Robin Yeman, Software Engineering Institute

Episode Transcription:

Trac Bannon: 

I consider Robin Yeman a friend, though our story starts out with me being awestruck after listening to Robin present at the DevOps Enterprise Summit in 2019. She was among an impressive list of speakers that year including Dr. Nicole Forsgren, Rosalind Radcliffe, and Jonathan Smart. 

In her role as a Senior Technical Fellow at Lockheed Martin, Robin partnered with Northrop Grumman Fellow, Suzette Johnson to present on a topic they called industrial DevOps. This is a hardcore mixing of software and systems engineering. What else would we expect from Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grummond? They two of the DoD’s most prolific defense contractors. 

During the talk, they discussed ways to apply DevOps and continuous delivery to significant cyber-physical systems. Cyber-physical systems are things like robotics, warfighting, transportation, and complex medical devices. 

My mind was blown. After they finished, I scurried to the stage to introduce myself. I had just begun working with the US Air Force and with the F-35 joint program office. Their experience and their materials would prove invaluable.

Robin and Suzette were approachable and gracious; after introductions, we compared notes and realized we were all, in one way or another, supporting a controversial figure named Nick Chaillan. He was the Air Force’s First Chief software officer. 

Over the course of the next few months, I reached out to Robin for insights and to bounce ideas about challenges to accelerating work done by and for the DoD. It’s been a few years since that first introduction. That is how I went from a fan, to part of a network, to being a friend. 

The more I’ve gotten to know Robin, the more incredible and inspiring her journey has been. Like me, this Real Technologist grew up in a small town, the type with small graduating classes, and where you seem to know everybody. Oneida is in upstate New York, about 30 minutes from Syracuse. 

Robin Yeman:

 Growing up in upstate New York, my graduating class had about 130 people… so really small, not very big. And actually I was an art major, I was going to art school. I was an artist, 100%. I graduated early. So I got done when I was 17, went to art school… that’s where I went to is to RIT.

Trac Bannon: 

You are listening to Real Technologists. I’m your host, Trac Bannon, coming to you from Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. Each week we choose a unique guest behind leading Edge Tech innovation to explore their genuine stories, their true journeys. Technology touches nearly every aspect of our lives. It’s being driven by diverse perspectives and experiences of real humans.

You’re in the right spot to hear about the real technologists reshaping our world. Stay tuned for stories that will give you something to noodle on.

What a twist! What a turn! An art major from a small town in upstate New York is now luminary for the DoD improving and driving software and systems engineering. Consider that Robin is also a first generation college graduate for her family and she faced similar problems and challenges as other “first gens”. First generation college students don’t have family they can turn to who have experienced to answer their educational questions. In Robin’s case, her entire family worked in the auto industry. 

She was accepted as an art major at RIT. When she arrived, she had a dramatic realization: someday, she would need to get a job and life as an artist may not pay the bills.

Robin Yeman: 

I was the very first to go to college and they had no idea what I was talking about.

It was my dream to finish school. I was the first in my entire family to go and I was going to finish. So, I was just like, we just have to figure out how to do this. And like I said, my whole goal when I was in high school was to get to college. But I don’t think I had taken the leap, which is you go to college to get the job and so all of a sudden I’m like, oh, I actually have to have a job.

Trac Bannon: 

Like many college students, . Robin worked to offset her college costs and was working as a cocktail waitress. One of her coworkers was working at General Electric and bartending on the weekends. During a typical coworker chat, she asked him about his job… 

Robin Yeman: 

He was actually working at General Electric, but tending bar on the weekends. I was the cocktail waitress and I said, so what do you do?

And he is like, I’m an engineer. I’m like, are there any jobs in that? He’s like, yeah. I go, what do you go to school for? It’s like computer science. And so I said, oh, change my major. But I did not have a computer background, I was art school all the way. So it was a big change. It only took me another four years to finish.

That was the big thing. I just, I changed my major because the dream was to go to school. It didn’t have to be, it didn’t have to be art.

Trac Bannon:

 Poised to be an RIT computer science major, Robin navigated another life event that may have derailed others; she was pregnant and had her first son while at RIT. Imagine the difficulty in being a single mother and a college student studying computer science. Research shows that pregnancy in college correlates to a high dropout rate. The difficulty in being a new mother for Robin, was not with her baby but with her professor. Today, we’d assume professors and instructors would be invested in helping any student succeed, but in her journey, that was not the case. 

Robin Yeman: 

So I had my oldest son while I was in college. I don’t think they’d ever seen a single mother at RIT ever.

You know, so, it’s crazy… I missed a calculus final, I went to tell the professor, I’m like, my son has a fever, it’s 104… you know, I, I really have to miss the exam, I’ll come later. And he is like, if I let everybody miss the exam, that didn’t feel like taking it… he goes, who wouldn’t have much of a class? So I ended up getting a D in that class and I was like… ugh. So not a lot of flexibility. When I moved back home, I had a little bit more help with my little guy. And then, he was my college roommate. 

Trac Bannon: 

Being a young mother and a college student has its pros and cons… it’s ups and downs… I can really relate to this. My own journey includes me marrying my high school sweetheart while in college. My daughter was born during my senior year at Penn State. Young parents have a tremendous energy and zeal. Robin jokes that her son had some extra help. 

Robin Yeman: 

I think he must have had a guardian angel, because I’m telling you… I thought it was a good idea to go rollerblading with him on my shoulders. Like there’s things that you do when you’re younger because you think everybody is indestructible.

Trac Bannon: 

There was another challenge on the horizon. RIT was nearly two hours from Oneida. Syracuse, however, was only a 30 minute commute. The choice was clear to transfer to Syracuse University from that point and for the next four years. Robin Yeman focused on being a computer science major. There was a hitch though. Computer science has rigorous math requirements, the kind of math that art majors don’t take and that high school students prepping for art school don’t believe that they need… it was time for a tutor… the man who would become her husband. 

Robin Yeman: 

My husband, who is my boyfriend then, because remember I went to art school, which also meant that I didn’t think that I needed too much math. He spent so much time tutoring me, because when I changed my major, I had to take non-credit math. 

 I really took very little math at all. And I thought I wasn’t good at it, right. In school, I thought I wasn’t good at it, but actually I was very good at it. But he spent a lot of hours teaching me math.

It’s funny because he was like super smart, great at math.

Me, I’m an art school student, you know, I meet him. I’ve just had a baby. He could have gone either way. But he was awesome. so he did so much to help me out. And he still does.

I always tell him, I’m like, the idea man, and he’s the make it happen man. He’s very good at making everything happen.

Trac Bannon: 

Math… looking back, Robin remembers she didn’t really do well in math in high school. She had many teachers who all reinforced the narrative: “you are not that good at math”. This experience is not unique to Robin. There is some research that females acquire better computational abilities and problem solving skills in primary school. What happens then? Observed gender differences begin to appear during middle and late adolescence. This phenomenon needs to be addressed. 

Thankfully, with her boyfriend’s help, Robin excelled and began prepping for graduation and a new job. She interviewed with some of the leading technical companies in the United States. She was hired by Oracle. Entering their offices in the south, one could not help but be impressed with the marble floors and the corporate opulence. It was 1995, the year that Oracle became one of the first large companies to report an Internet Strategy and offered the first 64-bit relational database.

Today women graduating with computer science degrees make up only 20% of the diplomas earned. In 1995, the numbers were a few percentage points more. Still, Robin was and is a unicorn. With an offer from Oracle in hand, how is it that Robin started her career at General Electric? The answer is surprising: Robin believes General Electric offered her a job in order to keep her boyfriend. 

Robin Yeman: 

My Boyfriend had said, hey, I’ll go wherever you go. And I got hired at Oracle. I get out of college, I got hired at Oracle. 

I was like, this is going be amazing, but we going move. We’re gonna move to DC. He was working at, General Electric, which is up in Syracuse. And his boss said, can’t you get her to come in for one interview? And I said, okay. So I went in for an interview and literally I had one question, what was your highest offer?

That was it. 

Trac Bannon: 

How did Robin go from General Electric to Lockheed Martin? Through mergers and acquisitions that are common for the defense industrial base. The defense industrial base or DIB, is the worldwide network of companies, consultancies and contractors that design, produce, and deliver military assets to meet our US needs. This includes software, and hardware, and what we call enduring platforms like Jet Fighters, Bradley fighting vehicles and submarines. 

General Electric became Martin Marietta and eventually, Lockheed Martin. 

At first, Robin was not overly excited with the industrial aspect of this new role… remember, she had been hired into Oracle with their marble floors. She was practical in taking the new role with GE given the salary demands were met. Still, she kept thinking back to the interview at the Syracuse manufacturing location with forklifts going up and down massive hallways. But as Robin got into the work, the options and the opportunities seemed endless.

Robin Yeman: When I was at Lockheed, I worked on radar. I worked on a submarine, I worked on surface ship, I worked on the Nike shoe contract.

So what they had to do with them is, basically building out their IT systems. This is the late nineties. Everybody knows about Lockheed and planes, but actually they build everything. I used to have teams that were in North Carolina that did nothing but Xbox development.

I had other teams that were in New Jersey that built robots that would rescue people. Like they build everything. 

Trac Bannon: 

Robin was well into her role when Y2K rolled around. For any of you whipper snappers too young to remember, all the world panicked when computer experts raised a concern with the technique they had been using when building the world’s software. Data storage was terribly expensive and a technique to save space was to only save a 2-digit year.

In today’s world, a terabyte of storage costs you $57.99 on Amazon. In 1985, a terabyte of storage cost $31.39 Billion dollars. As the year 2000 approached, programmers realized that computers might not interpret 00 as the year 2000, but as the year 1900. Actions and activities programmed on a yearly or daily basis might be damaged or flawed. 

It was all hands on deck addressing the software of the world. On New Year’s Eve, 1999, many of the world sat glued to their TVs watching celebrations around the world, hour by hour, time zone by time zone. As the new millennium began, the world did not end…

Robin Yeman: 

It was so funny at the time because you could work a bajillion hours, which either you like or you don’t like. I like to work, so it was fine. And everybody, you know, was heads down… It was crazy… had to make sure that we transitioned to everything. And it’s funny because there was a lot of work done, but afterwards everybody’s like, oh, well, I guess it wasn’t that big a deal. But it wasn’t that big a deal because everybody put so much work into it. 

Trac Bannon: 

Keen insight from someone who lived through it. Y2K was a big deal and we prepared for it and made the necessary changes.

There’s an advantage to being a digital pioneer, born before the 1980s and building the digital world we now live in. As Robin would say, we’ve had a “front seat to history”.

This is so clearly evident in the experience she brings to the table. A luminary in applying agility and DevSecOps to massive industrial and defense programs. Robin was front and center in the rise of agility in software and systems engineering. In the very early 2000s, Lockheed Martin was responding to an RFP, a request for proposal, for the intelligence community. That RFP mandated the use of agile methodologies. Lockheed told Robin “go figure it out”. 

She did and she was hooked. Having time boxed increments in building blended teams were techniques already being leveraged, though not in such a tailorable way. For Lockheed Martin, a new expert emerged… and her meddle was immediately tested. With Lockheed, everything needs to scale. 

Robin Yeman: 

So I went from an individual contributor. I did software engineer by trade, but I used to do large data exchanges, things like that. But I will tell you that I never got to have the one seven plus or minus two team. I immediately had something with eight teams that were all eight people. Everything that Lockheed builds… is at scale. So, I think, you know, I totally skipped that step and went right in to working on this larger program. 

Trac Bannon: 

Robin continued to lead teams, though always kept her hands on edge. Even with the need to delegate more to enable personal scaling, there was always a need to keep close to the work. When you no longer understand the details of the work, Robin believes you start to be a pontificator. For someone driving massive digital efforts globally, there isn’t time or patience for siloed philosophy. 

The road to this realization is based on lessons learned… by her own failure. 

Robin Yeman: 

Honestly, I think if you just get too far away from it, how do you actually empathize with the people that are doing the work? And then you turn into the one that says, yes, I commit to that deadline. I have absolutely no idea how long it’s gonna take, but who cares?

 Yeah, no, I don’t wanna do that.

 I got there from a mistake really. I was working with the intelligence community and they said, hey Robin, you guys are doing really great… can you add this couple of features on there? I was like, hmm, yeah, we’re, we’re doing great at 40 hours a week. Also, we had to do is knock out 50 hours a week. I didn’t even ask the team, this is how you know… I was green. I did not ask the team. I didn’t even hit the original deliverables because… software engineers, they didn’t have to do that work. 

And to get anybody cleared to work intelligence takes about one to two years. So I lost people on the team because there’s plenty of opportunities for them to go to and I couldn’t backfill them. It was a hard lesson to realize that. You know, actually I really needed to step back and let the team do that. 

I would love to say that I came about that personally, but it was, it was after a solid mistake that I got there.

Trac Bannon: 

Some of our greatest learning moments come out of our failures, not from our successes. Life is all about learning and continuous change. Robin is both advocate and role model for continuous learning. She has myriad certifications, using certification process for accountability and motivation… never one to stop learning. Earning her master’s degree in software engineering in parallel to giving birth to a set of twins, she’s barreling down the path now to earn her PhD… recognizing that there is also a certain uniqueness of being a real technologist who is also a woman.

Robin Yeman: 

So I was either working with the military or somebody within Lockheed and there were not any women. I became really passionate about trying to help… add women to stem and computers, all through my career… because there just weren’t any. Even now, and this isn’t like a knock on Lockheed because actually they were great to me.

Lockheed has 120,000 people, they had 400 fellows… they have 80 senior technical fellows. They had three women. 

Trac Bannon: 

Robin was one of those three female senior technical fellows at Lockheed Martin. Her passion to drive lasting change drew her to a new role with a new employer. In 2021, during the midst of the lockdowns, Robin began a new stage of her career: as trusted and objective advisor to the federal government moving to a not-for-profit corporation called Catalyst Campus.

Robin Yeman:

I got an offer to work at a not-for-profit, primarily to help the government with things like Agile and DevOps. And I feel like there’s not enough people that are helping them. That don’t have any skin in the game, right? So it was also gonna give me an opportunity to be able to be the trusted partner.

Trac Bannon: 

Robin is a mix of perseverance and practicality that had me actually wondering if she’s Minnesotan. This is the first person that I’ve met who says they run marathons in half marathons because they like to eat? 

Robin Yeman: 

So I’ve done multiple marathons and multiple half marathons. Now, really my passion is I like to eat more than anybody… so I have a sport that helps out with that number one passion.

Trac Bannon: 

While joking around, digging a little deeper, you’ll find out that races have stories. When running the Marine Corps marathon during a particularly hot October, it took all her grit to finish.

Why? Because the last .2 miles of that marathon is a hill… a very steep hill. You have to really want a medal, want to finish to push through a punishing end! Keen intelligence, a love of learning and real grit make a powerful mix so much so that it’s hard to comprehend Robin as someone with imposter or pretender syndrome… looking back though, Robin sees this and would counsel her younger self. 

Robin Yeman: 

I think believe in yourself. I was very unsure… there was so many times that I was unsure that, you know, this something was gonna work or that I could get this position… or things like that. And I would just have stomach aches and just have angst. It turns out that it just works out fine.

 So have confidence that you actually know what you’re doing. I am definitely one of those, people that have, you know, feel like it’s pretender syndrome… you’re always waiting for somebody to find you out… you need to get over that. 

Trac Bannon: 

With her eldest son working at Lockheed for over a decade, with her twins graduating from college, with the upcoming publication of her new book on Industrial DevOps, what possibly could be next for this marathon running dynamo?

Moving to a new role with the Software Engineering Institute, SEI, at Carnegie Mellon University. I am personally and professionally thrilled to have another experienced voice offering objective guidance.

Robin Yeman: 

So next up, I am going to Carnegie Mellon and I’m going to take on the space domain lead to help Space Force build out things like Agile and DevOps. I’ll still get to work pretty much across all different kinds of government agencies. I’m pretty excited because again, they’re an FFFRDC, so kind of that trusted partner that you can actually sit down and say… oh, you want to be an all digital workforce?

Well, here’s what you need to do. And there’s no skin in the game, so you don’t have to think that I’m trying to sell you something. I’m just telling you there is a way to get there. 

Trac Bannon: 

And that’s a wrap for today’s episode of Real Technologists. I want to thank my guest, Robin Yeman for sharing her story. Your insights and experiences are truly inspiring. I’m grateful for the opportunity to share them with the audience. This podcast is a Sourced Network production and updates are available weekly on your favorite audio streaming platform. Just search for real technologists and consider subscribing. Special thanks to our executive producer, Mark Miller, for making this show possible. Our editor and sound engineer, Pokie Huang has done an amazing job bringing this story to life. Thank you both. The music for today’s episode was provided by Blue Dot Sessions, and we use Descript for spoken text editing and audacity for the soundscaping. The show distribution platform is provided by CaptivateFM making it easy for our listeners to find and enjoy the show. 

That’s all for today, folks. This is Trac Bannon. Don’t forget to tune in next week for another intriguing episode of Real Technologists and something new to noodle on.

Episode Guest:

Expertise spanning over twenty-eight years in software engineering with focus on Digital Engineering, DevSecOps, and Agile building large complex solutions across multiple domains from submarines to satellites. She advocates for continuous learning with multiple certifications including SAFe Fellow, SPCT, CEC, PMP, PMI-ACP, and CSEP. She is a Systems Engineering PhD candidate at Colorado State researching best practices to deliver complex safety critical solutions using Agile and DevSecOps. 

She provides mentoring, guidance, coaching support, and conducts training classes for engineering and management teams and customers on Digital Engineering, DevSecOps and Agile tools, process, and methodologies.  She is also directly engaged and involved with DoD organizations in the Agile/DevOps initiatives including supporting updates to software acquisition policy in 2020 as well as program execution and program transitions to Agile development methodology.   She has also led several efforts in Agile program execution and continues to lend her expertise on the development of Safety Critical Systems using Digital Engineering, DevSecOps, and Agile techniques and processes on management, schedule, cost, and technical performance. 

Episode Transcription:

[00:00:00] Trac Bannon:

In our world today, technology plays an increasingly significant role in shaping our lives. The way we communicate, work, and even entertain ourselves is being revolutionized by tech. Behind every innovation, there’s a person, a human being with unique experiences, perspectives and challenges. Understanding what shaped their perspective is a real goal.

From The Sourced Network remote offices in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, welcome to Real Technologists. Each week we explore the genuine stories and true journeys of folks shaping our digital future. How did they navigate this complex world of ours? What challenges did they face? What are the innovative ideas that continue to propel them forward?

Each episode is crafted to broaden your perspective, spark innovation, and help you make better decisions by showcasing the diversity of thought and experiences within the tech industry.

Today, we’ve included some short excerpts to give you a taste of what’s to come.

Let’s start out with Jennifer Leggio, Chief Marketing Officer for Netography and cybersecurity strategist. She’s also luminary for the accountability and responsibility and security marketing. Just who helped her along the way?

[00:01:17] Jennifer Leggio:

” He would push me and say, I see more in you. I see more in you. And so because of that, Cisco wasn’t enough for me anymore, and it wasn’t Cisco. It was the role because it’s such a huge org. My role was very finite there, focusing on security strategy and communications and messaging and such. I’m like, you know what? I’m gonna quit.”

[00:01:41] Trac Bannon:

Caroline Wong, Chief Strategy Officer at Cobalt got her start with eBay as an intern. Her experience and exposure to eBay said in motion a series of domino events transforming her into a leading voice in cybersecurity. Funny to think it all started with dating a Stanford student.

[00:02:02] Caroling Wong:

” For my summer internship between my junior and senior year, I wanted to live at his house with his parents in Silicon Valley and not my house with my parents in San Francisco. And so when I applied to internships that summer, and I must have applied to 50 different internships, I only applied to companies located in Silicon Valley. And I got an internship in IT at eBay.”

[00:02:31] Trac Bannon:

Katy Craig is a cybersecurity expert who has spent her career focused on the US Navy. She’s a retired veteran, educating the next generation of ethical hackers.

[00:02:43] Katy Craig:

” It’s very special to build a ship, to be part of the pre-com crew, to be a quote unquote plank owner is a very special, privilege. I am a plank owner of Bonham Rashard. We went through a lot on that ship. I was there on 9-11 when the planes hit the towers. we deployed early to go hunt for Osama Bin Laden.”

[00:03:06] Trac Bannon:

Lonya Ford grew up on the south side of Chicago and joined the military as a way to put a roof over her head and maybe give her an education. When she started out, she found herself believing that she could not be her authentic self.

[00:03:19] Lonye Forde:

” It was scary joining the military because I was transported to a land where no one spoke like me. No one really looked like me. And so that was, a tough environment for me. And, you know, for a while I think what I started to do was conform a little, right?

[00:03:39] Trac Bannon:

Rosalind Radcliffe is an esteemed IBM fellow driving big blue to drink their own champagne, so to speak, in their adoption of modern software practices and DevSecOps. As a self-proclaimed high school dropout, she is leading the way for the DevOps-ing of IBM’s z/OS.

[00:03:58] Rosalind Radcliffe:

” So I went to school in Wisconsin for two years and then my dad was moving to Florida to teach at the University of Florida via England for a year. And so they sent me to the university and the university said, would you like to show up in August? I said, no, I’m going to England for a year. So let me go to England for a year and I’ll come back and then I’ll go to the university. And so technically I’m a high school dropout.”

[00:04:22] Trac Bannon:

That’s what Real Technologist is all about. I delve into the lives of innovators to discover their journeys, their passions, and their motivations.

This is Trac Bannon, the host and storyteller for the Real Technologist Podcast. I’ve been in the tech industry since the 1990s. Along the way, I’ve worked with scientists, researchers, consultants, educators, military and hardcore technologists driving digital innovation.

I’m an active member in many technical communities ranging from digital transformation to software architecture, to DevSecOps. With a vibrant network of professionals who are constantly monitoring what’s going on, I’ve developed a passion for uncovering unique stories and perspectives.

I believe that behind every technological innovation, there’s a unique individual with a captivating story to tell. Our goal, my goal, is to bring you face-to-face with the real technologists behind the latest tech trends, and to give you a glimpse into their lives, their passions, their motivations.

Real technologists is more than a podcast about diversity. It’s about amplifying the goodness that comes from our diverse spectrum of voices and experiences. It’s about genuine stories, true journeys, our complex world. Whether you’re a tech enthusiast, an entrepreneur, or just curious about the world of technology insights, the interviews are sure to inspire and educate. Consider joining me weekly at Real Technologists. Each episode will leave you with something to noodle on.

Episode Guest:

Expertise spanning over twenty-eight years in software engineering with focus on Digital Engineering, DevSecOps, and Agile building large complex solutions across multiple domains from submarines to satellites. She advocates for continuous learning with multiple certifications including SAFe Fellow, SPCT, CEC, PMP, PMI-ACP, and CSEP. She is a Systems Engineering PhD candidate at Colorado State researching best practices to deliver complex safety critical solutions using Agile and DevSecOps. 

She provides mentoring, guidance, coaching support, and conducts training classes for engineering and management teams and customers on Digital Engineering, DevSecOps and Agile tools, process, and methodologies.  She is also directly engaged and involved with DoD organizations in the Agile/DevOps initiatives including supporting updates to software acquisition policy in 2020 as well as program execution and program transitions to Agile development methodology.   She has also led several efforts in Agile program execution and continues to lend her expertise on the development of Safety Critical Systems using Digital Engineering, DevSecOps, and Agile techniques and processes on management, schedule, cost, and technical performance.