The Rice University Computer Science Department turned 35 in July 2019. As part of the first graduating class in 1984, I was invited to the first gathering of CS alumni at the CS35 anniversary this fall and so began reflecting on my Journey – before, at, and after Rice.
I was born a dark-skinned girl in India, a country ranked 4th in the world for female infanticide by the UN Human Rights Commission and where a “wheat-ish” complexion is often highlighted in matrimonial advertisements along with other attributes like “race no bar.” I grew up a minority, in Chinese majority Singapore, a country that has worked hard on race relations, but where “Chinese-privilege” is a hot topic today. I was one of a few women in my Computer Science classes at Rice and relieved to sidestep what could have become a #MeToo story.
At Rice, I was asked to pose for a brochure promoting diversity at a time when –during family-style dinners at Brown College– the handful of black athletes typically sat together at a separate table. After completing my M.S. in CS at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I started my career in R&D at Apple Computer, a company still struggling with diversity. Today, as CEO of 4iQ, a cyber intelligence company and Silicon Valley startup, I am still too often the only woman at the table.
During this Journey, I never thought much about being different; but with civil rights, women’s rights, women in tech, and immigration issues making headlines, I now realize that I have first-hand experience on what it feels like to be a woman of color, a racial minority, an immigrant and a woman in technology, in cyber security, and in the board room.
Luck and introductions
I was lucky to be born into the Pathare Prabhu community. Among the first residents of Mumbai, India, this community continues to place a high value on education. I was lucky to have a strong mother and always supportive father who sent me to CHIJ, one of the best all-girl convent schools in Singapore and then across the world to Rice University, one of the best colleges in America. I was lucky that a family friend suggested Computer Science as a major. Although I was interested in a variety of subjects from Marine Biology to Economics and Philosophy, I majored in Computer Science as I knew it would impact all industries. I was lucky to graduate with a MS in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, specializing in computer networking, putting me in the right place, at the right time – the dawn of the Internet era.
At Rice, I was warmly welcomed by Brown College master and founder of the Materials Science Department, Dr. Franz Brotzen, and his wife, Frances. Dr. Brotzen introduced me to Dr. Ken Kennedy, the founding Chair of the Computer Science Department. Dr. Kennedy offered me an independent study and research opportunity and later recommended me to Dr. Larry Landweber, a pioneer in computer networking and professor at UW-Madison. Both Rice University and the UW-Madison were part of BITNET and Dr. Landweber led the establishment of CSNET, the first network to connect over 180 US universities. He offered some of the first college courses on computer networking and I worked with the UW-Madison team that developed the first TCP/IP, SMTP, X.400 and DNS Resolver implementations on IBM VM and IBM RT-PCs.
At Rice, I got to attend lectures on a variety of topics, from art and architecture to algorithms and astrophysics, meet students who were oil rig workers, debutantes, Southern Baptists and unwed mothers. I learned book binding and square dancing, and how to work the Hobart commercial dish washing machine. I chugged for the Brown Beer Bike team, got elected Vice President of Brown College, pulled all-nighters, and indulged in midnight ice cream runs.
At Rice, I also got a sneak peek at the first Macintosh with a graphical user interface and mouse, before the official launch in January 1984. After I graduated from UW-Madison, I joined Apple Computer where I worked on the first implementation of MacTCP and later on MacOS PowerTalk/PowerShare, the first unified mail and secure messaging, directory and authentication systems.
It was at Apple that I first saw posters titled “The Journey is the Reward” and wondered what that meant. I grew up believing I could do and be anything I wanted to be, in a world that had a somewhat different opinion about a woman’s place and a woman’s value. I thought that did not matter and I tried to fit in, not stand out. And I tried to join in and be included, not left out. I worked hard and held my own technically, but did not feel I belonged in the tech community and started questioning what I was doing and doubting myself. Research now shows unconscious bias is real, retention of women in tech is a problem and I was not alone – but at the time, I did not know that.
Evolving into entrepreneurship
I pushed my doubts aside, worked harder, and kept going. I went from solitary programming to developer training and evangelism, looking at the big picture, designing solutions, and spotting business opportunities. I went from Apple to a series of startups where my engineering background enabled me to assess the competitive landscape, identify market opportunities, and develop winning business strategies. I loved taking raw technology and talent and turning these assets into products and profits.
Today, as CEO of 4iQ, an Identity Intelligence and Attribution Analysis startup, I am excited to lead a company that has invented a new forensic technique that helps security researchers, intel analysts, and investigators of fraud, anti-money laundering, and financial crime to unmask fake identities. In a world where anonymizing technologies like TOR and cryptocurrencies are enabling bad actors and fueling fake news, data breaches, ransomeware, cybercrime and cyberwar, knowing the “real who” is a critical first step to regaining trust – the fifth greatest risk facing the world according to the World Economic Forum.
Hindsight and insight
Along the way, I explored meditation, practiced looking inwards, became aware of my own automatic assumptions and unconscious bias, and reframed my perceptions. With this clarity, came confidence. Instead of looking for approval from others or trying to be someone I was not, I faced my fears and discovered my true passion and purpose.
Many years after reading those posters at Apple, I get it. The Journey is the Reward. Every step, every moment is an opportunity to learn and grow. It does not matter what the goal is or what the result ends up being, what matters is how you perceive what happens and how you choose to respond.
Research now shows that diversity and inclusion enhance productivity, are critical for innovation and positively impact the bottom line. As a result, many companies are providing diversity training and putting in systems and processes for inclusion. The problem however is that unconscious bias cannot be disrupted using left brain tools and logic – it must be addressed by raising awareness and shifting consciousness. So, of course companies must put in systems and processes for diversity and inclusion, but to up-and-coming women in CS, instead of waiting for the situation to change on the outside, try turning inwards – the Journey inside is the Reward.
Monica Trilokekar Pal (B.A. in CS ’84) is joining both the Inclusion and Entrepreneurship panels during the Rice University Computer Science Department’s 35th Anniversary, October 10-13, 2019.