Written by IEEE | July 13, 2023 | Updated: July 25, 2023
What do a dropped box of punchcards, the novels of Joseph Conrad, and the struggle to say something interesting about Shakespeare have in common?
For Annette Reilly, an IEEE Life Senior Member, they’re landmarks in a career path spanning decades, from a scholarship to teach mathematics to a career as a proposal writer, and finally in information technology as an engineering manager.
“I found it valuable to get involved in professional societies like IEEE to get management and leadership experience and to keep up with developments in the field,” she said. “When I joined IEEE in 1986, I was looking for a professional network through the IEEE Professional Communication Society. IEEE is helpful as a combination of industry professionals, researchers, and knowledge resources.”
But it all started at Rice University, where she was a math major. She didn’t love the work.
“I discovered that advanced theoretical math, determining what was provable, was not my strength,” she said. “I took one of their first computer courses and after dropping a box of punchcards, realized that programming in COBOL was not fun for me.”
Still, she slogged through. She had a scholarship to prepare her for a career teaching math, so she took just enough classes to qualify for a minor in mathematics. Her bachelor’s degree in English led to a Ph.D from Brandeis University on “the perception of time in fiction and the structures of the novels of Joseph Conrad.”
She went on to teach technical writing at a business college, where in her first quarter, she says she stayed “one chapter ahead of the students.”
Still, she said, she found the work refreshing.
“It was a relief to explain how to communicate and persuade on technical subjects,” Reilly said, “rather than attempting to find something unprecedented to say about Shakespeare.”
At one point, she was teaching technical writing at five different Washington D.C.-area institutions, when she was hired by Lockheed Martin to work on proposals and documentation for hospital information systems.
“I discovered that if I could understand the complex structure of a novel or a Ben Jonson play, I could find the way through a government request for proposal or put together a multi-volume set of software documentation,” she said.
To advance her career after 15 years with the company, she enrolled in an executive master’s degree program at The George Washington University in information systems. Her career expanded from there. For a decade, she worked on a program that was in charge of nearly all of the information processing for a U.S. government department.
“I think all jobs are technical, in the sense that they require specialized knowledge and skills to do well,” Reilly said. “It took me a while to realize that there was no need to be intimidated by people who had different technical skills from mine.”
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