Tag Archives: Women in Tech

Women in Tech, Interview with Jillian Winn, Co-Founder and Partner of Signing Saavy


jillianwinnJillian Winn runs her own online business, Signing Savvy, which is a visual dictionary and learning resource for sign language. SigningSavvy.com had 2.26 Million unique visitors in 2013 and has had 7.3+ Million unique visitors since launching in 2009.  Jillian has a Masters in Digital Media, Art and Technology and with a background in user experience, web design and development.  She shares her story of creating Signing Saavy and what lead her to an entrepreneurial role…

Sarah Worsham: What’s the creation story behind Signing Savvy?

Jillian Winn: My passion is to use technology to create user experiences that improve the quality of life for others. I had worked on a range of web and software products and knew I wanted to use my expertise to build something that could really help people. I joined my husband, who had worked on multiple sign language products in the past, and a sign language expert because we saw a need for a better online sign language learning resource. Together, we built Signing Savvy, which started out as a sign language video dictionary, but has grown to be a comprehensive sign language learning resource. At first glance, Signing Savvy may appear to be a sign language company, but it is also a technology company – deeply routed in using technology to offer sign language learning resources.

Sarah: How have you managed its growth? What sorts of obstacles have you had to overcome?

Jillian:  Signing Savvy has grown tremendously since we launched – we have had over 7 million unique visitors and more people find out about us everyday. As our audience grows, we have new challenges that inspire us to offer new features and improve Signing Savvy. Some examples include:

  • We have had to upgrade our hosting services multiple times to support the additional traffic and keep Signing Savvy running optimally.
  • We created iOS and Android Apps that our members can use to access Signing Savvy on the go.
  • With more users, we receive more customer support inquiries. We had to allocate more time to customer support and create more customer support resources, such as a Frequently Asked Questions section on our website and video tutorials.
  • We wanted to do a better job of communicating with our users, so in addition to our blog, we started sending out regular email newsletters with learning tips and news related to sign language and deaf culture. We also started and continually try to grow Twitter and Facebook social media presences for Signing Savvy.

Sarah: If your wildest dreams came true, what are your hopes for Signing Savvy?

Jillian: We hope Signing Savvy can become an all encompassing resource for all things related to American Sign Language. Specifically, we would like to create more of a community within Signing Savvy where people can connect with others who sign.

Another hope is to build to the resources on Signing Savvy for teachers so that there are more tools that help teachers teach sign language and strengthen the communication between school and home – to help parents know what signs their children are currently learning and learn sign language along with their children. Over 90% of deaf children are born to hearing parents, so it is especially important for parents to learn sign language along with their children so they are encouraging their children to learn sign language and so they can communicate with each other using sign language.

Sarah: Was there a particular event or moment when you decided to pursue a career in STEM?

Jillian: I can’t think of a particular moment that made me want to pursue a career in STEM. I think the most important thing was that I was always told that I could do anything I set my mind to and that I could be anything I wanted to be. My mom and grandparents encouraged me to do a summer youth exchange program to Italy when I was in high school and traveling abroad on my own as a teenager gave me confidence and independence. The experience and meeting peers in the youth exchange program from places across the world with different dreams than my own, opened my eyes to the vast opportunities available the world has to offer.

Sarah: What has been most important in terms of getting where you are today?

Jillian: Determination. There are always people who won’t “get it” – what you do, what you want to do, what you think you can do. At the end of the day you have to listen to yourself, believe in yourself, learn who to trust, work hard, and take calculated risks. There will also be times when you may fail, but there is a lesson to learn in any failure and you just have to try again.

Sarah: Did you have any mentors or role models growing up that led you to this career? How did they influence you?

Jillian: I was really lucky to work for two different strong, intelligent women during college, one during my undergrad and one during graduate school. They were great leaders and hard workers. I learned from their examples, but they also provided me with great opportunities to learn and grow within STEM positions. I worked hard because they worked hard and gave me responsibilities. I learned that I was (and am) a valuable asset to a team because they had high expectations of me and gave me their trust. To help girls go into STEM fields, women in STEM fields need to do as my role models did with me – provide opportunities, give support and guidance, and put your trust in the next generation of women leaders so they can learn from you.

Sarah: Have you ever had any difficulties in your career due to your gender? How did you handle them?

Jillian: I’ve definitely been prejudiced against for being a female and, in the past, for my age. In my mid-twenties, one senior level executive once said to me in a meeting that he wouldn’t value my opinion any more than he would value his college-aged daughter’s opinion. It’s ok to not like me or not like something I said, but the statement was inappropriate for a variety of reasons. After ranting to a friend afterwards, she said, “At least you’re not his daughter, clearly he doesn’t value her opinion,” and it was true, it could have been worse – he wasn’t my father, my boss, or someone I would have to work with regularly. I had the luxury of biting my tongue and never interacting with the person again, however, there may be times when you may not have that luxury or when the person is someone you see or work with often. Every situation is unique and you have to learn what to let go and when to stand up (speak up) and fight. The best advise I have is to not react in the heat of the moment based off of your raw emotions, you don’t want to stoop to the other person’s level and act inappropriately just because that’s how the other person behaved. Prove them wrong with your actions and by being a success. Report the issue or ask for help when it is appropriate; listen to your gut.

Sarah: What advice do you have to anyone interested in a similar career?

Jillian: You’re never too young to start. Be open to opportunities and try new things. Find the opportunities available at your age or make new opportunities by asking someone for help. Go to summer camp, study abroad, shadow other’s in the field you’re interested in, take an internship, start off in a entry-level job in a department or company your interested in learning more about and work hard.

Sarah: In your opinion, how can we get more girls interested in STEM careers?

Jillian: There are two important parts to getting girls interested in STEM careers: (1) Expose them to opportunities, so they know what exists, and (2) Instill confidence in girls and teach them to be a leader, no matter what they want to do when they grow up. Leadership isn’t about being a boss or being bossy, it’s about having confidence in yourself and listening and helping others to grow and be better.

Connect with Jillian:

Thank you Jillian!  We hope you found her story helpful, interesting and inspiring.  If you would like to share your own story, please submit your information and we’ll be in contact soon!

Women in Tech, Interview with Sarah Frisk, Software Developer & Comic Artist


sarahfriskIt doesn’t have to be all work and no play in the world of STEM.  Sarah Frisk is a software developer by day and a comic artist by night. She shares her story about how she keeps up with both, how she became a software developer and advice for others interested in a similar career path.


Sarah Worsham: What type of work do you do as a software developer?

Sarah Frisk: I work as a software developer at a company called Portland Webworks. For the most part I specialize in front end web applications, but I do work with backend technology such as java and php as well.

Worsham: What’s your day-to-day like?

Frisk: First thing in the morning, caffeine. I’m not so much of a coffee drinker, but I love tea – so I’m normally pretty useless until I’ve had my chai latte in the morning. After that it’s 8 hours of coding, lately on just one or two projects, working with a small team. During my lunch break I’ll draw or surf the internet. Once work is done I’ll either drag myself to the gym, do some tabletop gaming with my friends, or work on my webcomic (be in art, or lately, a complete website redesign). I’ll pass out sometime around midnight to 1am, and then rinse and repeat.

Worsham: In your entire career, what’s been your favorite job or project and why?

Frisk: Ooo, this is a tough one. I tend to like parts of projects, especially when they give me a chance to explore new technologies I haven’t had a chance to explore yet. But I don’t know if I’ve had a favorite project overall.

As for jobs, that would be my current one. Seriously, I love the people I work with. They’re pretty awesome.

Worsham: Was there a particular event or moment when you decided to pursue a career in programming?

Frisk: When I was in middle school, my parents sent me to Math and Science Camp all the way up north near the border of Maine and Canada. The second year I went (I went there for about four summers), I decided to take the Web Development class. It was pretty much only HTML and some very basic inline styling, but I finding the whole thing fascinating. When I got home and told my parents about it, my father (who was a computer teacher at a middle school) brought home a book on HTML4, and encouraged me to explore my interest. A couple days a week after school, I would come home, and work on websites that would never actually see the light of the internet, only to start completely over again, when I learned of a new technique I wanted to explore. By the time I hit college, it no longer was just a hobby, but something I realized I wanted to continue doing full time.

Worsham: Did you have any mentors or role models growing up that led you to this career? How did they influence you?

Frisk: While growing up, it was mostly my parents. They were very encouraging of me exploring hobbies that interested me, and were willing to provide the means to help me explore those interests.

Worsham: What drew you to comics? (yes, pun intended!)

Frisk: As much as I love computers, near the end of college and after I found myself missing the right-brainy stuff I used to do. I had a degree in English I wasn’t using much, and I wasn’t doing anything with music, acting, or art I used to do before college. Coding had pretty much become my life.

So I started to draw. I had always been a huge doodler, my notes from classes were covered with them. At some point the idea of a comic about tavern wenches struck my fancy, and I became obsessed with the idea of it. Of course it took me three years before the idea moved out of a sketchbook and became a webcomic.

I was especially drawn to the idea of a webcomics mostly because it was the blend of coding, art, and writing. It was the perfect mix of different passions, because there are just so much you can do with webcomics that you can’t necessarily do with print – more if you actually know how to code. So webcomics pretty much became the perfect way for me to mix both the logical and creative sides of my brain together.

Worsham: Tell us about your favorite comic or drawing so far.

Frisk: Pretty much it’s just the one comic, Tavern Wenches. Tavern Wenches follows the adventures of the NPC tavern wenches of A Need for Mead as they face down lecherous PCs, point the way towards Epic Quests, and try to make sure the tavern is still standing come morning. It updates every Monday and Thursday. You can find it here: http://www.tavern-wenches.com/

Worsham: How do you balance fulfilling your potential as a programmer as well as a comic artist?

Frisk: I stay up reaaally late. Pretty much daytime is devoted to focusing on developing as a programmer, and evenings are spent developing my webcomic (although it varies if I’m focused on the art side or the coding side). I find giving myself a schedule to follow helps a lot too.

Worsham: What was your favorite game or toy growing up? Why?

Frisk: I’ll be honest, it was somewhat of a tie between Barbies and Legos. I used to pretend my Barbies were super secret spies going on top secret missions, or I used to find plays and have them act out all the parts with me as a director. I even had different voices I used to use for each character.

As for Legos, what kid (or adult) doesn’t like Legos? I used to make castles, spaceships, forts, you name it. Whatever I wanted to build, I could. To this day I still can’t help myself when I walk by a Lego aisle in a store. If it weren’t for the fact I have to firmly tell myself that my apartment really doesn’t have the space for a giant Lego set, I would still probably buy Legos to play with.

Worsham: Have you ever had any difficulties in your career due to your gender? How did you handle them?

Frisk: Thankfully not so much, any gender issues I’ve had have normally been outside of my career. The area where I work tends to be pretty positive about female programmers. Although there still isn’t a whole lot of us yet; or at least not many I’ve seen interacting with the local programming community. I’m hoping to improve that though!

Worsham: What advice do you have to anyone interested in a similar career?

Frisk: Don’t wait, explore now. Believe me, when it comes to programming, there is plenty of information out there. There are some really good sites especially for web development that you can find with a pretty simple Google search. Find a pet project that you’re interested in, and teach yourself through that. Nothing can help you learn faster than building something you’re passionate about.

Also check to find if there are any local meetup groups. In my experience, it’s always been a great place to learn new things and meet some really interesting people.

Worsham: In your opinion, how can we get more girls interested in STEM careers?

Frisk: By teaching girls at a young age that technology isn’t just a boy thing. It’s a girl thing too. I do think this is a shift that IS happening – I see more and more girls today playing video games than I did when I was a kid. And gaming can be a stepping stone into wanting to figure out HOW games work, and if a girl expresses interest, help her explore that interest. There are plenty of tools (and games) out there that can help a kid create a game while learning the basics of programming. Have more STEM related after school activities, for those who want to explore more outside the classroom. Goodness knows I wished for more computer activities!

In the end it really comes down to if a child expresses interest, help give her the tools to explore that interest and encourage her to do so. Be it a science, technology, math, english, languages, politics, music, theater, or whatever. Because it’s the that unhindered exploration that leads to a lifelong passion.

Connect with Sarah

Thank you Sarah!  We hope you found her story helpful, interesting and inspiring.  If you would like to share your own story, please submit your information and we’ll be in contact soon!