Karen Wickre did not plan on entering the tech industry.
She admits she had no real plan at all. A self-described “hippie,” all she knew was that she had to find a way to support herself. And with not one but two degrees in American studies – a bachelor’s from Wittenburg University and a master’s from George Washington University, focusing on literature, history and art – the path forward wasn’t well defined.
About the tech industry, however, she “knew nothing,” she said in a recent telephone interview. “I’m a typical high-verbal, low-math girl. Not at all technically adept.”
So how did a high-verbal, low-math girl end up being among the highest ranking female executives at both Google and Twitter?
She says she fell into it. But she’s also quick to give credit where due: to her mother, who insisted she learn to type in high school.
“I fell into office jobs very quickly and easily. That’s always what I did. That’s what my mom did,” said Wickre, a Washington, D.C., native who now lives in San Francisco. “But what I discovered early, quite by accident, was I’d work in office … and people would say – and I was 23 in my first out-of-college job – ‘Have Karen look at that before it goes out.’ I was a good editor, but I hadn’t really thought about that.”
She parlayed that knack for editing into work in the early days of computer magazines – think PC World and MacWorld – as personal computing was booming.
“I loved the fast pace of change. I love the interesting characters. I love the nerdy humor and self-deprecating humor,” she said. “So I’ve just stayed in it.”
After working in publishing and marketing, she joined Google in 2002, just as the company name was becoming widely accepted as a verb. After nearly a decade at Google – her title was senior media liaison in global communications and public affairs – she went to Twitter as editorial director.
Wickre will share stories from her life as a woman in tech, and talk about her book, “Taking the Work Out of Networking: An Introvert’s Guide to Making Connections That Count,” when she comes to Spokane on Nov. 14 for the Northwest Passages Book Club presentation, “Making Life Work on Your Terms,” a conversation with Wickre and award-winning radio journalist Tess Vigeland.
Wickre knows about making life work on her own terms. In March 2016, she left Twitter for life as her own boss. She formed the communications consulting practice where she helps companies with messaging and telling their stories. She is loving the flexibility that provides her.
“I am interested in this notion of making these authentic connections and that’s why I wrote the book on networking,” Wickre said. “But I don’t want my career from here on out to be networking tips. I’m interested in these other things. … That’s sort of the fun of it.”
As a woman who has worked in tech, she is well aware that the industry still has work to do in hiring and retaining women, especially in the worlds of programming and engineering. Although in her realm of tech – marketing and communications – her experience was different.
“Within the world of communications in technical businesses and technology companies, traditionally there are more women in those roles, in marketing and P.R., for example,” she said. “That’s always been the case. And even in my early days I was aware that the powerhouses among the P.R. firms that were doing publicity for every one of these companies and their products, they were all led by women.”
Google started tackling the issue of gender equity in hiring during her nearly decade-long tenure, and part of the solution involved building up a pipeline of potential applicants.
Studies showed, she said, that women had dropped off from applying for computer programs even before the first tech boom in the 1980s. Fixing the pipeline problem, by attracting girls and women not just to computer science and programming but to data sciences and other tech fields, has been a long process.
“Of course we’re not there, but I think a lot of strides are being made, and I’m overall optimistic even though it seems very slow,” she said.
She still pays close attention to the goings-on at Twitter. The social media company has come under fire in recent years. Conservatives have claimed their voices are being silenced. Liberals have argued Nazis have the run of the place.
Wickre admits there’s always been a level of trolling that goes on in the Twitterverse, and the rise of bots – automated Twitter accounts – has contributed to the problem. Former “Saturday Night Live” star Leslie Jones briefly left the platform after a barrage of attacks by racist trolls. Singer Ed Sheeran’s account is still active, but the bio states, “I don’t use this anymore, please follow me on teddysphotos on instagram, lots of love x.”
The 2016 presidential election probably was a tipping point, Wickre said.
“Twitter was slow to respond to that. Facebook was as well,” she said. “And YouTube also I think I’d throw in here, too. They were slow in terms of takedowns or managing people’s complaints and experiences of harassment and abuse. They were all trying to figure that out and ramping up things they could do to address that at scale, and scale is a big part of the problem here because people just generally don’t understand the volume of messages and videos and everything else. It’s not a matter of hiring more people to look at them. It is never going to be that.”
What social media executives failed to anticipate is that “bad actors” would find ways to use the platforms and services of these platforms “correctly but for bad ends,” she said.
“There’s a certain expectation of good faith involved in using these platforms. People want to be connected and share interesting things,” Wickre said. “Here we have bad actors saying ‘We’re going to “deep fake” videos and we’re going to impersonate people to spread things virally very quickly and we know what the formula is for that.’”
Twitter isn’t the largest of the social media platforms. That title belongs to Facebook.
But Twitter gets emphasis because it’s popular with journalists, newsmakers and politicians.
And one politician in particular: From his @realDonaldTrump account, President Trump tweets with great frequency. He has announced major foreign policy shifts via the platform, picked on members of the Democratic caucus in the House of Representatives and even fired members of his Cabinet.
Even members of the president’s own party have said they wished he wouldn’t tweet so much. But Wickre draws a line at demanding Twitter kick him off the platform, as presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris did during a recent debate.
“Honestly, Twitter can’t be in the business of doing that. There are plenty of people who dislike Trump’s tweeting at all or the kinds of things he says – and it’s all a reflection of his personality, it’s clear – but … none of these companies want to be moderating and judging content. That’s impossible. I’m talking now specifically about somebody who is in the position of being the president,” she said.
“Some people would argue it would be less of a megaphone. Sure, but he’s still the president and he has a lot of megaphones around. … Once you say, ‘OK, this guy has to go,’ there are a bunch of other ones you have to look at. Then you start getting into a making a list. And that’s bad for a lot of reasons.”