Both a designer and an educator, KC Lathrop currently serves as the Chief of Staff to the Chief Information Officer at IBM. While at IBM, KC has held several roles, including user experience designer, researcher, and program manager. Prior to IBM, KC spent several years working in education and obtained a master’s degree from New York University’s Interactive Telecommunication Program (ITP). There, she built several interactive games focusing on the intersection of technology, intimacy, and vulnerability.
Outside of work, KC maintains a creative practice called 100 Days of Making, which she leads with her team at IBM. She is also in her second year as an adjunct professor at NYU, where she teaches design to graduate students.
How would you describe your journey from a career in Education to the Corporate world and then your current role?
If you look at it, my journey has not been a traditional one – from Education to my current role. When I was an undergrad, I was not sure what to study though I was very interested in linguistic and language. This naturally took me into teaching. Teaching is about continuously iterating and adjusting according to students’ needs. When I decided to change my career and move to technology, on recommendations from friends I took up an arts program on emerging technologies. I chose to become a developer as that looked like the safest thing to do at that time. This allowed me to explore new ideas and build new things. It really helped me experiment without inhibitions.
I got my internship at IBM as a UX Designer. Being the oldest intern, I was very insecure about it. I also did not talk about my background in Education as all others were from a Design or Technology background. Not knowing any better, I was worried I will be considered as a fraud and get fired. However, I kept moving forward and got a full-time role at IBM.
While working in teams almost everyone had a Design background and my previous experience set me apart. I soon realized that Designing and Teaching are not very different. As a designer one has to ensure that the users find what they are looking for and it’s not their fault if they are not getting the required information. Rather it is the job of the designer. Similarly, in teaching, if the students are struggling to learn, the teacher has to adapt the learning experience. This realization made me a more comfortable and confident designer.
I started talking to younger people about their career choices. When you are an undergrad, like in your early 20s, you think that every decision you make will determine the rest of your life - how much money you make, your career, happiness. However, I learned that you never know. We need to trust ourselves.
My current role is fairly new. When the role of chief-of-staff to the CIO was offered to me, I was not sure if I wanted to take it as it was scary to leave the Design field. However, being in this role gives me a different perspective of the company, while learning how the business runs. It provides a new window into the mission of the company and how everyone contributes to it. I’m continuously learning and meeting interacting with new people and feel my learnings on being iterative and empathetic are really useful.
My career journey so far looks like a really crazy journey on paper but when I look back, it all makes sense to me.
What are the challenges that you see which prevent more women to join the Tech industry?
It can be intimidating if you don’t see people around you who look like you. For instance, if you are in a meeting room full of men, you may not be sure how you are being perceived and whether you deserve to be there. If women have the same skills as men, they have every right to be at the table.
There is a lot of misconception about technology, for example that you have to be really good in science or math. I did recently hear about a woman who went to MIT in their engineering program. She loved computers all her life and it was her dream to go there. She was the only woman the program and had a hard time relating to other people. It started making her feel that she didn’t deserve to be there. While stories like this can be discouraging, we can work toward a solution as more women move into technology-based careers.
There are amazing programs now that teach students STEM at a young age. I know of a non-profit robotics program that partners with schools where kids learn about physical computing and coding. This really helps kids relate to technology in the real world. This is so powerful and shows why you want to do something, technology becomes secondary. Hopefully, with more programs like these more kids (and girls) will be inspired to join the Tech industry.
What is your advice to women who want to join back the job market after a break in their career (say due to child care responsibilities)?
I cannot speak to that directly as I don’t have kids, but I try to relate it to changing careers where you see a lot of uncertainty in front of you. Or going to school and you are not able to work full time anymore. You need to deal with it by trusting yourself, trust the process, use your support system, find like-minded people who can help you.
Women that I know who have kids and re-entered the workforce – I see no difference in their work, actually it inspires me to do better myself. The more we see women in tech being moms and families, the less the stereotype exists. I think this is a challenging thing because of societal norms, however I also see this happening less and less.
What is that you are proud of having achieved in your career?
I am really proud of the different roles and experiences I have had as that made me a lot stronger. I can be an advocate to people who may have an imposter syndrome, or they feel they are not just good enough.
Having gone through it myself, I can share my experience which has not been a linear journey. Hopefully people can relate to it and be more confident and empowered to handle things they unhappy with in their lives and career.
So really trusting myself and reaching this place where I am now, I am really proud it.
If given a chance, what would be one thing that you would change in your industry that will help remove the glass ceiling for women (where it exists)?
I think to start just making sure that women have the same opportunities as men. This may sound very simple and obvious but may not always be the case. This goes for recruiting for schools and companies.
Young girls should come to know that there are opportunities for them in this field. I think it’s important for women to be open about sharing their own experiences with each other so we can support and learn from each other.
For example, women need to talk about salaries to make sure we’re getting what we deserve. The more we talk about things the more we know what are the right questions to ask. Even though it’s not the most comfortable topic to talk about we need to have those conversations.
You’re enjoying this interview thanks to our devoted Global Ambassador Shweta Singh. Shweta is a software engineer and quality champion with close to 10 years of experience in the Insurance domain and Digital transformations. Shweta is passionate about the topic of more women in Tech which motivates her to connect with like minded people.