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International Women’s Day – Bonnie D. Graham

Women in Big Data is spotlighting amazing women

By Bonnie D. Graham

An Early Woman in Tech: Her Story

“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” (Story of the Engine That Thought It Could, 1906)

  1. Bonnie D. Graham akaRadioRed

    A twenty-something mother of two, transplanted by her husband from Cambridge MA to Eugene OR, filed for divorce (too many irreconcilable differences). She’d never held a job, going from college (Sarah Lawrence and Boston University) to marriage and mom-hood. Would her Psychology BA magna cum laude – the ‘70s go-to degree – support her children? No!

Her parents in NY snail-mailed (years before email) career brochures: X-ray technician, lab tech…and computer programmer. Bingo! Hoping her aptitude for math (high school math team, AP Math) would be useful, she took two buses (no car) to the community college to enroll in Computers 101. Bummer! The class was filled, but a sympathetic registrar confided, “Go to class, quietly. In two weeks, many will drop out and you’ll get in.” She did. And she became an early woman in tech.

  1. Her brain was excited by computer languages, JCL, compilers, core dumps, EBCDIC, ones-and-zeros, computer room operations (climbing on a stool to lift a disk pack into the drive] and business statistics (she aced the class without a slide rule, baffling her male classmates]. With a 4.0 GPA, she earned two Associate of Science degrees: Programming and Operations. The college hired her as a programmer/analyst for a statewide information system. Her first job! COBOL. Xerox Sigma 6 (CP-V). Keypunch cards. Reams of green-bar paper (sorry, trees). Her boss left. She managed the system. Side-gig: code extra reports on weekends as her own contract programmer.

1983: PL/1 on IBM 4341 at O.T.I.S. (not the elevator people), Oregon Total Information Systems service bureau. She swam through spaghetti code in legacy programs and redesigned student transcript forms.

“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” (Ellen Parr)

  1. Eager to return to her family in NY as a proud career woman, she called job listings daily at 6 AM Pacific [9 AM Eastern]. With 15 interview appointments packed into five days, she flew to NY with two home-sewn business suits and four blouses. Her parents chauffeured her to interviews in Manhattan and Westchester. Five job offers! She picked the “exciting” one at a glam midtown office and moved to Great Neck NY, a 30-minute train ride to the city.

Oops! Months later, the company moved to a crime-ridden area. Her programs were sabotaged by a co-worker. Scurrying to interviews on lunch breaks, she landed a programmer job at a major NY newspaper, starting in two weeks.

Surprise! A recruiter called about an Assembler language job at a Long Island correspondent bank that provided back-office services to NY savings banks. No thank you. The recruiter persisted. She acquiesced. The snowy Friday of the interview, she awoke with a low fever and sneezing. The recruiter insisted she go. She accessorized her business suit with a box of tissues and went. When declined the job, the interviewer said, “Wait! Our Senior VP wants to meet you.” Curious, she stayed. SVP: “What do you know about banking?” She: “Nothing.” SVP: “Do you have a checking account?” She: “Yes.” SVP: “You know enough.”

On Monday, he offered a role created just for her: Systems Liaison. Why? He needed her dual language skills – People-speak + Programmer-speak – to translate reporting requirements into specs for the IT folks. Intriguing hybrid-tech job. She sent regrets to the newspaper. Hello, bank.

Roller coaster ride. She co-wrote a business plan for a new software sales division and hired staff. New title: Business Operations Manager. Refreshing her COBOL skills, she coded the systems conversion for a turnkey bank solution customer. Taught herself (late nights at home) to design and write newsletters in Pagemaker WYSIWYG desktop publishing on a little box called a “Mac” with a “mouse” thingie. Produced a “Save the Savings Banks” video with whale footage and Beatles music for the launch event. Soon, she was the bank’s one-person marketing department. Goodbye, tech.

“When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious…connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.” (Steve Jobs)

  1. SAP recruiters called (how did they find her?) set-up phone interviews with managers in Germany and Denver, hired her as a 6-month marketing contractor, then full-time role for messaging, working with analysts on white papers (remember those?), producing myth-buster videos.
  2. Her manager asked her to evaluate an Internet radio host’s pitch for SAP to advertise on his business show. Then she had a big, brave, bold idea: create a radio show for SAP instead! She cold-called VoiceAmerica Radio’s CEO to ask how. October 5, 2011, she debuted SAP’s Coffee Break with Game-Changers on the VoiceAmerica Business Channel. Then a bigger idea: ask teams around SAP to sponsor thought leadership radio series she would produce and host to grow the Game-Changers brand. A few signed on. More followed. By 2016, she was hosting 250 live shows a year including 15-guest predictions specials.

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’” (Hunter S. Thompson)

  1. Creator, producer and host of radio series for SAP (48 so far), other organizations and two of her own, broadcasting on the Business Channel and livestreaming Zoom video on LinkedIn and Facebook. Annual global audience: ~1.5+ million. She was recently dubbed “Radio Royalty” for her high-energy hosting of roundtable conversations about technology and business strategies!

Along the way…Watched M*A*S*H and Star Trek with her kids (now MD and JD). Earned $2.50/hour teaching Disco in a school cafeteria to 200+ adult Travolta-wannabes. Taught line dancing to seniors. 3rd place in Disco Hawaii contest (her partner lifted, dipped, spun her to Donna Summer’s Heaven Knows). Sold Mary Kay cosmetics (no pink Cadillac). Danced 26 hours at a Muscular Dystrophy fundraiser marathon. Created four TV series. Wrote 3 romantic comedy plays, produced and directed for her TV show and on stage. Hosted AM talk radio. Interviewed authors, musicians, Chippendale Dancers. MC’ed bachelor auctions for charity (top bid: $900). Standup comedian (clean). On two boards of directors. Newspaper editor. Taught Adult Ed eBay selling. Moved to North Carolina. Rock ‘n’ roll / R&B drummer. Artist. Creator / host / House Drummer of Open Mic Nights for local musicians. Plays 20 Words with Friends games in bed on big iPad each night before turning out the light.

Who is “she”? This is my story. bonnie d. graham, akaRadioRed.

My wishes for today’s Women in Big Data: Open your heart and mind to opportunities. If they don’t appear, create them. Explore and nurture your strengths. Stay real. Speak up. Work hard. Laugh. Cry. Dream. Love. I’m cheering for you!

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