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SheCanCode Spotlight Series: Mirjam Kühne, Chair of RIPE NCC

Mirjam Kühne, Chair of RIPE NCC

ARTICLE SUMMARY

Mirjam has been actively involved in RIPE, a technical community mostly comprised of network operators for over twenty years and served as a senior community builder at the regional internet registry RIPE NCC for a decade.

In addition to establishing and maintaining relationships with the larger technical Internet community, Mirjam also created and curated RIPE Labs, a collaborative platform that supports innovative ideas and tools for the community. Mirjam was selected as Chair of the RIPE community in 2020.

Prior to joining RIPE NCC, Mirjam worked at the Internet Society as Senior Program Manager. During this period Mirjam intensified her involvement with the IETF, the body that develops standards used on the Internet, where she served as the Chair of the IETF Education Team for over ten years.

Mirjam holds a Master’s degree in Computer Science from the Technical University Berlin, Germany.

SHECANCODE CAUGHT UP WITH MIRJAM AS SHE SHARES HOW SHE LANDED HER JOB IN TECH, WHY SHE LOVES HER ROLE AND HER ADVICE FOR THOSE STARTING IN THE INDUSTRY.

HOW DID YOU LAND YOUR CURRENT ROLE? WAS IT PLANNED?

In 2020, I was unanimously selected as the Chair of the RIPE community. This is a community formed around 30 years ago during the formation of the Internet as we know it today. RIPE is a community who look after the operation and maintenance of the underlying technical Internet infrastructure. RIPE has adopted a ‘bottom up’ consensus approach when making decisions and it’s my responsibility to ensure the community operates well using this framework and all opinions and ideas are heard.

In the past the Chair would be selected by the previous Chair. My appointment as the Chair marks the first time a woman has been Chair and also the first time the nomination has been made by the wider community.

WHAT ARE THE KEY ROLES IN YOUR FIELD OF WORK, AND WHY DID YOU CHOOSE YOUR CURRENT EXPERTISE?

In school I was passionate about the arts and history and even considered majoring in Psychology in university. It wasn’t until I met my incredible maths teacher during my last two school years when I became fascinated with computer science and decided to get a higher degree in that subject in Berlin at the Technical University. At that time, it was quite a novel course so naturally I was excited to be part of an up-and-coming phenomenon. Because there were few women in class, we became each other’s cheerleaders, organising tutorials and supporting each other.

I have always had a strong predilection for technology and communications which has led me to a career within the technical Internet community. It’s the best of both worlds! The tech community has embraced me thanks to my technical background but it was my communications expertise that helped me cultivate a wide ‘social’ network.

DID YOU (OR DO YOU) HAVE A ROLE MODEL IN TECH OR BUSINESS IN GENERAL?

Where to start? I had many mentors and role models throughout my career, for instance, the former RIPE Chairs and others who have been involved in developing the Internet infrastructure. I’ve always been fascinated and inspired by people who are passionate about building the Internet as a communication and information-sharing platform and who help others to get connected. This spirit of collaboration and doing something “good for the Internet” is still inherent in the RIPE community.

WHY DO YOU LOVE YOUR JOB?

I get to work with people with a wide range of experiences, expertise and backgrounds. The community is such a valuable source of knowledge and people generally try to work to create a better Internet.

WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF IN YOUR CAREER, SO FAR?

My biggest accomplishment to date has definitely been my nomination and then appointment as the Chair of RIPE. I am grateful that my diplomacy, communications and community building skills have been acknowledged. It’s undoubtedly a challenging position, balancing various interests, ideas and opinions in the community, but also extremely fulfilling and rewarding.

WHAT DOES AN AVERAGE WORK DAY LOOK LIKE FOR YOU?

I mostly work from home behind my computer. This sounds boring and lonely, but I am in contact with people from all over the world. My main task is it to provide the framework that allows the community to do its work. This includes supporting and guiding working group chairs, helping to set up new activities and overseeing the consensus decision making process. (Hm this does sound boring indeed 😉 Maybe we need to spice it up a bit).

ARE THERE ANY SPECIFIC SKILLS OR TRAITS THAT YOU NOTICE COMPANIES LOOK FOR WHEN YOU’RE SEARCHING FOR ROLES IN YOUR FIELD?

Although some may assume that a certain set of skills or a background in a specific field may boost your chances of getting a job in tech, in reality the tech sector needs people with a variety of skills. Those who do not necessarily hold technical expertise should not be discouraged from applying for a role in the industry. In the field of network operations there are a number of roles which need professionals with a mixture of experiences and talents, peering coordinators for example.

HAS ANYONE EVER TRIED TO STOP YOU FROM LEARNING AND DEVELOPING IN YOUR PROFESSIONAL LIFE, OR HAVE YOU FOUND THE TECH SECTOR SUPPORTIVE?

Unfortunately, there are still barriers for women to pursue a career in tech and that is why role models, such as teachers in schools, are crucial to encourage girls to dream big. We, as a society, must inspire women to explore other fields of studies and work that they feel passionate about and not just opt for the standard, such as humanities. That is why we should start nurturing their curiosity and, most importantly, their talents to excel in new and unconventional subjects.

The more women we see in varied fields of work in senior positions, the more girls will feel empowered to pursue diverse career paths. It’s a chain reaction! It’s the reason why I am happy to have been appointed the Chair of RIPE as I hope women in the community will be inspired that anything is possible through determination, hard work and talent. It’s these important steps in the right direction that illustrate a supportive work environment which is particularly important in times when women still face rigid circumstances at work. We, for instance, provide childcare to those parents who need it for our large community meetings. As a result, people who would otherwise have to stay at home taking care of their children can participate in those meetings.

HAVE YOU EVER FACED INSECURITIES AND ANXIETIES DURING YOUR CAREER, AND HOW DID YOU OVERCOME THEM?

A key learning from my career thus far has been that you must acknowledge when you are pushing yourself too hard and, most importantly, you must not be afraid to take a break or ask for help. My career progressed so quickly that by the time I turned 30 I already started experiencing burnout. It was then that I decided to step back from my role and focus on myself. That period helped me build myself up mentally which definitely has had a positive impact on my current role.

ENTERING THE WORLD OF WORK CAN BE DAUNTING. DO YOU HAVE ANY WORDS OF ADVICE FOR ANYONE FEELING OVERWHELMED?

Surrounding yourself with supportive, encouraging professionals can definitely help you explore career paths that you might otherwise have never thought of. There are so many exciting positions in tech that girls might not even know about and it’s often a mix and match of your distinct passions and interests that can set you on a fulfilling professional track. When women think of jobs in technology, chances are Software Developer comes at the top of their list. However, you don’t need to opt for the obvious career choice. I myself have not written a code in years but that did not stop me from climbing all the way up to Chair of a large community of mostly tech professionals.

WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE OTHER WOMEN WANTING TO REACH THEIR CAREER GOALS IN TECHNOLOGY?

It’s really important to figure out early where your strengths lie and what your passions are. Following into someone else’s footsteps and fitting into someone else’s expectations of how your career should be shaped is simply not an option. Speaking from my own experience, carefully choosing great mentors and role models for career guidance is a valuable way to learn and grow professionally as well as personally.

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