Software Engineering

Re-architecting the Status of Female Engineers: How data architect Cindy Mottershead overcomes the stigma of women in tech

Cindy Mottershead ● Data Architect ● Blackbaud

Cindy Mottershead ● Data Architect ● Blackbaud

As a young child, Cindy Mottershead’s determination to “fix things up” led her to find the nail stuck in her mother’s washing machine drum and bring it back to working condition. This was just the beginning of her journey in engineering, specifically as a data architect.

In high school, Cindy discovered a love for puzzles when her math teacher gave her a calculus book and encouraged her to learn beyond the curriculum offered by the school. She spent countless hours playing with an Altair 8800 computer and learning how to write logic in her teacher’s office.

“As soon as I played around with this computer, I loved it,” Cindy says. “I learned about this thing called computer science and started writing with BASIC.”

Despite coming from a lower socioeconomic background with limited educational resources, Cindy pursued her interests by teaching herself about computers and receiving government and merit-based grants to further her education. Cindy’s passion continued to grow at the University of Southern Maine, where she majored in the school’s new computer science degree program.

After college, Cindy worked with modems as a junior engineer at Codex. Within a year, Cindy solved problems that even the senior engineer could not solve and advanced in the company. She then moved to Wang, a computer hardware company that produced word processors and early computer models. At this company, Cindy worked on projects with former vice president, Al Gore and put together an ethernet board to connect Wang minicomputers to the ARPANET (the network that became the basis for the Internet). Despite having the opportunities to work on projects to promote the ubiquity of the internet, Cindy admits she faced obstacles based on her being a woman in tech.

 “A group of hardware guys sent a long letter to the CEO. They said the problem is that this is software, so they needed to get a man to do it,” she says. “Luckily, my manager was very supportive and said I knew what I was doing. I eventually found the hardware glitch myself — it was not a software bug/glitch! That was a really fun experience.”

In 1985, Cindy moved on to Thinking Machines  where she worked with VLSI (very-large-scale integration) chip design and became the project leader working on an operating system. It is here, she says, that she built the work she is most proud of.

“I wrote a simulator using UNIX semaphores, sockets, shared memory, etc. to replicate the distributed system design of the Connection Machine,” she says. “I fixed some boot loader code, loaded my kernel and let it run. I ran one of the test programs, and it just ran! I stood there staring at it for hours, it seems.”

Eight years later, Cindy left Thinking Machines to start her own company, Islandway Software. This New England-based distribution company was an angel-funded enterprise that operated for five years before closing down.

“We were two women starting a technical company, which was pretty much unheard of then,” she says. “But after five years, [they] told us that it’s ‘too much of a risk’ and ‘we haven’t seen a successful company run by two women.’”

Despite the social stigma against a women-led business, Islandway Software created a very successful product: a client-server based product planning tool. Cindy says that although, “there are now a gazillion of these,” the product we designed was unique and very powerful at the time.

In 1998, Cindy began consulting and became a partner at Papyrus, a human capital services firm specializing in executive coaching, strategic consulting and talent searches. Cindy and her business partner sold Papyrus a year later and she decided to do contact-based consulting on her own. From 2000 to 2006, she invested time in volunteer work for nonprofit organizations to expand her skillsets. Cindy then founded Attentive.ly, a real time processing company, with two other women. While she was originally responsible for most of the architecture herself, Cindy soon employed a small group of engineers, most of whom were women.

“Working with a team of female engineers was such a difference from working at some of the other companies where I was the only woman,” she says. “You could really see the value of diversity on a team because people started to approach problems differently and worked well together.”

Attentive.ly was eventually sold to Blackbaud, a NASDAQ company that has been recognized by the Anita Borg Institute as one of the top companies for women technologists. Cindy currently works at Blackbaud as a data architect.

“If you love logic, you will absolutely love engineering. Just do it.” Cindy says. “Diversity makes engineering an amazing place. We need more women and people of color to make these teams vibrant and open to diverse views.”

Learning New Keys: How Washington D.C. Developer, Natassja Linzau, Is Transforming Data Literacy in Government

Natassja Linzau ● National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine ● Web Developer

Natassja Linzau ● National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine ● Web Developer

Like engineers, piano teachers are guided by best practices. Piano teachers typically advise their students to think carefully about the composition and the structure, work through trial and error, and think about what outputs they want to achieve.

In high school, Natassja knew she wanted to pursue a career in music. She studied music and psychology at the Brigham Young University and later received her in Masters in Music at Catholic University. While running her music teaching studio, Natassja would guide and mentor her students on the best practices of the piano.

In the mid-90s, she began working at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington D.C. as a secretary. Still passionate about music, during her spare time, she volunteered at the D.C. Federation of Music Clubs. The organization needed a website and she offered to help, as she had taken a programming class in high school. She enjoyed building their website and knew from there she could do more. She wanted to understand web development and front-end engineering better, so she took online classes at night through the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne. During this time, she was also taking care of three kids and balancing three jobs but was able to pursue a new career path she never considered before. Over the next 18 years, Natassja transitioned from her administrative role to an official Web Graphics Designer to Web Developer.

From piano keys to a computer keyboard, Natassja took her career to the next level. Natassja joined Women Who Code DC in 2015 and met other women passionate about technology who wanted to enter the industry. However, in the beginning she noticed a lack of female mentors. So, she started the Mentoring Program within their chapter, which helped connect women with role models in the tech industry.

In 2016, she took a position with the U.S. Department of Commerce as a lead front-end engineer. In this role, she oversaw the Discovery team of the Commerce Data Service, however, after a couple short months, she found another opportunity to help lead the Data Education Initiative. This new project, also called the Commerce Data Academy, created opportunities for the U.S. Department of Commerce employees to learn more about data science, cybersecurity, and new programming languages. Natassja lead this project because she wanted to foster mentorship within America’s Data Agency. More than 1000 employees signed up for the initial classes. The program she designed contained over 38 technical courses, and was so popular it began attracting interest from other federal agencies.

Moving beyond the Census Data Academy, Natassja was the Lead of the Data Talent Working Group for the U.S. Data Cabinet, which was responsible for developing guidelines and standards for data training, education, and professional development for many data roles in the federal government. This was especially important so that federal agencies can find the right data scientists for the right jobs. She also helped standardize the terminology for data on USAJobs.gov, while developing the Data Science Jobs microsite.

Over the past couple of years, Natassja has created new opportunities for female technologists, her co-workers and future data scientists interested in joining the Federal workforce. Her musician mindset of persistence and discipline allowed her to keep going, despite not starting out on a traditional path to tech.

“Be patient, and persist. Keep going and learning. Like in coding, there’s always something new to learn. Things are always changing.”

The Teacher Who Taught Herself to Code: How creating tools for her classroom launched Anna Andresian’s career in tech

Anna Andresian ● Staff Software Engineer ● AltSchool

Anna Andresian ● Staff Software Engineer ● AltSchool

Teachers unlock the potential in us all to acquire new skills and develop our talents and interests over time. For 11 years, Anna Andresian did just that as a Latin teacher at various middle and high schools around the United States.

As a high school student, Anna loved studying science and had dreams of becoming a high school physics teacher. Spanish and Latin, her next favorite subjects in school, influenced her decision to change her major once she entered college. After graduating from Brown University with a BA in Classics, Anna took a teaching job at Rocky Hill School in Rhode Island. In 2004, she moved to London to receive her master’s in Classics at Oxford. From there her passion for teaching and learning deepened, and she taught at numerous schools around the US, including in New Jersey and Colorado.

 As her teaching career progressed, Anna realized that she wanted to make the material delivery more dynamic and interactive for her students. She began recording macros in Microsoft Word, which are saved sequences of commands or keystrokes that can be recalled. She used macros to color code certain texts and allow for better language association. This experience sparked a curiosity in technology and led her to inspect the generated code to figure out how to write different macros to solve more complicated problems.

“This enabled me to use Word as a presentation tool without ever writing on the whiteboard,” Anna says. “I [then] created self-correcting Excel spreadsheets that allowed students to type in a Latin noun or verb and then type in its forms, receiving feedback about which answers were right and wrong.”

In 2012, Anna discovered an opportunity to establish a base of coding knowledge with the convenience of learning at her own school. When two students started an after-school programming club to teach other students how to write their own games, Anna decided to join and became “totally addicted to coding.”

“I started building some online tools that my students could use to practice their Latin, and I found that these online tools really changed the range of what was possible in my classes,” Anna says. “The more I learned, the more I felt was possible.”

She enjoyed creating new tools to use in the classroom, such as homework assignments that give automatic feedback and interactive games that teach students how to practice vocabulary. At the end of the 2013 school year, Anna took a break from teaching and attended the Recurse Center in New York for three months to further her coding knowledge. Out of pure interest in technology, she did a lot of back-end work at the workshop. After completing that program, Anna took her first technical job working on education web apps at Amplify.

“I really loved that the whole point of the [Recurse Center] program was not to get hired, but to make us better programmers,” she says. “You pick what you want to work on and you spend your days working towards that!”

 After working at Amplify for a year and a half, Anna joined AltSchool, where she now works as a staff software engineer. At AltSchool, Anna continues to build her technical skills working on developing their personalized learning platform for K12 schools. Through her hard work and dedication, Anna seeks to harness the power of technology to revolutionize teaching methods for schools across the nation.

How Angie Jones is taking the World’s Automation Engineers to the Next Level

Angie Jones ● Senior Developer Advocate ● Applitools

Angie Jones ● Senior Developer Advocate ● Applitools

“I’m now at a point in my career where my skill set is sought after by many tech companies. That is amazing to me; I have leveled up.”

For Angie Jones, leveling up is an everyday occurrence. Not only does she make sure she is consistently up-to-date in the forever changing dynamics of the tech world, but with her non-traditional job, she is afforded the opportunity to help others become better engineers as well. Angie had no idea that enrolling in her first computer programming class at Tennessee State University would lead to a career in aiding aspiring engineers around the world.

Before beginning her journey as an automation engineer guru and consultant, Angie started her college experience majoring in business. Her father encouraged her to take at least one computer class because he recognized it was an emerging space at the time. Soon after completing the course, she changed her major to computer science, realizing she had a true love and talent for coding. For 15 years she worked with companies such as Twitter and IBM as an automation engineer writing code to simulate and verify customer scenarios.

“Test automation engineers write code that runs behind the scenes, that is not a part of the finished product. Our code is like a key ingredient that supports developers and helps the entire industry move faster and with confidence.”

Despite being great at her job and holding 25 patents in the United States and China, Angie realized that she was not sharing enough of her ideas. About two years ago, she recognized that it was difficult to hire employees in the test automation engineering field. Although the role was in high demand, Angie noticed that companies found it difficult to fill these positions due to the lack of experience in candidates within the industry.

“We would interview candidates and they didn't have the experience and weren’t up to the level we needed them to be. It wasn't necessarily their fault, as the high demand for this skill has only recently skyrocketed. These roles would be open for a year or more, if ever filled at all.”

Hoping to alleviate the problem, Angie launched her own blog to support automation engineers with common issues. Through angiejones.tech, Angie was able to share techniques and strategies that would help engineers become not only more proficient in their duties, but excel in their careers.

As she began to publish content more regularly, Angie received requests from more and more companies to present at conferences and seminars. When it became challenging to balance her extensive travel with a more traditional work schedule, a timely opportunity presented itself to join visual test automation company, Applitools, as a Senior Development Advocate.

“My job is to help automation engineers and developers around the world become better at their jobs. Over the past two years, I've traveled to more than a dozen countries to share my knowledge with others; and it’s funny because you think that these countries will have different problems and challenges, but tech is universal and everyone is struggling with the same things.”

In this more flexible position, Angie is given the opportunity to help others advance in their careers and truly understand test automation concepts and practices. She is leading a brand new initiative called Test Automation University, a global online educational platform that offers free courses on test automation.

“I feel privileged to be able to work in technology, a highly creative field that is shaping the world as we know it. What makes this even better is having the opportunity to help other engineers level up and reach their goals as well.”

How QA Engineer, Ijeoma Ezenonyebuchi, Keeps Listeners Connected through Quality Program(ming) at NPR

Ijeoma Ezeonyebuchi ● Quality Assurance Engineer ● NPR

Ijeoma Ezeonyebuchi ● Quality Assurance Engineer ● NPR

While in elementary school in Clinton, Maryland, Ijeoma grew up with a passion for reading and learning new languages. She never thought she would find herself in the technology industry. Initially, she dreamt about being an entrepreneur, owning an international hotel chain and traveling all around the world. However, during high school, she joined a pilot robotics program, which opened her eyes to the world of engineering.

While learning about robotics and practicing coding, she developed a strong desire to build things. One of her most memorable projects was hacking with the “Hello World’’ boilerplate. She coded ”Hello Friend" and her friend was marveled to see a message just for her. “I was amazed that such a small program could bring joy to my friend,” she says. Seeing how something she built could spark such joy inspired her to pursue Computer and Electrical Engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI).

While at WPI, Ijeoma was an active student on campus despite her rigorous engineering schedule. She was on the track and field team and a member of the National Society of Black Engineers. Despite being a well-rounded student, she admits there were many times she was faced with a problem and wasn’t sure how to approach it at first. During a challenging engineering project, an encouraging professor once said “this seems like the hardest thing in the world right now, but it’s small in comparison to the other challenges you'll face. You'll get through this, and it will make you stronger in the end.” Years later, she still reflects on her professor’s supportive words when confronted by a difficult challenge.

After graduation, Ijeoma spent a couple of years as a consultant. In December 2015, she joined the National Public Radio (NPR) Tech Team in Washington D.C. As a Quality Assurance Engineer, Ijeoma works on the NPR One mobile application, testing and verifying new features. She ensures that the NPR One application is a positive experience for its loyal podcast followers, many who use it as their primary source of news and information. Ijeoma’s role is crucial for the future of NPR, and journalism in general, as users change their listening behavior and start accessing news via mobile devices. One of the highlights of working at NPR is  working with other diverse engineers who all share the same mission to deliver in-depth, quality content to a diverse audience.

In her spare time, Ijeoma is the Java & Android lead with Women Who Code DC, where she organizes events and teaches Java and Android development to aspiring developers. Although her dream of owning an international hotel chain did not become a reality, Ijeoma travels the world speaking at tech conferences such as the Mid-Atlantic Developer Conference, THAT Conference, and most recently, All Things Open in North Carolina.

“Technology can do great things, find a way to use it to make an impact.”

Out With The Old and In With The New: How Samira Korani promotes Artificial Intelligence & Tech in Iran

Samira Korani ● Python Developer ● ARPCO

Samira Korani ● Python Developer ● ARPCO

Growing up in a country where traditional gender roles are still somewhat prevalent, Samira Korani, decided to break the mold of society’s standards and dive into a field of work no one considered she would. While Iran is seeing increasing numbers of women pursuing STEM fields, many women there continue to face the same challenges as their female counterparts around the world. Samira’s steadfast fixation on her dream, however, never left room for her to doubt her desire to help bring Iran into the future using artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Growing up as the only daughter with four brothers, Samira easily differentiated herself from her traditional family. While her parents encouraged her to pursue the arts and possibly marry at a young age, she found herself drawn to math and science. She developed a passion that would ultimately serve as catalyst into her career in tech.

“When I grew up, I started believing that we can use technology to predict our society’s changes and learn about our country’s past.”

This revelation led Samira to text mining.  After receiving her Bachelor’s degree in Industrial Management and her Master's degree Information Technology, Samira developed a better understanding of how text mining would be particularly helpful in Iran where the dominant language is Farsi.

Utilizing text mining with Farsi is particularly difficult due to the lack of text corpus, or large collections of electronic documents. A text corpus would serve as a primary source of data for research dealing with language, however, its limited supply makes it challenging to determine facts about Iran’s history.

Essentially text mining uses artificial intelligence (AI) technology to derive quality information from written text and transform it into quantitative learning material. Using Python Samira is able to generate new information from documents that can be converted into data for analysis.

Unfortunately, in Samira’s experience, the Iranian government still adheres to traditional practices and is slower to adopt new technologies, such as AI for data analysis. However, she does not let that slow her down.

As an instructor at Iran’s leading institution for engineering and physical science disciplines, Sharif University, Samira connects with an open source community discussing the importance of artificial intelligence. She also strives to mentor young women to change the traditional societal expectations and encourages them to pursue their dreams.

“In my field, they try to ignore me and they told me I couldn’t be a coder, but I am a hard worker, and I had a dream to work with technology. The future of science is artificial intelligence because humans and technology integrate with each other. It took a lot of hard work and not being disappointed easily to do what I do, but I will continue reach my goal.”

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.”

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.”