University IT Staff Spotlight: Lea Roberts
If you’re ever curious what Stanford was like 50 years ago, go talk to Lea Roberts, Enterprise Network Architect in University IT. She’ll tell you about the days when White Plaza as we know it could be driven through, and when Pine Hall was basically on the edge of the “world” at Stanford.
She’ll also tell you about the evolution of networking, and how she’s seen it grow from something that felt like a loose research project to something that is now mission critical to the operations of the entire university. She’ll recall that one time back in the 1980s when the network went down and she was able to help trace the problem back to the basement of the Durand Building, to a grad student who unplugged a segment of the network in order to plug in his coffee pot.
In between all this, she’ll probably throw in a personal story or two, perhaps about her experiences in boarding school, or how she’s traveled all over the world. Or, that she lived the majority of her life as a man.
Yes, Lea Roberts certainly has many stories to tell, and lucky for us, she’s planning to capture them all in a book or website once she retires in the next year or two. But before we dive into her future plans and what else she hopes to do in her retirement, let’s start at the beginning of her story.
A Stanford dropout
Lea was born and raised in the Bay Area until high school, when she left for a Christian Science boarding school in St. Louis, Missouri, called the Principia. After high school, she followed in her mother’s footsteps and enrolled as a physics major at Stanford in 1964.
Two years later, while working as the chief recording engineer at the KZSU campus radio station, she dropped out of school when her extracurricular activities in broadcasting and tech became more interesting—and more time consuming—than her studies.
Though she is technically a Stanford dropout, she never actually left the university. Shortly after dropping out, she took up a new role as a technician in the Department of Communication, and after that became a scene carpenter for the Stanford Repertory Theatre, thus beginning her 50-year career journey at Stanford. Yes, that’s right, 50 years.
From 1967 until now, Lea worked in all kinds of communications capacities spanning TV, broadcast, computing technology, system programming, system administration, and since 1983, networking.
Today, in her role as an enterprise network architect, her job largely consists of “working to shut down all the old stuff that only I know about.” Call it succession planning if you will, essentially she is working to clean up legacy parts of the Stanford network that she built years ago, making way for the next generation of networking and ensuring that the old systems will not cause problems for the new things going in.
She also spends time training other folks in her department and imparting her knowledge so that when she retires they will have insight into the ins and outs of the networks that were put in place many years ago.
In addition to all the work Lea has done over the years to build the backbone for the Stanford network, she has also contributed her knowledge and skills to several organizations outside of campus.
Stanford sponsored her to serve on the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which involved traveling to meetings all over the world in places like England, Sweden, and more.
The university also supported her to be part of the American Registry of Internet Numbers (ARIN), which manages and distributes IP addresses and Autonomous System Numbers within Canada, the United States, and many Caribbean and North Atlantic islands. While serving on the advisory council from 2000 to 2009, Lea traveled to two ARIN meetings per year, taking her to South Africa and Australia.
“It was great traveling to so many wonderful places,” she said. “In those days, if the trip was more than 14 hours, you ‘had’ to fly business class … it was pretty great traveling on someone else’s nickel!”
From Ron to Lea
From serving in many different jobs over the years, to all the travel she’s done, perhaps the single most pivotal time in Lea’s career—and life—was making the decision to transition from a man to a woman in 2002.
Lea said that while she has always explored that aspect of herself for as long as she can remember, she put off a full transition for many years because she really valued her job at Stanford and didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize it.
But, in the late 1990s she started exploring it again more seriously, and finally decided to talk to her boss Jay Kohn about it.
“Jay, as well as everyone here, was totally supportive leading up to and after my transition from Ron to Lea. None of my fears ever materialized, even in the slightest. By and large, management and my coworkers have been so great.”
Onward and upward
Reflecting on all her decades of experiences at Stanford, Lea summed things up well:
“I’ve been very fortunate at Stanford, for having opportunities to do all kinds of fun things. Getting on-the-job training at the beginning of computers and networking allowed me to become very knowledgeable in my field. I’m a lucky person and have lived a charmed life.”
Looking towards the future, Lea is anticipating the next chapter of her life story: retirement.
So what will life look like for her at that point?
“In my retirement I’d love to have more time to play with ham radio (Amateur radio), and fix up my house. I’ll also still work part time as a contractor for Stanford, helping in the IT Operations center. And, I’d like to write out my life story for people who are curious,” she said with a smile.