Flagger to Construction Tech CEO
Updated: 5 days ago
I’m excited to be on the women in construction technology panel at Women in Cloud Summit this January. As I prepare for the panel, I reflected back on how I got here.
Women make up 9% of the construction workforce and 33% of the large tech company workforce I aspire to join the ranks of. Here's how I became a woman in construction technology, and here's what I do when the stats get me down.
Construction Technology Stories
On my feet, in the rain, leaning on my Stop/Slow sign. This is probably when I first became a construction technologist.
I was thinking of more efficient and humane ways to Slow traffic than my squishy human body waving a sign at disinterested drivers.
My path to construction tech began in my first job ever in construction safety. A Contractor for the Temporary Protection and Direction of Traffic. Armed with a sign and a traffic cone.
I was a flagger.
Family Construction Business
Ours was a construction family. From Grandpa to Mom we all owned construction companies. Mom found her niche in traffic control and so it is that every one of my siblings and a good handful of my cousins learned the value of a hard day’s work as human road signs.
Like 47% other percent of construction businesses, ours was family owned. I was introduced to construction via the family and flagging.
Flagging was hard in the way that boredom is hard and discomfort is hard. It was really hot and you were standing on fresh pavement or it was raining and you were in the middle of an intersection and nothing in between. It predated podcasts, and even then listening to music or audiobooks is not technically allowed.
Flagging as a woman meant begging the inspector to hold your sign so you could take a pee break. It was getting honked at by truckers. And in case you weren’t sure whether it was road rage or sexism, one of my regulars on a highway in Madras, had a special “sexy whistle” horn he’d use when he passed our team of female flaggers.
That charmer had emblazoned “The Candyman” upon his cab.
Flagging was sleeping in motel rooms by the remote jobsite for a summer but not having peers to hang out with after work.
Looking back, the thing I can be thankful for is my safety.
Oregon averages 488 work zone crashes each year - 5 of them of fatal, according to Oregon Department of Transportation statistics.
Just a few days ago, my youngest brother was hit by a drunk driver while opening a lane of traffic on a jobsite. The driver ran over his foot and fled the scene. Our family is relieved that he’s alive. Others haven’t been so lucky. Construction remains a difficult and dangerous profession.
Women Owned Construction Business
While I can’t totally recommend flagging for the above safety concerns, I wish I’d tried other areas of construction before becoming a lawyer. I’d go back in time and give myself this you tube video [ don’t be a lawyer]
I opted out of construction after my summers of flagging because the environment wasn’t friendly. And no, not just the boredom, discomfort, weather and drunk drivers.
It was the business environment that had no idea how to support women owned businesses. When I saw how my mother was out in all weather, testing concrete 9 months pregnant, and how the DBE office couldn’t decide whether her work was essential enough to consider her an owner.
I watched first hand her fights to be paid. Her hard work litigated. Her contributions scrutinized and undermined by the agencies meant to improve women owned businesses’ access to contracts. (There’s a really bad habit for these agencies to assume your husband is the “real” owner. And, if you’re like 47% of large construction companies that remain family owned to this day, you watch the cycle continue.)
I didn’t like what I saw. I opted out.
My summers flagging helped pay for law school.
Night work on the Burnside Bridge, I’d sit in my truck and study for the LSAT. Law was “practical” but over time its rhythms were like traffic. The sexism was regular and predictable. And worst of all, I was getting bored and anxious.
Remembering to Opt in and Have Fun at Work
I almost missed my career change in 2016 when I nearly refused to put on a Hololens. I went from "I will not wear this weird face computer" to owning a AR/VR studio within a year.
I spent the next three years of life putting VR and AR headsets on people at architecture and construction firms. We’d show them unbuilt spaces and I watched the women pass on the experience again and again.
They’re opting out, I thought. Just as I nearly had. I wondered why.
I looked at our technology and our goals, I wanted to scale our spatial computing on construction sites. I’d need investors, I thought. I looked at the world of investment and saw that, to this day women owned companies are funded at fractional rates.
This time I caught myself when I started opting out, and thinking this isn’t for me. I dove in.
When I get tired of shitty tech culture, I play parlor games like Start a Shitty Startup with my friends. When I researched for this article, I began to make a game of replace the word women with men in online articles to great amusement. Like this headline: Insights from 17 Strong [Men] in Construction Tech. It starts to sound like a Truck Stop Calendar (that would totally buy). I’ve learned to call out the sexism in the industry while laughing about it.
Give yourself time to play. There are no bonuses for having a bad time at work. So when work is grueling, you make your own fun. When I flagged it was dancing or fantasizing about construction startups. Look at me now, mom.
Find communities of other women breaking the mold
Just because you don’t see as many women or on the jobsite, it does not mean that men have the monopoly on construction skills, tech skills or sales skills. So you're 9% of the construction workforce. That can get to your head.
Surround yourself with women after hours and remind yourself that male is not default. Join a club. Find a women’s trade workshop or bowling league. Turns out--There are SO MANY of these and you belong to them. Find your niche. Are you a construction safety concrete testing mom? It’s a thing. You do you.
It's how I found Women in Cloud. It provided deep education into enterprise sales brought us from private beta to rapidly onboarding us into the Azure ecosystem. Organizations like Women in Cloud are bringing smaller companies like mine in front of cloud hyperscalers while being a place where we can privately cheer and support eachother--even though we're stuck online with covid. The way our cohort has been able to get to know one another and grow community.
I'm back on the Burnside bridge again these days. Instead of my work truck and cones, I'm in a new building by Andersen construction building my tech startup from the comfort of a co-working space for women.
I get to drive around city and point out projects to my son--and tell him all about how I contributed in my small way to the building scape just like my mom did for me.