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Lead, Code, and Look Forward

A McGowan alumna takes on gender imbalance and tech leadership in stressful times

As a kid, Brigid Johnson fell in love with programming. “You change a few lines of code and make what you want to happen happen,” she says, as if writing code is akin to casting a magic spell. But when she became one of 18 women in a class of 200 students at a top-tier engineering school, it was clear that even excellent code couldn’t solve the gender imbalance. It would take time, individual attention, mentorship.

Now, as senior software development manager at AWS Identity and a 2014 McGowan alumna, she’s taken up the challenge, which remains significant. Even now, just 26 percent of computer scientists are women.

Johnson gives talks and mentors women. Before the COVID pandemic, she formed a women’s group within Amazon and served as a Big through Big Brothers Big Sisters. The formal talks demonstrate that women can do this work, she says. But encouraging women isn’t the only goal: “Men see me on stage and see me as a credible collaborator, and the hope is they lift other women up.”

In a sense, her formal work at Amazon, which focuses on the cloud, is a kind of activism, too. She’s a manager of managers—a leader who has embraced the McGowan principles and uses them, especially this past year. In particular, she’s a fan of resilience. “There’s so much more stress and uncertainty with everything that’s going on in the world,” she says. Identifying stressors and learning to rebound are crucial to leading productively.

Empathy, another McGowan principle, has also been helpful. For example, one of her employees has family in India, which is seeing a terrifying surge of COVID. “He’s working all day and staying up at night to talk to family. They’re all living through COVID a second time.”

These difficulties call for an adjustment. “As managers, we have to be empathetic about the added stress. Maybe we don’t push as much.”

Having adjusted successfully, she still looks forward to a post-COVID world where people meet face-to-face. “One thing we know is that women do so much better when they have community—when they can talk about being the only woman in the room, or saying the tough thing as a woman,” she says. “This is true of women in tech especially.”

“I miss camaraderie,” she adds. “I would like to connect with some of my co-workers.”