The conference floor at Twitter headquarters in San Francisco transformed into a magnet to aspiring and future software engineers this past April. The mostly-women attendees had gathered for a day-long tech-fest of sharing, learning, and networking at the Women Who Code CONNECT 2017 conference.
As founder and president of Alliance member FemResources, a startup nonprofit to advance women’s careers in technology and engineering and move the needle towards gender equality in tech, I attended to glean deeper insights into the needs, wants and aspirations of women seeking a technical career. I also happened to be “citizen journalist” for the day.
The women I spoke with come to technology from nontraditional backgrounds. For the most part they’re career switchers, with visions of blending prior experience with a career in tech. These are also the women who FemResources aims to serve by tackling job readiness head-on through tech apprenticeships and real-world IT projects.
“Bros” stayed home
Despite the recent public revelations about technical women and female founders experiencing sexual assaults and inappropriate sexualized behavior in the workplace and while seeking funding, the women I interviewed overwhelmingly see a bright future for technology, and although some have concerns, they’re generally are optimistic about their roles in the tech sector.
I spoke with many women, including two conference presenters. What follows are the voices of those who wanted their stories told and who hoped their experiences would inspire other women traveling their own, similar journeys.
© Roberta Guise. Photo of Chris Brickey
CHRIS BRICKEY is an aspiring software engineer building products that support political causes. She planned to start App Academy in San Francisco at the end of May.
Why she attended CONNECT
As she transitions into the tech industry, Chris said she wanted a “lay of the land,” and to “cast a wide net” to understand the recruiting cycle, who’s hiring, and how they’re conducting hiring activities. She was interested in trending topics. And she wanted to meet peers and more experienced tech women who may be able to help her.
Chris was in awe at how many women build “really cool” products in their spare time. One product she noted was software to make Amazon’s Alexa do such other things as capture and tell stories.
Her favorite sessions were on virtual reality, especially career opportunities. She also noted the value in hearing other women talk about their experiences. It made her feel more confident in her ability to succeed.
Chris expressed concern for women in tech that despite all the conversations about the challenges, not much has changed.
© Roberta Guise. Photo of Karen Fonthal
KAREN FONTHAL aspires to be a software engineer who bridges the gap between healthcare and engineering. As an example, she pointed to the need to grow the quality of the patient experience, also known as health informatics.
Why she attended CONNECT
Karen wanted to get a sense of the future and meet others from Hackbright Academy, the coding school she chose for switching her career to technology.
Tech is growing and only getting better, she says, and wants to make sure she keeps professionally up to date. Karen’s thinking is around robots replacing people on the one hand, and the future of engineers evolving and fixing human-related issues. “We’re good at shifting the way people think and do things in order to meet the world where it is,” she says.
Karen’s advice: “Women know there will be barriers and gender discrimination, even though it feels as though women think better and are more creative. I know it’s a cliché, but I’d say, ‘you can do it, just do it!’”
© Roberta Guise. Photo of Evelyn Ramirez
EVELYN RAMIREZ sees herself as a future software engineer who at the time of the conference was getting her technical education at Hackbright Academy. It thrilled her to see so many women and speakers who looked like her.
Why she attended CONNECT
Evelyn talked about being curious, wanting to network and meet people, and get inspired. The most unexpected inspiration, she said, came from Kaitlyn Hova, who married coding to music. In her presentation Hova talked about her many failures — this reminded Evelyn about what she perceived to be her own failures.
Impact of CONNECT on career
Today the glasses came off, Evelyn said. “I got real world information, especially about sexism at work and how to find confidence when I get my engineering roles.
She noted that most people have an education. “I’m 5 steps behind people in tech — I didn’t have educated parents and I had to take care of them instead of go to college. Not getting an education left me with low self-esteem.
You must put yourself out there: network, talk to people, and realize that everyone has a story. “I learned something new all the time today,” she reported. She was fascinated to learn there’s such a thing as a 3-D violin. It led her to believe that with the right skills she’d be valuable to society. She wants to help underserved communities, and is confident she’ll get there despite not knowing how right now.
Be creative and don’t give up, despite the competition.
I spoke with two conference speakers, Elysia Lock and Karlin Kappala. As part of their presentation to attendees they showed their Sous Chef project, a cooking application.
© Roberta Guise. Photo of Elysia Lock
ELYSIA LOCK is a solution architect at Slalom Consulting and mentor to women and middle school children. Although she was teased and bullied in high school for being too nerdy, she persevered — she loved math and science. Her web teacher encouraged her to get a degree in computer science. But her grandfather, who was influential in her family, said she was “too cute for technology,” while a male teacher told her she was stupid. Discouraged, she pursued a degree in art and education, but while playing open source games with her boyfriend, her love of tech was rekindled. The rest, as they say, is history.
Elysia advises women to take risks and put themselves out there. Continuing to help women advance into their tech careers helps make her a better mentor, she told me.
© Roberta Guise. Photo of Karlin Kappala
With a background in computer science and art, KARLIN KAPPALA’s first job was as an art teacher. Her second position: tech support in a GE call center performing quality assurance. Quality Assurance, or QA, is new as its own discipline, Karlin tells us. She’s a quality assurance consultant at Slalom Consulting.
Do your own side projects, she advises. Volunteer and participate in coding hackathons. Get comfortable speaking in front of groups. “I have two toddlers,” she said, “And I took a risk to work on a side project and to get out of my own bubble.”
The wise words and ideas all these women conveyed apply to everyone, in any field, at any time: dream big, take risks, and keep your eye tightly focused on where you’re going.
Roberta Guise, President, FemResources
Roberta Guise is the founder of FemResources, a startup nonprofit whose mission is gender equality in the tech workforce and advancing women’s careers in technology and engineering. She’s also a trusted marketing and PR advisor to small business owners, experts and leaders of nonprofits. Roberta’s opinions appear in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, BusinessWeek, Fortune magazine, and the Wall Street Journal.