Association for Women in Computing
Women in IT
PALO ALTO WEEKLY Wednesday, August 5, 1998
People: Nora Denzel: killing Miss Congeniality
In the late 1970s, before there was such a thing as an Apple Macintosh or a Pentium chip, Nora Denzel would plug her Commodore Vic 20 computer into the family television and start programming. "I would wait for everybody to go to bed, and I would sit up and program," she said. "It was a basic compiler with a blinking cursor."
She laughs as she thinks of the concept behind WebTV, which is to use the television to connect to the Internet.
Today, Denzel, the chief technology officer for Legato Systems of Palo Alto, is a long way from the upstate New York farm where she grew up with four sisters and a brother.
"It was in the middle of nowhere," she said, and her family had no television until she was in high school. Then her father, a high school teacher, brought home an Altair computer, followed later by the Commodore. From that point on, Denzel was hooked.
And luckily, nobody ever told her that math and science, and especially computers, were off-limits to girls. "I never knew there were women's issues. No one ever told me." Both her parents are college graduates, and both worked (her mother was a medical technologist).
Denzel attended the State University of New York in Plattsburg, where she started out as one of two dozen women studying computer science. She was one of two who graduated. "That's when I knew something was up."
She was hired by IBM to work as a software engineer in their storage management software division in south San Jose. "I was just fascinated with how data got in and how data got out."
By 24, she was managing employees older than her parents. "That's when I figured it out. You're the only woman in the department, you're the only manager."
Within 11 years, she was the director of all of storage management at IBM. She joined Legato Systems in 1996 as the chief technology officer. The company, headquartered on Porter Drive, makes software that backs up data on corporate computers.
Denzel, who is now 35, estimates that fewer than 10 percent of all the top executives at Silicon Valley companies are women. She herself advises other women in business through WOMEN (Women's Organization for Mentoring, Education and Networking) Unlimited Inc. She also speaks often to groups about her experiences.
Her own climb hasn't been easy.
"I wish somebody had taken me aside. . . . The hardest part was not knowing the ropes," she says of her early years in a male-dominated field.
"The way we were raised, (it was) make sure everybody's comfortable in the room, don't raise your voice." But she learned early on that such an approach doesn't always work. "If the situation calls for it, I yell. You have to act the way the situation calls for."
"Miss Congeniality never won the Miss America contest," she said. So one of her tenets is to kill Miss Congeniality.
What she most wants to teach other women is to embrace criticism. "If you're not getting criticized, then you're not out on the edge of your leading. Learn how to fail."
Crying, she said, is a definite no-no at work. She admits she has cried twice in her 14-year career. "Luckily, I had a boss who took me aside and said, 'Don't ever do it again.' There were a thousand days I wanted to go home and cry, but I didn't."
Now responsible for the technical vision of her company, Denzel tries to be a fair manager and to set the tone for her employees to be honest and straightforward. Early in her career, she recalls, "it was unacceptable to show any weakness." Today, she accepts constructive criticism and allows her employees to fail in order to learn.
In her free time, she scuba dives as often as possible and hikes in the local hills.
Late at night, as in her high school days, she usually has her computer on, surfing the Internet. Just the other night, she took a virtual tour of the White House.
"I'm a huge geek," she admits, although she hardly looks the part. "My love is computers."
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