Jennifer Miller has seen the United States from both coasts and everywhere in between, crisscrossing the country with her parents growing up.
Miller’s mother had been an Army brat who spent her own youth moving from base to base. The idea of a nomadic existence stuck with Jennifer’s mother, and she passed that experience down to her children.
“We kind of followed my mom’s career around,” Miller says today. “My mom liked to move a lot, so every few years my parents picked up and moved us.”
Miller’s mother was an OB/GYN and the family traveled the country as she advanced in her career.
“I’m a pretty tough person. I never sat around feeling sorry for myself for having to move,” Miller said. “It was just something that we did — that was my family. I don’t remember being traumatized over it. It was never something that I held onto.”
These days, Miller is the president of the Mortgage Solutions Division at a la mode, a technology provider to the mortgage and real estate markets. A la mode is the provider of the Mercury Network, which allows lenders and appraisal management companies to cloud-manage vendor workflow.
“I don’t have the wanderlust my parents did, but I definitely appreciate all those moving experiences I had,” Miller said. “I’ve been in Oklahoma City for over 20 years and I don’t anticipate leaving.”
It’s a far cry from where she started.
When Miller was two, her family moved to Kansas City so her mother could get her master’s degree from the University of Missouri.
After spending three years in Kansas City, the family moved to Reston, Virginia, so her mother could work in a federal hospital to pay back the government for paying for her degree. Miller’s mother was actually working in the hospital the night that President Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley.
After a few years in Virginia, it was back to Southern California to be near her father’s family. But that was short-lived, too.
“By that time, my mom had her degree and she was working in hospitals delivering babies. But she decided she wanted to do something totally different,” Miller said. “So we moved to South Dakota, where she got a job working for Indian Health Services.”
At 14, Jennifer and her family moved to Rosewood, South Dakota, so her mother could begin working on the Lakota Sioux reservation.
The transition to reservation life was a big change for the Millers.
“I can’t say that at 14 I was excited, but pretty quickly after I got there, I was happy to be there,” Miller said. “And small town life is definitely different. It was something I’d never experienced before. I did actually enjoy it.”
The Lakota Sioux reservation operates as an entire country to itself, filled with different little communities. Miller’s town had around 700 people in it, and its size, or lack thereof, actually made the transition easier.
“What I remember is being 14 and being scared of going to a high school with teenagers and I was brand new,” Miller said. “That was one of the advantages of living in a small town, though. There aren’t really cliques like there are in the big schools. So I felt really welcome when I got there.”
But life on the reservation wasn’t without its difficulties.
“Life on the reservation is pretty much how reservations are portrayed in the media,” Miller said. “It was very, very poor, but very culture rich. Alcoholism is extremely real on the reservation. People live in poverty. They’re hand-to-mouth.
“Obviously, I’m making a generalization — it’s not everyone — but there is a large group that lives off government assistance, lives on travel assistance, and doesn’t work. When they get their check, they go drink and they go on benders. And it’s scary.”
Through it all, Miller had her family to fall back on, their bond forged by their nomadic years.
“I was lucky because I had a very strong family and I could always go home to them. But it was scary, and I witnessed things that were really, really sad. I had friends who came from really bad situations, and our house ended up being a safe place for them to hang out.”
One of those things she witnessed was discrimination. Sometimes that discrimination was against her because she was an outsider.
“Some of my best friends were Sioux. I was accepted into the fold in many ways,” she said. “I got to experience a lot of their culture in ways that I’ll never forget. But there was a lot of underlying negativity towards non-Native Americans in the community. As a kid, you’re thinking why does this person hate me? I didn’t do anything to them.”
But what was far worse was the discrimination Miller and her friends experienced when they traveled to neighboring cities for shopping or other excursions.
“Those communities are very negative toward the people on the reservation, to the point that if we went to a neighboring town to go shopping, someone would be following us around the entire time we were in there. They just assumed that dark skin meant they were going to have something stolen from them,” she said.
While living on the reservation and in other places along the way, Jennifer’s father taught math at local schools, and the apple ended up not falling too far from the tree.
Her father tutored math in the summers, and she would sit in on his lessons with kids that were four or five years older than she was.
“I picked it up pretty quickly,” she said. “I was always very good at math. I didn’t necessarily know that’s what I wanted to do, but I figured out pretty quickly that I got the math gene, whatever that is.”
In addition to teaching math, Jennifer’s father also taught computer science.
“This was back in the 80s, when they were just starting to get grants for schools to get PCs in the classroom,” she said.
“So he would always bring computers home, and I would get to play on them. He’d have programming books and I’d sit at home and type in the programs. I always liked to mess around with that stuff.
“A lot of people my age, they got into computers and then became hackers. It was never like that for me — it was more of a study, where I would just kind of learn from books.”
Jennifer’s interest in math and computer science would prove to be the driving force for the rest of her life; she just didn’t know it yet.
After taking a computer programming class in college, she discovered that the school had just established a new double major in math and computer science.
“For a small school in the middle of Oklahoma to have that major, I completely lucked out and it completely changed my life and the course of what I was going to do,” she said.
“I figured out in college that I was pretty good at writing code, but not great. I was really good at documenting and writing the papers and the business side of it, but when it came down to the quality of my code, there were guys that could blow me away because they were the hacker types. I knew just enough to be dangerous,” she said with a laugh.
After graduating, Miller decided to pursue systems administrator work. She got a job with the Air Force as a civil servant and worked with them for five or six years. Then she switched over to be a contractor with Northrop Grumman. At both of these jobs she learned a great deal about network operating systems, especially email systems.
Then she got a call that would change her career.
“I wasn’t looking to move. I’m not the kind of person who moves around a lot,” she said. “But a friend said he was interviewing for a job and the recruiter said he was looking for an email expert and my friend told him that I was the best in town.
“So they called me and I went in for the interview and it was with a la mode. I had no idea that there was this little software company that looked like a Silicon Valley software company in the suburbs of Oklahoma City.”
They were having problems with their email systems and needed some serious help.
“A la mode has an email client in their software for appraisers. Appraisers deliver their reports via email. And they had built the email client into their software and they were delivering mail for all these appraisers,” she said.
“So they were delivering literally millions of emails a month through their servers. And they just had some problems —they hadn’t hardened it. So I spent three hours telling him how to fix it. I told them, ‘You know, you don’t need me. Just fix it.’ But they said, you come and fix it. They offered me a job, so I went there.”
But after resolving their email issues, her role at a la mode changed.
After helping to develop software-as-a-service products, she transitioned to serving more in a managerial role.
“For the first 10 years or so of my career, I was sitting in a room surrounded by machines, and what I do today is totally different. The transition was a little hard for me because I am more the computer geek than I am the people person. Some days I jokingly say that I miss my machines.”
Despite occasionally missing her machines, Miller has found a home in Oklahoma City and at a la mode.
And she’s not going anywhere anytime soon.