Early Adopter

Susan Spoehrer Elliott ’58 reflects on her successful career in the male-dominated technology trade

by Jane Falla

After graduation, Susan Spoehrer Elliott ’58 took an unlikely job for a woman at that time: She was hired by IBM as a programmer. Eight years later, she used her experience to launch her own technology consulting firm, SSE Inc. Still thriving today, with Elliott’s daughter, Elizabeth, at the helm, SSE specializes in e-learning, network infrastructure, and technology management services.

Elliott’s new book, Across the Divide: Navigating the Digital Revolution as a Woman, Entrepreneur, and CEO, gathers anecdotes and insights about business, the ongoing gender imbalance in the technology workforce, and the ever-changing nature of computing.

How she got started

I went to the college counselor before graduation and said there had to be a job somewhere in the country for which I didn’t have to go to typing school. At that time, women could be teachers, nurses, and secretaries, or the other half of my class was getting married. The counselor said IBM was actively recruiting women, and if you had analytical, logical ability, they would teach you everything you needed to know. They tested us, and I was thrilled to have passed.

Corporate culture circa 1958

We wore white gloves to work. The men could smoke at their desks, but the women had to go to the ladies’ room. We sang “Ever Onward IBM,” and when there were evening events where spouses were included, the men wouldn’t talk to me because they didn’t want their spouses to know that they were working with a woman. By 1960, there were ninety-nine men and five women in the office. But once you were there, you were just working, and the experience of working in a large corporation was extraordinary.

When one door closes . . .

At IBM you were required to take a leave starting at six months into a pregnancy. I became pregnant in 1966 and didn’t want to stop working, so I founded my own consulting business.

Advent of the PC changes everything

In 1983, my husband and I went to an auction where one of the original IBM PCs was listed. I remember saying, “Can you imagine having a computer in your home?” It just seemed impossible. He bid, and we got the PC for $4,000. I then hooked up with some old friends from IBM who had just opened a retail store in downtown St. Louis to sell IBM PCs. The salesmen would advise customers about what to buy, saying that SSE would come out to install it. There were many times that I was reading the manual in the afternoon so I could install the equipment the next day in the customer’s office. I even carried a screwdriver in my purse, because there were times I needed that.

Technology hindsight and foresight

When I started at IBM, they gave us eleven weeks of training. In just one week they told us about computers; they said the average person wouldn’t need to know more than that because there weren’t going to be that many computers. . . . Now we’re looking at mobile learning, using software to deliver “nuggets” of training to your smartphone. We can remotely manage organizations’ networks and computers, and we’re currently consulting with clients about using cloud computing.

Personal networking

Get yourself involved with not-forprofits, volunteer, go to conferences, and just do the best you can. I served on a number of committees and boards, taking advantage of successive opportunities. Not only did they give me outreach, but they also helped bring more and new business into SSE.

Women and leadership

Get out there in droves, and get into business. But you can’t think of yourself as a woman; just get out there with your passion and perseverance. I hope Smith students will seek careers in technology, in engineering—not only to do the next new thing and take it forward, but also to enable more women in the world to take on leadership positions.