NRECA Women in STEM: Mary DeGuire Romagnoli

Mary DeGuire Romagnoli, Software Engineer, IT, NRECA

Job Role: Senior Applications Developer, Application Development & PMO

Department: IT – NEB (IT Arlington Apps Support 4)

How did you become interested in your area of expertise?

When my mother was aging, I realized there was a need to help the elderly to connect with friends and family. I experimented with an early touch-screen computer and built a prototype called Elder Message. A few years later, Apple announced the new tablet computer, the iPad. I knew immediately that the tablet, with its touch interface, would be the perfect platform. I quickly began learning Objective-C so I could write code for it. I had been a C programmer for many years, so it was not a hard adjustment. I took mobile development classes online at Stanford University, one of the first to teach iOS development. I began a start-up company, Adella Systems. After working on my iPad product for a year, I was courted for a position as a mobile developer for a large bank, so I put the iPad project on hold.

Explain a little bit about your career at NRECA. What is the core function of your current role and how does it support the mission of the organization?

As a software developer, I program computers by designing software systems and implementing them by writing code. My team is building the new face of NRECA’s Employee Benefits website. When a participant or a benefits administrator logs-in to – NRECA’s member intranet – and clicks on My Benefits, they will see our work.

The mission at NRECA is to support our members. The Employee Benefits website allows members to access their insurance and retirement information in a friendly format suitable for both laptop computers and hand-held devices, such as iPhones. We also support benefit administrators who manage the insurance and retirement concerns of their co-ops. And we support our internal administrators, who help customers to resolve online issues.

Our job is challenging because we are gathering data from dozens of separate software systems including very old systems; very new systems; data from outside companies; and data from other departments. We must acquire the data following strict security standards, mesh it together, then display it as part of a beautiful user experience on a variety of devices.

How did you get here? Has your background always been in STEM fields, or was it something you discovered later in your education or career?

I programmed by first computer in the summer of 1977, when I was a teenager. It was thrilling. The programming language was BASIC and the computer was a huge IBM mainframe newly acquired by our local community college. The code we wrote for that summer class was state-of-the-art at the time. After high school, I earned a B.S. in Computer Science and an M.S. in Software Engineering. I have adapted and learned at least seven different programming languages in my career as the industry changed.

For most of my career, I built software products manufactured and sold by the same company. Code was the bread and butter of those organizations. The stakes were high, and the teams worked long hours to meet deadlines.  Some products were a huge hit and others never got much traction. I’ve built a Network Control Center for a network of propriety store-and-forward network cards, built a barcode-based tracking system featuring an early version of a laptop computer, built software to read data from specialty watches that monitor the elderly, and built key parts of the main consumer mobile app (iPhone and Android) for a large bank.

I was hired to come to NRECA to write native mobile apps for iPhones. That project was short-lived, but I was then invited to stay on and work on the Employee Benefits team as a javascript developer (MEAN stack). Eventually, I was able to influence our team to build a mobile-friendly version of the Employee Benefits site.

What is your favorite thing about your job and NRECA?

My favorite thing about my job at NRECA is my coworkers and my boss. I also like that we have a cooperative attitude here rather than a competitive culture.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by building useful, beautiful things that help others. I am inspired when I get to solve complex problems creatively and think outside the box.

What does it mean to you to be working in your current field?

It means I get paid to solve interesting technology puzzles all day in a friendly setting.

If you had a piece of advice for someone who wanted to explore a role in Tech or another STEM field, what would it be?

Writing code for a living is a creative, flexible, well-paying career. If it seems hard or boring, break it down into small steps. It’s not as hard as you think. Be patient, stick with it. When you finally get the solution, you will feel a rushing thrill and that feeling will make you want to tackle the next part.

Read more NRECA Women in STEM profiles