Inspiring Success

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November 20, 2013

A League of Her Own

Judging by what you read in the news, there are a lot of liberal arts majors who can’t find good-paying jobs.

Maybe they should find a tech hobby and grow it into a career, the way Ruth Hillebrand did.

Hillebrand, 26, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology in 2010. She certainly wasn’t the prototypical computer person growing up. Her most impressive use of a computer in high school (this before phone texting hit the mainstream) was using AOL’s chat feature. “I spent a lot of time chatting with friends on AOL. I think I set a record for seven hours straight. I was proud of it at the time. It’s a little embarrassing now.”

A native of Anoka, MN, Hillebrand enrolled at the University of St. Thomas in nearby St. Paul and immediately gravitated to the social sciences. Her interest in technology started the beginning of her junior year out of necessity when she bought a computer from a friend who delivered it to her in pieces.

“He was going to built it out for me with all of these great specs,” but for weeks the pieces just sat there in the corner of her dorm room. “I got sick of waiting.” So she did some research online and “put it together myself. I realized it was not so scary after all.”

Impressed with herself at getting her computer built and working, she decided to approach another friend who worked on the college’s information technology (IT) help desk, which assisted students with all sorts of computer problems. On a lark, Hillebrand applied for a job there and got it. She would end up working on the help desk for the next three semesters.

Not long into her new help desk role she decided to join her college’s computer science club. When she walked into her first meeting, “it got really quiet and someone said, ‘There’s a girl here!’” But the guys in the club quickly accepted her. Soon she found herself drawn into the techy subculture of science fiction — and discovered she enjoyed it.

“I just didn’t realize I had it in me to do the technical. It was intimidating from the outside looking in. I didn’t have anyone encourage me to even try.”

Upon graduation, Hillebrand continued to work for the IT department of the college, and was assigned to the computer replacement team, tasked with replacing one third of the leased computer systems on campus each summer.

But computer technology still seemed like something to do on the side, not a career. So she enrolled in a master’s program in family and marriage therapy, taking classes while she worked. Meanwhile, realizing she needed something full-time with benefits, she applied for tech jobs outside the college.

She had just accepted a job as a computer support specialist with a medical software company when St. Thomas, in the eleventh hour, offered her a position on its Tier II Rapid Response Team, which she accepted.

Twelve months later, Hillebrand was promoted to the college’s Enterprise Desktop Team. That’s about the time that she discontinued her studies for the therapy degree.

“I decided my career path was in technology,” she said.

Hillebrand says she loves the variety and importance of her IT work. “I'm a Jill of All Trades.” She manages technical projects on St. Thomas’ two campuses in Minneapolis and St. Paul. In her job she consults for two departments: Physical Plant and Information Resources and Technologies. Making sure that computers have proper security and repairing Dell, HP, and Apple hardware are just a couple of the responsibilities that fall under her job description.

For example, recently she helped the library staff connect their computers to a humidity monitor being used to protect a collection of rare books from excess air moisture, so staff could monitor the levels themselves and make adjustments.

Hillebrand considers herself an IT worker now. She has achieved several industry certifications and is studying for her Cisco Certified Network Associate Routing & Switching (CCNA) certification.

Because IT as an industry has three times as many men as women, she says it doesn’t hurt that she enjoys one traditionally male past-time: football. Her father — who has seven daughters and step-daughters —was a huge Fantasy Football player and included his girls in his hobby. (She won her league the first year she played. “My strategy is to draft Peyton Manning every year. This year in particular I’m doing really well!”)

Information technology can include a number of different job roles. Hillebrand settled into a job that allows her to work directly with people every day.

“I’m very social. I have to go out and talk to people, and that’s a big part of my job. There are different people who have different strengths. Being a coder or software engineer probably isn’t for me. I’m really good at talking to people who are very good at (computer technology), and also talking to people who don't understand what it means.”