tools like tagging and hashtags, so it feels modern,” says Johnson. “We get feedback from users like, they love the technology they use in everyday life, Facebook and Twitter, it works for them, it feels fluid. Then at work they have to use email and Word to track a project, and there's no single source of truth.”

It has its own language: “A story can be broken down into tasks, you can click on it and see its scope and responsibilities,” says Lee. “There's full visibility, it's a just like a really cool way of collaborating.”

Whiteboards dominate Jama HQ at TK in the Pearl, but one wall shows hundreds of customers’ logos, including Wyplay, United Healthcare and Amazon.com.

Last November Gartner included Jama in its “Magic Quadrant for Application Development Life Cycle Management (ADLM)” praising its “specialty focus on tackling the challenge of complex product delivery across the enterprise.”

Portland-based writer Alex Williams just launched The New Stack, thenewstack.io a blog about the way we work in the modern computer environment.

An example of an old “stack” would be a server, with an operating system on top of it, and a database on that, plus storage, networking and then the application running on top of it all. But now with cloud computing and virtual machines we're dealing with a new stack.

He places Jama at the center of this change, because of the way it helps products come to market in a collaborative way. “Their value is in the capability to provide this social engine inside the software so everyone can clearly know what each one is doing.”

Williams says that with the Internet of Things (IoT) the development process never stops. "Because even with a physical thing, data is laid on top of it. In the old days you built a car and launched it. Now you're always adding more services to it. A product now has a different lifecycle.”

Wondering what Jama looks like? Here's a video: fast.wistia.net/embed/iframe/cnaq85os38?playerColor=00B4FF&plugin%5Bsocialbar-v1%5D%5Bbuttons%5D=embed-twitter-facebook&version=v1&videoHeight=450&videoWidth=800&volumeControl=true

Sara Morrow, Jama’s recruiter, is pleased that 33 percent of the staff are female. The software industry average is 25 percent, which includes all jobs in software: sales and marketing as well as management and technical. Morrow encourages her female staff to take part in organizations such as PDX Women in IT (@PDXWiIT).

“We use it for networking and support, such as matching mentors and mentees, and to find female speakers when other tech events ask for them.” It's a place where a women can also jump sideways into other roles that they might not be able to in their own workplace.

“It's more of a welcome place, not competitive, where you can find more people that are like you,” adds Morrow.

According to Wired magazine, at the University of California, Berkeley — a school traditionally at the heart of the computer science world — women now outnumber men (106 to 104) in one of the school's introduction to computer science courses. Only 13 percent of computer science majors in the U.S. and Canada are female, compared with

1991, when nearly 30 percent of computer science bachelor degrees were awarded to women. www.wired.com/2014/02/berkeley-women/

Jama also supports ChickTech, >www.chicktech.org which puts on courses like Intro to Python in a bid to get more women to understand what's under the hood of the technology they depend on. And also Code Scouts, www.codescouts.org which educates school age girls in computer languages and began in the Portland Incubator Experiment www.piepdx.com

Morrow says the company won't hire based on gender, but it does aim to raise awareness that we're hiring, help women feel welcome and drive more women to apply.”