Liquid Web’s Network Operations Administrator on embracing ongoing learning, the importance of professional friendships, and how corporate culture can support diversity.
Born and raised in Battle Creek, Michigan, the natural world was a present part of Jennifer McMillon’s youth. The middle of five children, camping, fishing, and hunting along the Kalamazoo River was the stuff of McMillon’s childhood. This love of the natural world nearly led her to a career with environmental nonprofits.
After attending Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek and spending a year living in Vermont as a full-time AmeriCorps Volunteer for the Vermont Youth Conservation Corps, McMillon transferred to Michigan State University. “I graduated from MSU in 2011 with a BS in Environmental Studies and Agriscience, one physics class away from having an undergraduate degree in Fish and Wildlife instead,” McMillon says.
After graduation, McMillon completed another AmeriCorps volunteer term in the Lansing area, which involved environmental nonprofits. Those connections eventually led to her taking the role of interim director of a watershed nonprofit. “This career had positive moments for me,” she says, “but ultimately, it was not a good match for my personality, and I couldn’t see it lasting long term.”
A college roommate encouraged her to apply for a job at Liquid Web. (“Thanks, Fred!”) Her first job at Liquid Web as Linux Support was also her first IT job. “I went this path of IT without knowing it would lead to Networking. I just knew it would be challenging, and I would learn something every day,” says McMillon.
Now in her eighth year at Liquid Web, McMillon works as a Network Operations Administrator II, supporting both Liquid Web’s internal network infrastructure and customer network infrastructure. It is a role she loves. “This job is constantly offering me new opportunities, which is probably my favorite part of it. It’s difficult to get bored when you work in tech. IT offers you the ability to train yourself in something new.”
Though McMillon came to Liquid Web with no background in tech, she has now not only been in the field for nearly a decade, but is a Red Hat Certified System Administrator and Cisco Certified Network Professional. She is also the very first woman to accept a position on the Liquid Web Network team and the first to become a Cisco Certified Network Professional.
“No part of my journey in IT or at Liquid Web would have been possible without a few key people who took a chance and believed in me,” she says. “I owe a lot to Joshua Jackson, a former supervisor and teacher, who believed in me when no one else did and gave me a shot. Jerry Vasquez is another former manager who always believed in me and found a way to challenge me and push me to grow constantly. I can’t stress enough how important professional friendships built on mutual respect and appreciation can change the entire game and pick you up when you fall. I hope every person in IT has the pleasure of knowing mentors like Josh and Jerry. I want every woman who pursues IT to know that your mentors can be women, yes, but they can also be very talented, courageous, and encouraging men too.”
What motivates McMillon most is being heroic. “I feel the most successful when I can rise to an occasion and help someone out of a tough situation. Whether it is making a difference in a customer’s day, helping another department reach their project deadlines and goals, or helping someone on my team solve something difficult, the ability to be helpful brings a lot of meaning to my life. I can always work on being an expert in subject matter, but equally as important to me is leading with empathy and supporting people with urgency and kindness.”
Career success, says McMillon, is rooted in growth in all aspects of life, such as ongoing learning, hobbies, therapy, and self-care. “You must know yourself, love yourself, and care for yourself, or you will lose the tools you need to be awesome in the first place.” McMillon cares for herself by spending time with her three dogs, going on a hike in the woods or along a river, or drinking a beer with her partner Sam and working on their front yard, which is entirely a perennial and native flower garden. “As long as Sam is there, really any way the day goes is good enough for me,” she says.
McMillon also emphasizes the importance of professional friendships. “It is essential that if you cannot find these sorts of people in your immediate environment that you seek those relationships out external to your organization or social circle. One way to do this is to find other people in IT that are active on social media or their blogs. This is useful because you are not only networking, but you also find shared experiences. And it is okay to ask for help,” she says. “There is no shame in not knowing. Put a great deal of space between you and those who feel shame is a necessity.”
Over time, McMillon believes that tech will simply be a career that women may choose to pursue, shedding the label of a “male-dominated” profession. Corporate accountability should play the most significant role in this, she says. “If your company is not bringing on female talent, it is time your organization understands why and does so on their own accord, as it is in their best interest ultimately. Making changes to create a company that is composed of a variety of genders, races, sexual orientation, etc. may look like, but is not limited to, providing additional training or networking more directly with the local community, as an example.”
To support this type of cultural change herself, McMillon says that she can offer what insights she has to women considering a tech career. “For anyone reading this that might feel that way or know someone who does, please take it upon yourself to find someone in the field to bounce the questions off of, and please consider me one of them. If you are a woman in IT already, it is time for you also to open your arms and do the same,” she says. “I think an amazing, supportive, and transparent network of women is the most convincing thing, don’t you think?”