Raquel Romano: Combining her Passion for Math and Computer Science to Serve Others

 Raquel Romano ● Principal Software Engineer ● Threadloom

Raquel Romano ● Principal Software Engineer ● Threadloom

For many, math is a useful method for solving problems, but for Raquel Romano, math is a fascinating way to think. Captivated by how math expanded her mind and the many different methods she could use to formulate an answer, Raquel developed a deep love for mathematics and abstract thinking at a young age. She never imagined that math would open a door to earn a Ph.D. in computer science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and lead to a career in building technology for good. In her youth, Raquel was a true renaissance woman, and was involved in several activities such as debate team, piano, soccer, and violin. Although she did not participate in any math competitions, she was naturally drawn to the subject in school. She enjoyed the mystery that math presented for her, and its puzzle-like qualities.

“I loved how it [math] clicked for me and fit together, and how there were so many different ways to reach a solution to the same problem. I was also drawn to the idea of mathematical concepts I had yet to learn---there was something alluring about trying to reach something that seemed almost unobtainable.”

The mathematician in the making never considered computer science, even when she was first introduced to coding at a young age..

“My grandfather gave me my first computer, and together we programmed in BASIC. I loved being with him because he didn’t live near us, and he liked teaching me how to code because the personal computer was a new thing at the time. He was a retired mechanical engineer who was always curious to learn something new.”

Although she did enjoy her first experience with computer science, she still decided to pursue a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics at Harvard University, where she faced significant challenges.

“At Harvard, I felt completely out of my league. The abstract math I was learning was completely different from the math we learned in grade school.”

Being an eager and self-motivated student, she dove head first into her classes, often facing doubts from professors and advisors who believed she was already too far behind in the curriculum because she came from a public school that had not offered advanced calculus. She attributes her perseverance at Harvard to the support she got from her mother and from a few classmates who convinced her she belonged in those challenging classes. Continuing on her path, she eventually collided with computer science once again.

Fascinated by other cultures, she had always wanted to study abroad, so when a fellow classmate told her about a mathematics program in Budapest, Hungary, Raquel seized this opportunity to travel. While in Hungary, she met a number of students majoring jointly in computer science and math, and that combination opened her eyes to a new world of possibilities.

“Computer science in Hungary was very theoretical, and together with classes in combinatorial math, I saw how the two disciplines connected with each other.”

With a newfound excitement for computer science, Raquel was inspired to pursue a Master of Science and eventually a Doctor of Philosophy in computer science at MIT. Now, as a principal software engineer for Threadloom, a company dedicated to reviving thoughtful discussions on the Internet using machine learning, Raquel draws on both her mathematical and computer science skills on a daily basis. Her excitement for computer science not only stems from its intellectual rewards, but also from the tangible impact it can have.

She served in the United States Digital Service, where she built technology to aid immigrants and veterans, and became fascinated by the impact of civic technology. At Google, she worked on crisis response tools that delivered information to people during natural disasters.

“Given that technology is inescapable in many of our lives, it’s important to me that what I build is not driven primarily by profit or entertainment, but rather by a desire to build technology in the service of people.”

How Vanessa Evoen’s Childhood Dream Became a Vision for Global Impact

 Vanessa Evoen ● Process Engineer ● Lam Research

Vanessa Evoen ● Process Engineer ● Lam Research

Unlike most young people, when asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, Vanessa Evoen had an unwavering answer-- she wanted to be an engineer. Although Vanessa excelled in many different disciplines, such as fashion and art, she never had to convince herself to love the dynamics of engineering.

Although currently based in California, growing up, Vanessa was constantly exposed to a variety of different places and it was her time in Lagos, Nigeria at the Vivian Fowler Memorial College for Girls that fostered her love of STEM.

“When I went to the all girls school in Nigeria, I took an introduction to technology class, and I remember it being so fun to learn how to build and create different things.”

After that initial experience, Vanessa engulfed herself in other STEM-related classes, including a technical drawing class where she learned how to fabricate isometric drawings by hand. Her continued excitement for learning how to develop plans for houses and machine parts sparked her interest in aerospace engineering. Her familiarity with travel encouraged her to study planes, however, her plans quickly changed after taking her first organic chemistry class.

“I remember it being one of the best classes I had ever taken, because it came to me so naturally. I never had direct guidance in picking a discipline for engineering, but I have a good memory which is useful in chemistry, so I combined it with engineering.”

After completing a summer research program at the University of California, Los Angeles, it was clear to Vanessa that she wanted to do experiments in technical fields. While working on her undergraduate degree at UCLA, Vanessa dove into research dealing with semiconductor fabrication, a process that produces integrated circuits that power a variety of electronic devices. She enjoyed studying the individual components of solar cells and their ability to convert energy into electricity.

Vanessa’s passions for the applications of energy led her to graduate school.  The eager scholar knew she wanted to attend one of the top two schools in her field at the time, which were MIT and Caltech. Vanessa admits she faced imposter syndrome after being accepted into Caltech. With an acceptance rate of less than 9 percent, she remained steadfast in her purpose of pursuing a PhD.

“Engineering at Caltech is a tough program to get through, and you really have to find your footing,”  said Vanessa. “Rather than focusing on how to get an A or how to have the best paper, I was more concerned on whether my experiments worked. I just knew my passion and why I was there.”

While at Caltech, the chemical engineer diversified her skill set by transitioning her focus to fuel cells and discovering how chemical energy can be converted into electrical energy. Although Vanessa enjoys her current work as a Plasma Etch Engineer at Lam Research, her experience of growing up in different parts of the world gave her a unique perspective and a desire to make a global impact.

“It’s pretty amazing that something I work on everyday is used by the average consumer, but my plans are more than what I am doing right now,” explained Vanessa. “Nigeria is one of the top ten oil producing countries in the world without constant electricity. I am always thinking of ways I can give back and what I can do to change that.”

As the first black women to receive her PhD at Caltech, Vanessa also hopes to excite more young individuals to enter STEM related fields. Furthermore, she created the platform, Vannyetal.com, to share stories, lifestyle tips, and mentor others.

“We need more people, especially women to pursue STEM. I know that I am the only person that looks like me in the lab, but I remember why I do what I do and I know that I can do it. I want others girls to have a mentor to encourage them to know they can achieve in STEM, too.”

Fraud Fighter Zorah Fung: How This Sift Science Full Stack Engineer Helps Prevent Fraudulent Behavior

 Zorah Fung ● Software Engineer ● Sift Science

Zorah Fung ● Software Engineer ● Sift Science

“The most important thing is knowing that it’s going to be hard and that you’ll learn something everyday. Over time, being patient enough for that to play out lets you get so far.”

This was surely the case for Zorah Fung, who grew up a passion for the arts; she played the guitar, bassoon and piano and even dreamed of becoming a graphic designer for Nickelodeon. Despite both of her parents being programmers, becoming a software engineer had been the last thing on her mind.

But as the years went by, Zorah’s curiosity and interest in math and puzzles carried into her undergraduate years at the University of Washington. When an introductory psychology class didn’t fit into her schedule, she resorted to taking a coding class that would fulfill her statistics major requirement.

“I know you go to college to find what you’re interested in but you don’t always plan out how that’s going to happen,” Zorah says. “It turned out that I loved it, and I found myself doing my programming homework to cheer myself up when I was having a bad day.”

After promptly switching to a computer science major, Zorah worked to build upon her experiences. She became chair of ACM-W, or the Association of Computing Machinery’s women’s chapter. Over the course of her undergraduate school years, she worked as an intern for Google Chat in Kirkland, Washington and Google Docs in New York City. Zorah also worked as a research assistant at UW in the computer science department and volunteered at a middle school to help young students learn web development.

Zorah says a great aspect of her working life involved passing on her acquired hard skills to younger people. As a teacher and lecturer for UW’s introductory programming series, Zorah catered to the needs of over 1,000 undergraduate students for over two years. (Not to mention that at age 23, she was the youngest faculty member on campus!)

“I think there’s something magical about teaching,” Zorah says. “Now, instead of figuring out how to teach a computer how to solve problems, I had to find out how to teach humans how to teach a computer to solve any given problem.”

While obtaining her master’s degree in computer science from the University of Washington, Zorah crossed paths with Sift Science CEO Jason Tan, who convinced her to interview for the company. Despite considering a third internship with Google, she was won over by the smaller company size and close-knit team.

Zorah now works as a full-time software engineer at Sift Science, a digital trust and safety partnership that uses machine learning technology to help online businesses prevent fraud. She works on the customer-facing aspects of their product, including an application that fraud analysts use to investigate and understand potentially fraudulent behavior on their websites. Zorah also works with REST APIs, which aggregate and serve customers’ data, and a data processing service that allows customers to make automated business decisions.

“I work with some really smart and kind people… Working at a small company gives me a lot of insight, and even the ability to provide input, on what we build and why we're building it, in addition to how we build it,” Zorah says. “Engineering allows me to focus on growing my own technical skills… and it feels good to be helping [the analysts] and doing something important: stopping fraud.”

Like any woman in STEM, Zorah’s path to her current job included overcoming some obstacles and challenges. Her biggest pieces of advice are emulating the work of other empowering individuals and asking lots of questions.

“Role models are proof that what they do can be done, and can be done by you,” Zorah says. “For every seemingly trivial roadblock that still takes a lot of time to get through, I gain a new tool in my toolkit for the future.”

Zorah continues to take on challenges by pursuing her passion for teaching alongside her full time job. She plans on teaching a weekly seminar at the University of Washington this fall, covering various topics from exploring social impacts of technology to understanding how RSA encryption works. Her motivation to teach on the side stems from her appreciation for hard-working aspiring female engineers.

“I’ve had a lot of young women come up to me and say that it’s really empowering to have a young female teacher,” she says. “That’s been the main rewarding factor for me.”

** Let’s connect! Zorah loves mentoring other women in STEM, especially aspiring engineers and computer scientists. She encourages the Wogrammer community to ask her questions and connect with her via email (zorahfung (at) gmail).**

From Haiti to the Hotbed of Technology: How Merline Santil made her way to Silicon Valley

 Merline Saintil ● C-level Executive and Board Member

Merline Saintil ● C-level Executive and Board Member

By all traditional estimates, Merline Saintil was not destined for success. Growing up as poor girl in Haiti, she never dreamed of working side by side with world class engineers and leaders in Silicon Valley. But, one afternoon at a career fair changed everything.

“Actually, my first love was math.  I only stumbled into computer science (CS) during a career fair in college.  I credit this fortuitous event for propelling me from humble beginnings as a 5-year-old immigrant to living in the epicenter of Silicon Valley in less than a generation.”

From that spark of inspiration, Merline went on to pursue a BS in Computer Science at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) and an MS in Software Engineering Management from Carnegie Mellon. In late 2000, she moved to Silicon Valley to work for Sun Microsystems as a software engineer supporting Forte for Java. From there, she honed her craft at Adobe, Paypal and Intuit. Merline realized she had a passion for coaching people and began to seek out leadership opportunities.

“I guess that I’ve always been attracted to mission-driven work and in how I spend my time.  It’s super powerful to recognize that doing meaningful work has always been innate.”

When asked what project brings her the most pride, Merline reflects back on building the software that propelled jet engines while working at Pratt & Whitney. She is humbled by the level of seriousness around those products, where lives were at stake.

Having risen to the top of her field, Merline is frequently asked to speak about her experience in tech and how she navigates being one of the few women of color in the room.

“I often describe my journey of not letting where you start define where you will end. My story is not impossible, but one many would consider improbable.”

Merline focused her ambitions and carved out a space for herself. “Do not wait until you belong somewhere to go for it.  If you are waiting for permission to be powerful or to achieve your dreams, you will be waiting a long time.” She believes that resilience and the drive to be a better version of herself is what keeps her going. Merline shares how over the years she has learned to show up everyday and continue grinding -- day in and day out.

She is deeply passionate about giving back and motivating other women in tech, especially underrepresented women. She advocates that, “you don’t need to be privileged to be successful. Find something that gives you energy...be intentional and keep digging until you find it. Because once you find it...you will be unstoppable!”

The Art of Finding Yourself: How self-taught computer scientist Asta Li is bringing self-driving cars to market

 Asta Li ● Software Engineer ● Aurora Innovation

Asta Li ● Software Engineer ● Aurora Innovation

Like most children, Asta Li grew up with ambitious and ever-changing career goals. One day, she would envision herself as an artist, or perhaps a designer. Another day, it seemed as though architecture was the perfect path to pursue her interest in art. Yet as a first-generation American, she wanted to pursue something that would guarantee financial security.

Asta first began coding at the age of 13, when she took a C++ class at a local community college. She settled upon this course while looking to expand on her skillset, as her high school did not offer any computer science courses. Despite having this newfound interest and doing well, she never considered being a software engineer. Seeing some of the boys her age code and play computer games somehow convinced her that competing with them was useless.

So Asta chose a path that she felt best combined her innate artistic ability and passion for STEM: aircraft design. Asta began working toward her goals at the young age of 15, when she started studying in the mechanical and aerospace department at Cornell University. (She intentionally chooses not to discuss her age to avoid assumptions about her experience and prefers to let her work speak for itself.) At Cornell, she joined a UAV team called CUAir, which built drones every year for AUVSI, an annual international drone competition held at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland. During her second year on the team, Asta designed the airframe and manufactured the competitive drone. She recalls this as the “start to [her] path to engineering”.

Although she thought she wanted to study computer science during sophomore year, Asta was accepted into a program to study abroad at Cambridge University for her junior year. Since she had already completed most of her mechanical engineering credits by this time and could not do much to change her major, Asta chose to teach herself computer science.

She took online courses, such as MIT lectures and Coursera classes, and completed assignments virtually. Asta learned Python, practiced coding problems, read textbooks and put herself on a rigorous schedule to teach herself what most students achieve over the course of four years.

“Basically anything you can learn in college, especially for computer science, is available for free on the internet,” she says. “Although I didn’t have much formal training, I was still able to get internships that were really valuable.”

Asta was able to take some computer science classes at Cambridge University, and she finished her degree in mechanical engineering the following year. While pursuing a masters degree in computer science at Cornell University, she worked at Uber as an intern and co-op student. With her interest in unmanned aerial vehicles and experience with computer vision from a research project and courses, Asta was able to work on self-driving cars and meet people who taught her “even more than she learned in school”.

“I do subscribe heavily to the belief that you create your passions. No one is born loving computer science. People develop these passions as they get really good at them,” she says. “That’s how I’ve tried to drive my career! I think the problem of transportation and safety has an impact on people’s lives everyday.”

In 2017, Asta began working at Aurora, a Bay Area-based startup working to bring self-driving vehicles to the market. Although this was originally a “scrappy startup in a lumberyard” with “no indoor plumbing” and “band practice next door”, Asta says she has learned much from choosing to work at Aurora.

As the youngest person and first female to be hired as a full-time engineer, she admits to being intimidated by being surrounded by people with more experience. She soon realized that she had picked up not only technological skills but also soft skills, like working effectively and being a good teammate. Asta says her biggest obstacle while trying to find her way to computer science and software engineering was self-doubt.

“I think this voice in the back of my head came from a lot of different things, like this idea that guys are supposed to be the ones that are good at computers,” she says. “The cultural effects are still present with the fact that very few computer science programs have an even gender distribution… and this is commonplace across the board.”

Asta learned over time that prioritizing sleep and goal-setting were most effective for success. What stuck with her most was the driven nature of her parents. She says that the words she grew up hearing from her mother were enough to keep her competitive and determined.

“My parents have a huge influence. My mom is what I would call a really powerful woman,” Asta says. “She grew up in a poor family… and taught me that you don’t have to be born with any incredible skill to be successful… All that matters is that you work hard.”

She goes on to share that “way more women could be computer scientists or software engineers but don’t believe in themselves, don’t believe they can be, don’t believe they should be and aren’t confident enough during interviews because of that self-doubt,” Asta says. “I’d love to change that.”

Transforming Latin American Talent: How Laboratoria Alumna, Shazil Tovar, Is Closing the Technology Gender Gap

 Shazil Tovar ● Front-End Developer ● Accenture

Shazil Tovar ● Front-End Developer ● Accenture

In Mexico, the technology scene is booming, with engineering and development jobs on the rise.  However, female representation in the Latin America tech scene still has some progress to make. Four years ago, Laboratoria wanted to fix that, by recruiting Latina women to help bridge the divide.

Shazil Tovar of Mexico City was one of the applicants accepted into Laboratoria’s 4th cohort. From Ciudad de Mexico (CDMX) to San Paulo, Brazil, Shazil rose to the top of a competitive applicant pool across Latin America. As a student, Shazil always thought about being a developer, however, it was not clear how she could pursue that dream.  Despite studying Systems Engineering and creating web pages for fun, she never thought she could use her coding skills for a career. Even in Latin America, getting a formal education or technical training is not enough, as most Latina Women have less than a 20% chance to transition to a formal job. After getting married and starting a family, her aspirations of having a career in tech began to fade.

Then...something happened. She discovered a new path.

Now she’s a Software Developer for Accenture in Mexico City, and has been for the last year and a half. When she first started in early 2017, she was the Angular team, working primarily on frameworks. She was able to transition to the Testing team, where she’s currently testing automation for Android devices, in addition to developing robots for services performance tests. Beyond developing strong technical skills, the mentorship and support from the Laboratoria community help her balance her new career and her family.

During Laboratoria’s six-month bootcamp, Shazil was able to learn alongside her peers that shared her dreams of a better career opportunity.  Over a 1000 hours were committed to coding, where they learned about responsive apps, Bootstrap frameworks, and JQuery elements.

“They literally sculpted a new woman, the best version of me. Every key from the keyboard I pushed within these walls, was worthy. I didn’t realize entirely what I was doing, not until I saw it presented within a real software product solution for a very important bank in the world, then I realized what I was capable of doing and I had a mixture of emotions and gratitude that pushed away most of my fears and insecurities.”

As a Laboratoria Alum, Shazil is part of the stronghold of technically trained and equipped women who are recognized on a global scale, including allies from Google and Facebook.

“Laboratoria changed the way I see women in technology... I didn’t even realize that there were so few women working at this sector [and] women talent was needed… This [movement] is just starting. ”

With over 850 alumni as of April 2018, Laboratoria’s mission is to help fill the 450,000 available jobs with as many women as possible. The end-goal is empowering women, providing the technical and personal support they need, and allowing them to become change agents for the technology industry as a whole.

Expressing Creativity Through Code: Howard Student Kymberlee Hill Uses Computer Science to Pursue her Passions

 Kymberlee Hill ● Student & CEO ● Curl IQ

Kymberlee Hill ● Student & CEO ● Curl IQ

Like father, like daughter, Los Angeles native Kymberlee Hill fell in love with music watching her dad work as a music producer. When the industry shifted to incorporate more technology, her dad shifted right along with it, creating websites and graphics for artists in addition to his producing. Fascinated by her father’s work, Kym started teaching herself how to use digital design tools like Photoshop and InDesign.

“Music, creativity, and entrepreneurship were taught to me at a very young age,” Kym said. “My dad and I had our own radio show and car wash.”

Kym decided to pursue a major in Computer Science. “I recognized that technology was a tool and a way I could better express my creativity. I like being outside of the box and code is a way to do that,” said Kym.

After attending a predominantly white high school, Kym traveled to the East Coast to attend Howard University, a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) in Washington, D.C. Affectionately called the “The Mecca”, Howard attracts students from different backgrounds who mainly share the common experience of being Black.

“Google taught some of my classes freshman year, which is part of the reason why I went to Howard,” Kym said, referring to the Googler-in-Residence Program where Google engineers teach as faculty at HBCUs. “That was the first time I saw a black woman teaching CS.”

For many Black women, their hair is a source of inspiration, admiration and frustration. As a naturalista, Kym knows this all too well. Around campus, she would hear women say, “I would’ve never gone natural had I not come to Howard,” which became a topic of much discussion amongst her and her friends who often spent a lot of money buying hair products.  

Born out of a conversation in 2016, Kym and her friend turned their conversation from a problem to a solution. They thought “What if you could just take a picture of your hair and know what products would work well?”

Kym brought this question to her CS advisor and research professor, who encouraged her to learn more about what that type of technology would look like. Kym wrote a grant proposal to research how to analyze a photo to determine hair pattern and matching products. She used this idea for her senior project, incorporating design thinking into the process.

Kym’s hypothesis was that if women knew their hair type, they would have an easier time finding products. She conducted interviews, captured and analyzed pictures of women with natural hair, and created an algorithm and prototype. “Initially, I did not think of the app as a business, I just wanted to do the research,” she said.

After a mentor told her about a startup accelerator, she decided to apply and was accepted. With the help of three friends, Kym programmed and incorporated Curl IQ, “an image analysis app that generates personalized hair care solutions for women with textured hair.” The app uses big data and computer vision technology to identify the hair type and offer product recommendations and will launch at the end of 2018.

“This is for the culture,” said Kym. “Some people won’t understand, but I know Black women will understand.”

Working as a software engineer at companies like Twitter, Intel and Spotify prepared Kym to finish her last semester at Howard and continue to run Curl IQ. At these companies, she gained experience in front-end, back-end, and full-stack development working on internal tools and platform features. One fun fact she shared is that because she worked at Twitter, she cannot be verified with a check. CEO Jack Dorsey is the only verified Twitter employee.

While Kym has faced challenges with bringing her dream of Curl IQ to reality, she says she has leaned in on her faith to keep her grounded. “It’s about confidence, knowing and believing that you are capable,” she said. “My biggest challenge is making sure I am not blocking my blessings.”

As an entrepreneur in tech, she knows there will be long days and moments where she may feel discouraged, but she is determined not to give up.

Kym’s advice for women and other budding entrepreneurs: “Believe in yourself. Believe in the work. Build a strong foundation.”