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University of Washington computer science Professor Jennifer Mankoff working with students. (UW Photo)

Jennifer Mankoff faced a slate of challenges that could have derailed her academic aspirations.

It started with a repetitive stress injury from a poorly designed keyboard during graduate school in computer science at Georgia Tech. At its worst, the pain was so great that she couldn’t type for more than 30 minutes. Then Mankoff had two children — a welcome turn of events, but one that coincided with the launch of her faculty career and required serious logistical juggling. And then in 2006, Mankoff contracted the tick-borne Lyme disease. She experienced extreme fatigue, flu-like illness, memory trouble and problems with fine motor control. It took a year to discover the cause of her symptoms.

“I had few periods in my career where I was, I don’t know what you’d call it, ‘normal,’” she said.

Mankoff persevered and now holds the Richard E. Ladner endowed professorship at the Paul Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. She has been in the post for more than a year.

Mankoff used the adversity to hone her work habits, strategically tackling work projects and becoming a master of time management, grabbing productive hours when she felt well.

Jennifer Mankoff. (UW Photo)

And her experience focused her research on accessibility in technology — an increasingly hot topic in the past decade as major tech companies including Microsoft, Google and Apple have created divisions focused on making sure their products are user friendly to people of all abilities. Ladner, now a UW professor emeritus for whom Mankoff’s position is named, was a pioneer in tech accessibility.

“Learning to work within my constraints helped to inform and improve my work,” Mankoff said, “and to empower and encourage diversity around me.”

At the UW, Mankoff heads the Make4All Group. Her expertise includes 3D printing with an interest in health devices such as prosthetic limbs. She’s also part of the university’s recently announced 3D-printed analytics project.

Mankoff said that more students are taking courses and exploring accessibility, and companies are eager to hire graduates with that expertise. While it’s heartening to see a flood of interest, there’s still a long way to go before digital devices and online information are equally accessible to people with disabilities affecting vision, hearing and physical movement.

“One of the things that is a challenge right now is online content is not being produced in corporate settings,” she said. That includes personal blogs and crowd-sourced Wikipedia entries. “There are so many places where people post content, even if it’s possible to pay attention to basic (accessibility) guidelines, it’s not enforced.”

We caught up with Mankoff for this Working Geek, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.

Current location: Sitting in my zero-gravity chair in my not-an-office (I prefer a living room feel and no desk).

Computer types: Macs, primarily because they can also masquerade as Unix.

Mobile devices: iPhone, but it is usually lost or without charge. I only got a phone in 2003 because I was 9 months pregnant, walking to work in my first faculty position at University of California, Berkeley and had a spouse who insisted that if I went into labor he wanted me to be able to call him for help

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Emacs (it holds almost everything else inside it after all). Gmail. Python for data analysis. Android for data collection. Fusion 360 for 3D modeling. Repetier-Host for 3D printing.

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? My workspace is my laptop. The rest is context dependent.


Mankoff (back row, third from left) prefers a more informal workplace with comfy chairs and a “living room feel.” Here she’s hosting a social event at home with her students in her actual living room. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Mankoff)

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Know your strengths and weaknesses, and value each moment for what it has to offer, whether you’re walking the dog, cooking dinner or hacking code or hardware.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? My colleagues and students. Sharing in their trials and accomplishments is a constant. Learning from them and inventing with them is a joy.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? 57 “important” according to Gmail. I usually answer emails on the weekend. I try to start each week at zero to 5 emails.

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? 32. That includes one social, one medical, one quartet rehearsal, one kid chauffeuring, one Apple store Genius Bar visit, one retreat, six service work, two classes (teaching one and attending one), meetings with students and faculty.

How do you run meetings? I am chronically late, but I try to always end on time. I also try to always check in at the end to make sure that we all know what comes next, and to avoid simply meeting for meeting’s sake.

Everyday work uniform? Clothing. Hopefully right side in and frontward.

How do you make time for family? By putting my computer aside when I am with my children, and remembering to check in with myself and my spouse about whether there is enough time for family. By arranging my schedule to be around when it matters, and saying no to both work and family when the other should have priority.

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Playing the piano and viola. Reading a good book. Taking a little time every day for me, whether it’s a glass of port at the end of the day or a cup of coffee at the start. Putting everything else aside and giving 100 percent of my focus to family, whether it’s cooking, coding together, going on a hike or playing a board game.

What are you listening to? Silence. The Brahms Double Concerto (and other classical music). And during my bike commute, the Green Rider fantasy series by Kristen Britain.

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? I read on paper. I work my way through Ms., The Week, the Oberlin Alumni Magazine and Make magazine when I have spare moments. And of course, as a newbie to Seattle, the Seattle Times.

For Mankoff, a 3D printer is an essential tool of her trade. (UW Photo)

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? “The Cellist of Sarajevo” by Steven Galloway, “On Being Included” by Sara Ahmed, “The Body Multiple” by Annemarie Mol and “Blackveil” by Kristen Britain.

Night owl or early riser? Early riser. Bed around 9:30 p.m., wake up between 4:30 and 6:30 a.m. depending on the day.

Where do you get your best ideas? Reading widely and living. Most importantly from not dropping a problem when it presents itself, but asking instead what its root cause is and what I can do about it.

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? I’ve always felt as though I ought to be more focused, and emulate those amazing folks who have seem to have known from early in their life or careers that they would do one thing, or solve one very important problem. But I think by age 48 that I might have to admit that I am a dilettante and that’s only going to change so much.

That said, some exemplary people I would like to emulate are Carnegie Mellon University’s Jess Hammer for her unswerving focus on doing the right things for the right reasons; New York University Tandon School of Engineering’s Jelena Kovačević for exemplary and inclusive leadership; Ladner for his enormous impact on accessibility research, teaching and inclusion; and my husband Anind Dey, dean of the UW’s Information School, for his uncompromising commitment to putting the people he is responsible to above all else.

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