From Network Servers to Saddles: How Shirley Wehland Stays Curious

July 11, 2023 Jacob Kost

Written by Mary Thomas

Shirley Wehland has two lifelong passions: technology and equestrianism. Although these two interests might seem like dramatic opposites at first, the common thread that underlies them is Shirley’s persistent curiosity.

Whether as a Network Operations Center Technician at Atomic Data, teaching herself how to build a robot, or guiding a horse on a trail, Shirley brings a passion and drive to understand the underlying logic of what interests her, and use that as the foundation for a generative and enriching interaction. 

Shirley, tell me about your role at Atomic Data. What do you love about it? 

When I first started at Atomic Data seven years ago, I primarily worked on servers and network equipment, and did a lot of troubleshooting. I was often the first person to pick up the phone if there was an issue, for example, if someone couldn’t connect to the internet or their servers weren’t working. My job was to figure out exactly what happened and how to fix it. 

I still do that work in the Network Operations Center, but I also conduct data analysis for our clients. On the data analysis side, I’m working with them to figure out how their servers and networks are functioning, and what can be done to improve it. 

What drew you to Atomic Data?  

Prior to joining Atomic Data, I had been working at other companies in IT, but the last company I worked for outsourced my department, and I was part of a round of layoffs. I was sitting there thinking, “Ok, now what?” and I decided to go to school at the ripe old age of 59. I went to Anoka Tech and earned an Associates’ Degree. One of my classmates worked for Atomic Data and encouraged me to apply. 

By the time I finished school, I was 60, and I experienced ageism as I was applying for jobs. When I applied to work at Atomic Data, I was really excited, because the position aligned with my interests in working with network equipment, and they offered me a position. 

How did you first become interested in computers? 

I was probably in my mid-twenties, and I had heard that you could go to Radioshack and buy a device that plugged into your black and white TV. The device was made by Texas Instruments, and it essentially turned your TV into a computer monitor, but it had memory, and you could talk to people who were in other places. I went out and got one. I was immediately hooked! That was my first computer. I think I became a geek before they existed. 

After that, I graduated to Commodores, and was later a key punch operator at a company where they had the latest and greatest IBM computers. When the business started replacing them, they were offering them to employees, and I said that I would take one home. It was huge, and it weighed a ton. The computer was one huge piece of equipment, but I figured out how to carry it out to my car and drag it into my house. People who saw me were so confused, but I was thrilled! It ran Windows DOS, and it had Word on it, and I thought “Wow! This is really nice.” Over time, I kept learning more and more, and eventually built my own computer.  

What keeps you excited and interested as technology continues to evolve? 

It’s fascinating how things have progressed, just in my lifetime: mainframe computers used to take up a whole room, but now they’re two feet by two feet around and six feet high. Floppy disks used to be eight inch squares, but the microchips in our phones are smaller than a fingernail. Now, we’re talking about quantum computing and AI. 

Do you have any passion projects related to tech that you’re working on? 

I built a small robot. It’s a little robotic animal that walks around the room, and I can set it to either bark or meow. I lost a cat two years ago, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get another one, but I thought that I could make my own. My brother-in-law had worked with robotics before, so I reached out to him. The next thing I know, I’ve got this big box filled with books sitting on my steps for me to read. I just devoured those books, and built my own little robot. I named it Tasha, after my cat. 

How long did it take you?

The programming was the hardest part. Envisioning it and building it wasn’t as difficult because you can do so much with 3-D printers nowadays. His whole body was fabricated  using a 3-D printer. I taught myself how to make his body by reading and learning how all the components go into their legs to make them walk and move. The programming itself took eight months before I had a sense of mastery and could get it to walk. Sometimes it would walk and then it would bump into things. It would just stand there and keep bumping into the same place, but I was able to program it with a sensor so that it knows if it’s getting too close to a wall or to walk around something big that’s in front of it. 

What project would you like to take on next? 

I’d like to make another robot, perhaps a slightly larger one. I recently learned about a guy in Japan that built a robotic cat that can jump up onto a couch and curl up like a real cat does. I want to know how he did that!  I can’t write Japanese, and it doesn’t look like he knows English, but I would like to pick his brain to find out exactly how he was able to do that. That would be the ultimate next project: to create something that behaved more like an animal than a robot. 

What are your passions outside of computing?

Horses are my other passion. When I was three or four years old, I fell in love with them and decided I wanted a horse. My dad had moved to an Air Force Base in California, and they had parade horses in a big fenced area near the military housing. I figured out how to open our doors so I could get out of the house and visit these big animals. The commander of the base would call my dad almost every day and tell him “Your girl is with the horses again,” and he would have to come get me. That was my introduction to horses. 

For the next 18 years, all my dad ever heard was, “Can I get a horse? Can you buy me a horse? Why can’t we have a horse?” He told me that when I could afford to buy a horse, I could have one. That’s exactly what I did. After I got my first job, and I had enough money, I bought a horse. I’ve been enamored with horses even longer than computers or technology. 

What do you especially love about horses?

I don’t think many people understand how affectionate horses can be. All of my horses were like great big puppy dogs. When I boarded them and would visit the boarding place, I would whistle or call and they would come running. They wouldn’t stop running until they were right in front of me, and they would put their head behind my back and just pull me into them, as if to say “I’m so happy to see you” or to give me a hug. 

They are also incredibly smart, and I would try to respond to that when I was working with them. For example, if one of my horses was scared to go down a trail, I would want to try to figure out why they responded that way, and build trust with them. I will sit there and try to understand how my horse is looking at a situation, and why it might look weird to them. I had a horse that was very sensitive, and if he saw that the dirt changed color on a trail, it terrified him. Eventually, he figured out that he could trust me enough that I wouldn’t take him to someplace dangerous and that he could walk past it or walk on it. For some people, they would try to force the animal to do what they wanted him to do, and consider him to be a “bad” horse because he didn’t do that. For me, working with horses isn’t about making an animal do what I want it to do. It’s more about convincing them that what we’re doing together is a good thing, but if the horse doesn’t want to do it, we’ll do something else.

I still give horseback riding lessons, and that’s what I teach my students: to be the horse’s friend. If you’re their friend, they will be your friend, but you can’t get there if you’re kicking or swatting your horse or yanking their reins. 

What advice would you give to other women who are thinking about making a career change, going back to school, or facing the unknown as they think about their next steps? 

Don’t let people tell you that you can’t do something. Don’t let people tell you that you’re too old, or that you’ll never make it because you’re a woman. If you put your mind to it, you can do anything. Just keep pursuing your dreams. You just need to keep going forward. The only person that can tell you you can’t do something is yourself. And when you hear that voice, don’t believe yourself! Everything in life is worth trying at least once, and if you try, usually, you’ll succeed.

Republished with permission from Passion Collective: