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Katharine Nester, chief product and technology officer for Portland-Ore.-based Ruby Receptionists. (Ruby Receptionists Photo)

For companies that are struggling to fill tech roles, Katharine Nester, chief product and technology officer for Ruby Receptionists, has some advice: Look internally for your talent.

It’s a strategy that has worked for Ruby Receptionists, a 16-year-old Portland, Ore.-based company that provides reception and online chat services for 10,000 small businesses nationwide. One-third of the software engineering positions are held by employees who started at the company as receptionists answering calls. All of their QA (quality assurance) engineers are former receptionists — and so is the company’s founder, Jill Nelson.

Ruby Receptionists has always embraced a “grassroots, promote from within” culture, Nester said.

And it pays off. When you hire someone who is highly skilled for their role from day one, it can be harder to keep the job interesting and retain them, she said. “If you can hire somebody from within or from a bootcamp, you can keep them a lot longer and mold them into the way that you want code written. They don’t have ingrained habits.”

Decades ago Nester discovered her love for computer science, which was supported by her dad, who also worked in the field. She earned a degree in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley in the 1990s, and her first job after graduation was at Hewlett Packard as a developer and then a project manager.

Nester also holds an MBA from the University of Oxford. She has been at Ruby Receptionists for more than four years, and previous roles include product management for Ancestry.com and the California State Automobile Association.

“Not every girl has a parent in the technology field, or a support system that encourages them to pursue their dreams,” she said, “so it’s really important for me to find and support programs that encourage underserved girls to engage their interest in technology.”

Last year, Nester was chosen by the Portland Business Journal as a 2018 Women of Influence award winner. She’s involved with the nonprofit group PDXWIT (Portland Women in Tech) and on the board of App Camp for Girls.

Nester seeks opportunities “where I can be out and visible to groups of young girls or women who don’t fit the standard mold [for engineers] and say, you can do this,” she said. “They can see someone who looks like them, or more like them, in the job. It really makes a difference.”

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

Current location: Fox Tower, Portland

Computer types: Mac. Haven’t used a PC regularly in probably 15 years.

Mobile devices: iPhone and a Kindle

Favorite apps, cloud services and software tools: Evernote, Slack, Alfred, 1Password, Garmin app, Washington Post app, Headspace, Pandora/Spotify and my old-school paper FranklinCovey day planner.

Describe your workspace. Why does it work for you? Ruby has an amazing office design and aesthetic that’s award-winning and inspired by our core values and a desire to deliver these values day in and day out to our employees. Which means I have a pretty beautiful office with bright colors and my favorite part one full wall that is all white board paint. That works for me because I’m constantly working out ideas, flows and projects on my wall with my team. It is my favorite way to get everyone on the same page drawing, using sticky notes and writing things up on the board.

The entrance to Ruby Receptionists in Portland, Ore. (Ruby Receptionists Photo)

Your best advice for managing everyday work and life? Carve out time for quiet thinking and use some kind of list or idea capture point. Without time dedicated to quiet thinking it gets really hard to get beyond the daily assault of small tasks and to-dos and spend time on the bigger picture or the higher level strategy. Use a list or a Trello board, or a mind-map or something similar to keep track of all those tasks, to-dos and things to get to. Having a central place to write them down helps ensure you won’t lose them and frees up mental energy to focus on bigger things.

Your preferred social network? How do you use it for business/work? I’ve actually be stepping back from social networks. I do use LinkedIn for business and Twitter for business and news, but I’m a much less frequent user of both these days.

Current number of unanswered emails in your inbox? 198

Number of appointments/meetings on your calendar this week? It’s a short week, so only 17

How do you run meetings? I do my best to set an agenda and follow that agenda so that meeting attendees know the purpose and our expected outcome. I also work to ensure that all attendees participate and that multiple voices are heard.

Everyday work uniform? Varies a lot, but I like to dress on the more business end of business casual, with the occasional jeans thrown in. That said, our offices can be really cold so you will often find me wearing a nice dress with a Ruby hoody on top to stay warm!

How do you make time for family? I do my best to be really present on the weekends, and if I have to work on the weekends, set one day for work and the other to be with my husband and dog.

Best stress reliever? How do you unplug? Exercise is usually the best stress reliever for me running, cycling or hiking. If I can get that kind of outdoor activity on a regular basis I’m a much more even-keel person. I also meditate when things get really stressful, which helps too. Unplugging for me is reading a good book, watching a good TV show or cooking.

On Oregon’s Mount Hood, from left to right: Katharine Nester; Dave Wolfe, her husband; and their climbing friends Preston Turano and Nell Ostermeier. (Photo courtesy of Katharine Nester)

What are you listening to? Currently “Jazz Classics Blue Note Edition” on Spotify.

Daily reads? Favorite sites and newsletters? For general news, I read a little of the Washington Post and NPR sites each day. Ruby customers are SMBs (small and midsize businesses) and the B2SMB Institute newsletter is a great summary of SMB news and trends. I’m also really interested in the intersection of food, the environment and healthcare and enjoy a newsletter called Civil Eats.

Book on your nightstand (or e-reader)? I just finished the “Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World’s Healthiest People” by Dan Buettner and have just started a new sci-fi novel called “Provenance” by Ann Leckie.

Night owl or early riser? Definitely early riser always have been. I’d much rather get up at 4 a.m. and finish something than stay up late to finish it.

Where do you get your best ideas? When running or walking. Something about the physical motion creates mental space to turn ideas over and find new ways of looking at things.

Whose work style would you want to learn more about or emulate? Great question. I don’t know that there is any one individual, but there are people who I have encountered who are really good at inspiring the people they work with and who they work around, and I’d love to have more of that style when collaborating with colleagues and peers.

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