My conversation with Rachel Mathieu Barber, April 2014

Rachel (Mathieu) Barber graduated from the University of Rhode Island in 1991 with a B. S. degree in computer science. Since then, she has worked for GTECH Corporation holding various positions within the area of Technology. Today, she holds the position of Chief Technology Officer for GTECH’s Gaming Division which delivers the Company’s commercial casino and government sponsored gaming products to customers world-wide.

FMC: Rachel, it is great to talk to you again! Let’s start at the beginning back at URI. Tell us about your time as a student and what motivated you to major in computer science.

RB: Hi! I knew that I wanted to major in Computer Science at a very young age. I remember learning that my mom was a software engineer working for Raytheon, and I decided very early on that I wanted to work for Atari. Clearly that specific goal didn’t work out for me, and I suppose that things didn’t exactly work out for Atari either! It never occurred to me that it might be unusual for a female to pursue this type of career, since I saw my mother doing it. When I entered high school, I discovered that they offered Basic programming courses, and I remember finding the classes to be very easy despite the fact that others found it challenging. It occurred to me that maybe I was good at this, and I think that this motivated me to pursue it even more so. 

FMC: You were fortunate to have your mom as a role model. Most girls today do not have that same support. Do you have some advice for high-school girls or college women who have an interest in computers?

RB: I certainly believe that men and women are equally qualified when it comes to having a capacity for programming. With technical careers, generally at some point it becomes important that you not only know how to apply your skills, but also that you are capable of communicating problems, solutions, and results to various audiences that have varying degrees of technical experience. Often times this is where I see women excel. In many cases women have a different approach to their audience that is less threatening and, in the end, more productive—especially when the audience is not technically proficient. By audience in this sense, I am referring to perhaps an external customer or senior management.  
I hope to see more women in the area of technology. In the meantime, as I think about advice for women who are considering working in a male dominated field, my advice would be to set boundaries early on and don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. But at the same time, keep in mind that teamwork is key so there must be a balance. I think it’s important to find a way to make a meaningful contribution and be sure to communicate your results. The men rarely forget to speak about their accomplishments, and this is a good trait to have. Embrace it!

FMC: What was your first job after graduation, and how did you get it?

RB: My first job was at GTECH as a software engineer developing software for GTECH’s Lottery point of sale applications. These are the devices that you see in convenience stores today that sell Lottery tickets. They described the role by saying that I was going to be a “68000 programmer,” since they had just moved to the Motorola 68000 processor for these devices at that time. I remember thinking “OH NO!” since I was really eager to enhance my C programming skills, and I honestly never expected to actually use any of the assembly language skills that I had learned at URI. However, in the end I was happy to find that I was actually going to be coding in C, but those assembly skills and a good understanding of low level programming definitely helped me with my ability to successfully debug code as well as to develop firmware.

FMC: Many software engineers work for several companies over the course of their careers, but you stayed with GTECH. And it seems that you moved from hands-on programming to management. Can you tell us about this time?

RB: I have to agree that the fact that I have stayed at GTECH for 23 years is very unusual. For sure there have been times when I contemplated leaving, especially during the .com years, when I happened to be living in the Pacific Northwest right in between Microsoft and Silicon Valley. 

FMC: How did you just happen to be in the Northwest!

RB: After 5 years with GTECH, and while being promoted into more senior engineering roles, I relocated to Olympia, WA to fulfill a customer-facing engineering role for GTECH, while they installed a new Lottery system for the State of Washington. Over the next several years, I transitioned from programming to a management position in Washington State, and began to grow GTECH’s western region technology team by creating technology hubs along the west coast. I think that this is what gave me just enough of a new challenge to keep me at GTECH during that time. 
It’s a huge decision to move to management when you spent so many years priding yourself on your ability to bang out code. The transition for me was a bit of a forced one, in that I had worked for a couple of new managers that were brought in to lead my team at that time and they just hadn’t worked out. I remember someone approached me and asked if I was interested in taking the management position, and I thought well now is the time to either leave or really make a difference. I decided to jump in head first! Over the years, GTECH has continued to grow and change and, even though I have been here for so long, it feels very much like I’ve worked for different companies along the way. Adaptability is a key skill for any job, and GTECH certainly affords me the chance to adapt regularly to new opportunities and grow while staying in the company.
FMC: When did you come back to Rhode Island?

RB: In 2002. I continued to fulfill larger management roles; I oversaw all of North American software services, and eventually oversaw the company’s world-wide lottery software team. As GTECH’s scope and business lines grew through various company acquisitions, I had more opportunity to learn new technologies and oversee new and different aspects of the business.
In 2007, I moved from the GTECH Lottery organization into GTECH’s gaming business unit—Spielo—which focused on the development and delivery of video lottery terminals (slot machines) and systems.  

FMC: What is your current position? What do you do on a typical day?

RB: I am currently the Gaming Chief Technology Officer at GTECH, and I oversee the development of our gaming machines and gaming monitoring systems as well as the company’s internal IT functions. My team is spread around the globe and covers R&D, Client Deliveries and Production Support for our Gaming products. Our internal IT teams focus on traditional IT areas such as internal help-desk and ERP systems. On a typical day, I attend various meetings with my team to monitor any R&D efforts and customer deliveries that may be ongoing. I also spend a lot of time working with our Product Management team as well as our sales teams to align our product vision and commitments with our financial forecasts. More often than not, I also have strategic initiatives underway such as cost reductions in outsourcing evaluations, make-vs.-buy decisions for certain product areas, process improvement initiatives, etc. Right now, one of our most exciting products that we are working on is a 3D slot machine product line which incorporates eye-tracking and offers a true 3D experience without the need to wear glasses.

FMC: That is exciting! Did your college education adequately prepare you for your first and current position?

RB: Even though it has been 23 years since I graduated from URI, somehow it feels like just yesterday that I was there! I remember really enjoying the course work and especially the team work and long hours in the labs that were often required to get our assignments completed. There were times when the team wasn’t working well together, and as I look back now, I realize just how much this prepared me to learn to work as part of a productive team in the real world. Part of what I love about being an engineer is the ability to be an individual contributor and to be in complete control of my results. However, inevitably as you grow into larger engineering roles and, especially today as our technology solutions are becoming so modular yet so complex, you find that your real value comes from your ability to work with lots of different types of people and produce results as a team. The combination of my technology skills and my ability to communicate and basically get along well with others has been a huge part of my success, especially as I began to lead large teams and also as I began to meet with customers. 

FMC: How do you balance work and personal time?

RB: This is something that I was never really taught to do. I think that I have eventually learned it along the way, but I wish I had figured it out a lot sooner. For a person with a type A personality who is in a job that they love and is constantly affording you new challenges and growth opportunities, it can become an easy trap to fall into an unbalanced lifestyle. My job has always been a 24/7 job, which also makes it difficult to separate it from my personal life. Today, as the mother of 2 children, I realize the importance of not only balancing my time and focus appropriately, but I also realize that I cannot expect to have a perfect 50/50 balance. On any given day, I may feel like I’m short changing either my focus on my family or my job, but deep down I can see that, if I look at my results on both fronts, I am definitely doing something right.

FMC: Can you give some advice to our current students?

RB: First, trust your gut and do what you love. I almost changed majors during my URI career based solely on a bad internship experience which made me question whether I was choosing the right career. I knew in my heart that I wanted to be an engineer, but the way I was treated at my internship scared me into thinking that there was no place for a woman in this field. I’m glad that I stuck with it, because I can’t imagine where I may have ended up. Second, I always live by the words of Guy Kawasaki who once said, “challenge the known and embrace the unknown.” I always go back to this phrase and I get strength from this advice. Today as I lead engineers everyday, I continue to try to encourage people to embrace new ideas, challenge the way things are being done, never be afraid to admit when you don’t know something, and never be afraid to make a mistake. In my mind the smartest people are those who are willing to take risks, fail, and then persist until something great happens.

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