Kathy Hughes Baird '75 concurrently earned a B.S. and M.S. in computer science from Union College. She recently retired from a 40-year career in the information technology industry, where she last served as vice president and general manager of state and local programs at Dynamics Research Corporation. For her first 20 years there (Kathy started as a programmer in 1977), the company designed and delivered information systems to track maintenance, readiness and missions for the United States Air Force for their F-16 and F-117A stealth fighter aircraft. Kathy then founded a new division of the company to design, build and support human services case management systems for child protection, youth and family services agencies in state governments. Those systems are in operation in New Hampshire, Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and Colorado. A board member and officer in neighborhood associations in Nantucket, Mass., and Smuggler’s Notch, Vt., Kathy served as an IT consultant to the town of Auburn, N.H. She is a volunteer judge in the worldwide Odyssey of the Mind program for children in grades 1 through college; she has supported STEM education on career day in middle schools; and she serves in several positions as a volunteer in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. Kathy is most proud of founding and spreading the Laundry Love mission, which provides hands-on assistance to families who struggle financially to afford clean laundry (laundrylove.org). Kathy has also been head agent for the Union Fund for her class for many years. Were it not for the financial aid received from Union, “I would not have been able to afford to attend college at all.”
What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of your career or volunteer activities?
I was fortunate that when I got into the IT industry in the mid-1970’s, it was a new profession not yet dominated by men and many women my age joined me in that pursuit. The biggest challenge was finding women interested in IT as the years rolled on. They seemed to be more interested in careers in law or medicine, so it was always a challenge to find qualified female new hires as my business grew. The most rewarding part of my career was moving from a military mission to one that helped children and families in need (child protection, adoption and foster care). As an information systems designer and developer, you are continually afforded the opportunity to learn. I loved working with our military personnel to learn what they did in their profession and I also loved working with the social workers. Only by walking in the shoes of these professionals can you design and implement tools to support them. So it was never boring and always rewarding. Bottom line is that to be effective in the information systems world, where software applications are built as tools to support workers, you need interpersonal, listening and creative skills – not just technical ones.
Who inspired and/or inspires you, professionally and personally?
I met and was inspired by Admiral Grace Hopper, who invented the term “bug” in relation to software. She was a woman ahead of her time, both in her achievements in the military and especially as a role model for women in the IT profession. She was smart, tough and gained the respect of those who worked with and for her. You do not have to be a nerd to love IT!
What advice would you offer today’s women students, not just at Union, but across the country?
I would encourage them to avoid the stereotypes and fears of math and science that persist and assure them that they are not nerdy if they enjoy these fields. We need more female scientists, mathematicians, engineers and especially computer scientists in the U.S. Why should we have to import that skill set from other countries when we have so many talented women right here? A career in IT is also an excellent one for those who want families. Many IT professionals now work all or part of the time from home and you can make your own schedule as long as the work gets done.
What was your most formative experience at Union?
The small size of the school permitted very close relationships with professors, many of whom (in my time) had also been students at Union before they came to work there. The interdisciplinary nature of my computer science major, having a radio show at WRUC and the terms abroad program opened so many new worlds to me. I firmly believe that all students should be required to spend at least one term abroad as the world is so much smaller and we all need to learn how to work in the world, not just at home. Exposure to the liberal arts while a CS major was enormously beneficial. It rounded out my education and experiences and opened doors that I never knew existed. I also met my current husband at Union (he was a night student) – although it took us more than 35 years to figure out we should spend the rest of our lives together! Being one of the first women was memorable, too. We largely lived in Richmond dorm and the administration had decided “women like to cook,” so they converted rooms on either end of the floors into lounge/kitchens. They also did not take out the urinals in the bathrooms until sometime after 1975 when “the coed experiment” looked like it might be permanent. I also remember that some of the upper-class male students were not supportive of coeducation. They attended Union because it was an all-male school whose sister school was Skidmore. They preferred to date women from Skidmore so they would only have to see them on weekends. Some of the female students used to travel up to Skidmore just to meet Union guys!