Women In Engineering

Sky-High Dreams: Wendy Okolo's Journey in Aerospace Engineering

Wendy Okolo ● Aerospace Engineering Researcher ● NASA Ames Research Center

Wendy Okolo ● Aerospace Engineering Researcher ● NASA Ames Research Center

For Wendy Okolo, a love for science ran in the family.

“My big sister is a medical doctor. Growing up, she would come home and teach me the things she learned in school. My sister was very instrumental in my decision to pursue a STEM career/field. And when you have Nigerian parents, they plant the idea in your head that you’re going to be an engineer or a doctor or something like that. At three or four years old, I already knew I wanted to be an engineer.”

Figuring out what kind of engineer to be, though, would prove to be a lengthier process. After being initially tugged between aerospace, mechanical, and chemical engineering, she found herself attracted most strongly to aerospace engineering in college.

“I’m still fascinated with it to today. I’m fascinated by planes I see going overhead. After my undergraduate degree I went on to get a PhD in aerospace engineering as well. In the PhD program you have to make an original contribution to your field. As a result of that, I fell in love with research.You get to ask questions that no one else had answered, apply techniques to things in an unconventional manner, and think outside of the box.”

Her dissertation research focused on making flights more efficient so that airplanes can run using less fuel. She drew inspiration from observations in nature, where birds fly in optimal, V-shaped formations. After finishing her PhD, she started working at the NASA Ames Research Center. She describes the environment as constantly intellectually stimulating.

“Staying a lifelong learner is easy at a place like NASA. There are so many exciting things happening, so many things you can do. I’ve never been bored once.”

She leads two different projects, one on the safe and seamless integration of unmanned aerial vehicles in national airspace, and another to enable precision landing for aircraft (particularly deployable spacecraft).

To those who might want to follow in her footsteps, Wendy advises not cutting corners when it comes to building knowledge.

“You really have to do your homework, do your due diligence. For instance, math builds on itself, so if you don’t understand a concept in math or a particular theory, go a step back and understand that. If you don’t understand that, go back another step. Keep going back until you have the base, the foundation, and then go a step further. My advice is to go one step back and utilize your resources. Go to your library, hunker down, and do the work.”

And it’s important to remember that you don’t have to look or act a certain way to be able to “do the work” of engineering, Wendy says.

“There is no mold that an engineer is supposed to fit into. I like makeup, I like to wear dresses, there’s no ‘oh because of this I can’t look like that,’ or because I like this, I can’t like that. You can like what you want. Sometimes people think that to be an engineer you have to be this kind of person who likes toy cars or likes breaking things apart, but that’s not true. I’m not that kind of person. I’m not into breaking things apart. I like to ask questions. I’m very curious about a lot of things: history, science, how the brain works, architecture, feminism, civil rights. I don’t like to take cars apart and get dirty. But I’m an aerospace engineer leading two different teams on two different projects.”

Not only is Wendy boundlessly curious, but she also exemplifies a belief that everyone has something to learn and teach.

“Mentorship is a two-way street. Someone in middle school or high school could be mentoring their five-year-old cousins and learning from them too: you can give and share as much as you receive, no matter how old you are.”


Changing the Nature of Engineering Education: Lynn Andrea Stein Is Leading Conversations About Identity and STEM

Lynn Andrea Stein ● Professor of Computer and Cognitive Science ● Olin College

Lynn Andrea Stein ● Professor of Computer and Cognitive Science ● Olin College

When asked, “What have you built that you’re most proud of?” Lynn Andrea Stein has a simple answer: Olin. After a decade on the MIT faculty, she joined the founding faculty of Olin College, a Boston-area residential undergraduate engineering college.

“Olin was created to change the nature of engineering education, as called for by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), National Science Foundation (NSF), and industry panels. In particular, Olin augments our students’ technical education with teamwork, communication, leadership, and understandings understandings of business as well as human context and communication. These are skills that traditional engineering education has not always done a good job of teaching.”

It also differs from many other schools of engineering because of its demographics: its student body has consistently been gender-balanced.

“Though it is gender-balanced, we quickly discovered that Olin is still part of the world and all of the social shaping that we experience. So we created the Gender and Engineering Co-Curricular Activity, now renamed Identity and Engineering: a group and regular conversation that helped all of us understand how the society we live in shapes our experiences. I think that framing has been incredibly helpful for generations of Olin students. And we have created programming that we’ve taken on the road to help people have conversations about how expectations and small differences can create a culture and a climate that is not experienced equally by everyone. From semester to semester who is in the room changes; I think pretty much everyone who comes experiences it as cathartic.”

In her own case, Stein learned early on that the sky was the limit from seeing the example of her mother, a practicing physician.

“I’ve been fortunate to have had lots of people who mentored me in various ways. I almost always found that I had to take different parts of mentorship from different people. Having multiple mentors at all times was really important. Because one person would be able to help me figure out my way through one thing and then have blind spots that another mentor could help me with.”

In particular, she cites the value of a peer community of women she found the first time she took a sabbatical, joining a cohort of 40 female fellows at Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

“It was the first time in my professional career that I found myself in a group of women exclusively — all of whom were working on significant scholarly creative or other kinds of work, forming a community, learning to speak across disciplines, and giving me a sense of the power of being in an all female context. It was a very different kind of environment from the ones I had been in until then.”

Her positive experience with this community also catalyzed deeper thinking about the ways certain spaces restrict or enable our expression of our multiplex identities.

“They reminded me that while we talk a lot about the challenge of being a woman in tech, we don’t necessarily talk about the challenge of being a technologist among women. Many of us have the experience of walking into a tech space and feeling that in order to navigate that space successfully, we need to leave a part of who we are behind. We’re working to change that, we want to be able to bring our whole selves into the tech space. That sentence probably isn’t a surprise to any woman who has experienced tech spaces — we have a conversation about that. Sometimes, when I walk into a space full of women, I also feel that in order to be a good participant and successful in that community, I have to leave some of the tech parts of myself behind. We don’t talk about that. We need to start that conversation too. The [Radcliffe fellows group] was a group who accepted me as the whole person I amwas, in a way that had sometimes felt difficult — either being the woman I was or being the tech geek that I also am.”

Creating spaces where people are able to bring their “whole selves” is not only a passion for Stein in her pedagogical work but also the recommendation she gives to young women:

“Find a way to be yourself that’s true to who you are and that enables you to be yourself. It’s easy to believe there’s one way you’re supposed to be. If we have to reshape ourselves to be what the world expects of us, then we’re depriving the world of the gift of who we actually are.”


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Written by Adora Svitak, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. These stories are proudly told in partnership with AnitaB.org in a joint effort to showcase inspiring and diverse women in STEM at the 2019 ASU/GSV Summit.

The Nature of Engineering: How Claire Janisch harnesses the power of nature, the world’s best builder

Claire Janisch ● Director Biomimicry South Africa ● Co-founder Biomimicry For Africa Foundation

Claire Janisch ● Director Biomimicry South Africa ● Co-founder Biomimicry For Africa Foundation

Claire Janisch’s journey to find her life’s passion began as an intern in a chemical plant during her undergraduate studies in chemical engineering at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She compares being in the plant to visiting a new, and strange land, like traveling to Mordor from the Lord of the Rings. Dismayed by the environmental destruction she observed that seemed embedded in most manufacturing processes, she felt certain that it did not have to be this way. She envisioned manufacturing processes that create useful things while nourishing the local ecosystem instead of destroying it. So, she enrolled in a master’s degree program in environmental process engineering, focusing on cleaning up polluting industries, and then worked on sustainable development projects in industry, agriculture, urban and commercial applications. Although she was doing important work, Claire still felt that something was missing from the manufacturing paradigm.

“It struck me that all most [of them] were doing was trying to slow down or minimize their negative impact on the environment. I wondered if there was an option for chemical engineering to leave a beneficial or regenerative environmental footprint.”

That’s when Claire discovered biomimicry. Biomimicry is “the practice of learning from and emulating nature to design sustainable products, processes and systems.” Nature already has created environmentally friendly solutions to engineering problems. Through biomimicry, humans can learn how reimagine modern society in ways that help to ensure a habitable planet for future generations. Claire is most proud of the work she is doing with BiomimicrySA, an organization she started in 2009, to bring experts in biomimicry technologies to South Africa to address pressing problems such as the current water crisis. One of these projects was in the top 10 for a European Green Tech award. Her team worked with John Todd Ecological Design and others to design a low cost, low tech wastewater treatment and stormwater management solution for a settlement near Cape Town.

“The project resulted in improved health and environment for the community as well as prevention of pollution of a downstream river that is used to irrigate important export crops from South Africa.”

Claire encourages women to consider engineering as a career with a mindset of helping to shift the field. Engineers take ideas and bring them into reality, but that process of creation can also lead to destruction. Claire believes her role as a woman in engineering has been to bring a feminine perspective of nurturing into a discipline that has been dominated historically by a lack of concern for environment impact. Women have a unique perspective.

“We need feminine perspectives in STEM, not just women who think like men, but women who think differently from men. We need the softness and nurturing, we need balance.” She points out that biomimicry itself is a wonderful example of that balance. “A spider web is strong and tough, but it is also nourishing because it can be eaten when it’s over.”

Claire advises future engineers to surround themselves with mentors to help get through challenges. And be open to finding mentors in unexpected places. Claire has found nature to be her biggest influence.

“I am lucky enough to have nature as my mentor and I am continuously inspired and amazed by the genius and wisdom in the way that organisms and ecosystems solve complex problems.”

Girl Scout to Galaxy Explorer: How Caeley Looney discovered her path to aerospace engineering in middle school

Caeley Looney ● Mission Analyst ● Harris

Caeley Looney ● Mission Analyst ● Harris

It’s almost as if the stars aligned to bring Caeley Looney into the world of aerospace engineering. Caeley was born to two engineers — her mother was a naval engineer and her father worked at a defense contractor. She knew it was only a matter of time before her love for STEM pulled her towards engineering, too.

“I went through elementary school wanting to be a wide variety of things, from a fashion designer to a teacher, but the thought of being an engineer never crossed my mind until I was exposed to robotics.”

When Caeley was in middle school, her parents saw an ad for the local Girl Scouts FIRST robotics program and encouraged her to join. After getting a taste of STEM on this all-girls robotics team, she quickly began exploring different fields. During her first two years at Farmingdale High School in Long Island, New York, Caeley conducted research projects for her science course. When she realized that she enjoyed researching the Mars Rover, Caeley explored her newfound interest in space-related work through similar projects. These high school projects honed Caeley’s interest in STEM to aerospace engineering.

In 2014, Caeley enrolled in an aerospace engineering program at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. During the summers before college and after her freshman year, she volunteered at We Connect The Dots, a nonprofit organization that offers STEM-related programs to underprivileged students. Then the summer before her junior year, Caeley had a computer science internship with the Institute for Defense Analyses, where she she got her first look into the defense industry and the U.S. Department of Defense. Caeley went on to complete an internship with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center during her last semester of senior year, where she had the opportunity to focus on aerospace engineering and some computer science.

Caeley is a member of the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT), a community of more than 1,100 universities, companies, nonprofits and government organizations nationwide working to increase girls’ and women’s meaningful participation in computing. After receiving the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing Award in 2014, she was invited to join the NCWIT Facebook community, a support system of thousands of girls in tech.

“Any time I have an issue or concern, I just go and make a post on our Facebook page,” she says. “Within five minutes, I have ten different girls giving me advice and telling me not to give up!”

While attending the Grace Hopper Celebration in 2017, Caeley was interviewed and recruited as a mission analyst by Harris Corporation, a defense contractor and information technology services provider. She started working at Harris after graduating from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in May 2018.

At Harris, Caeley supports several key elements of satellite analysis. She simulates the orbital mechanics and dynamics of their small satellites system and her responsibilities include plotting different orbits, defining station keeping boundaries and optimizing spacecraft subsystems. Caeley says she is lucky to learn about a variety of systems rather than diving specifically into one topic.

“I always get to learn about different systems. I get to learn about things like balancing a power budget, sizing solar panels and developing a communications link budget. It’s great because I never get bored!”

“Any time I have run into a challenging situation, I have forced myself to step back and remember why I am in that situation: to become an aerospace engineer,” she says. “It has definitely been difficult to remember that while I’m in the midst of a tough problem but that has always been what gets me through. Well, that and ice cream!”

Caeley also battles the stigma against mental illness with the support of her service dog, Charlie. With her special furry friend by her side, Caeley says he is one of the biggest reasons she was able to make it to where she is.

“Mental illness is something that I struggled with for a greater part of my life and once I got to college, many of the symptoms worsened,” Caeley says. “My service dog has helped me realize that my disability shouldn’t hold me back from achieving my dreams and literally reaching for the stars. He reinforces my self confidence every time I begin to doubt it.”

Her advice for others — don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Caeley says that her incredible support system and a list of things that make her smile are what get her through the tough times.

“It made it a lot harder to give it up knowing that I’ve worked since the sixth grade towards this [goal]. Don’t give up,” she says. “This world needs women in computer science, aerospace, etc. Without us, progress isn’t made, so remember that.”

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This story was told in partnership with NCWIT Aspirations in Computing.

Written in the Stars: How Myra Nawabi followed her heart and a non-traditional path to become an Afghan-American Pioneer in Technology

Myra Nawabi ● Senior Project Engineer   Lockheed Martin

Myra Nawabi ● Senior Project Engineer   Lockheed Martin

“Hey Elon Musk, if you’re looking for a COO for SpaceX, I’m the woman for the job.”

Myra Nawabi grew up reaching for the stars. As a young child growing up in Afghanistan, some of her earliest memories are gazing up at the night sky and thinking about what life would be like on the moon. She was not deterred by the adults around her claiming nobody lived up there and she asked, “what if there is a young girl up there who is invisible? How can we know for sure?”

That passion was a constant guide, helping her navigate some challenging times in her life. (And there have been more than a few!) The first one being when she was 6 years old and the Russians invaded her home country. Myra remembers that, “even during the war, the night sky was my constant.” After enduring several years of turmoil, when she was 10 years old her family fled to Pakistan and then on to New York. Her dreams of building products to explore space and the moon propelled her to pursue an undergraduate degree in Aerospace Engineering at Arizona State University.

Unfortunately, as she was about to complete that program, she succumbed to intense pressure from her family to get married. On the positive side, that decision brought Myra to the Bay Area and within a few years she found herself back at school, pursuing a BA and a teaching credential from Cal State East Bay. As circumstances in her personal life took another turn, it was with the help of an academic advisor that she received financial aid and was able to complete her program.

After graduating, Myra went on to teach middle school math for a few years. It was through that experience she participated in a summer fellowship program with IgnitEd, that helps classroom teachers get hands-on STEM knowledge by working in industry. What started as an 8 week internship at Lockheed Martin has turned into a nearly fifteen year career.

“Every intern (65 people in my cohort) made a presentation to a roomful of executives. They talked about what they learned and what they were taking back. In a “do or die” moment, I announced that my district was laying off teachers and I had no idea what was in store for me. But I did learn ethics at Lockheed Martin and I was going to teach it in my classroom to middle schoolers.”

This out of the box thinking caught the eye of an executive at Lockheed Martin Space. He encouraged her to apply for a position with their IT department and she’s been building her career there ever since.

At Lockheed she is closer to realizing her childhood dream of exploring the moon. She is most proud of building Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM). The GLM is a satellite-borne single channel, near-infrared optical transient detector that has been placed on the GOES-16 satellite in a geostationary orbit. This orbital position allows for GLM to measure a dedicated region that includes the United States with continuous views capable of providing lightning detection at a rate never before obtained from space. GLM detects all forms of lightning during both day and night, continuously, with a high spatial resolution and detection efficiency.

Myra has been recognized as a leader in her space, being named Silicon Valley Business Journal Women of Influence in 2016 and receiving Women in IT Awards, Business Leader of the Year Award in 2018.

Her resiliency has propelled her forward through difficult circumstances.

Myra’s advice for others is “shut down the voices in your head. We all have voices, we’ve picked up along the way. We internalize them.”

Quieting those voices has been a key part of Myra’s success. She has developed a unique strategy which she calls the 8Cs — 4Cs that act as a barrier and 4Cs which she uses to build a support system of mentors, sponsors and advisors. (Keep an eye out for a guest post from Myra on her 8Cs.)

How Jessica Pointing combines her love for physics and computer science to explore the field of quantum computing

Jessica Pointing ● PhD Student in Quantum Computing ● Stanford University

Jessica Pointing ● PhD Student in Quantum Computing ● Stanford University

Jessica Pointing grew up in Reading, England with a passion for science. As a young girl, visiting a Microsoft office on a school trip was all she needed to fall in love with quantum science and technology.

“They showed us objects levitating and zooming around a magnetic circular track,” Jessica recounts. “I was amazed. I absolutely loved the conference.”

After moving to Denmark at the age of 15, Jessica continued to explore her interests at Copenhagen International School by starting a science club, which took students to university lectures and hosted a science show. She also conducted physics research at the Technical University of Denmark to explore how ambient pressure affects the output of certain technical devices.

Jessica gradually developed her love for computer science through participation in hackathons. In 2014, she decided to come to the United States for college at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After two years she transferred to Harvard to complete her undergraduate education.

“I enjoy the flexibility that the US offers,” she says. “Attending a US university allowed me to explore my interests in both physics and computer science. The mathematics and physics of it are challenging and fun, but it also has the potential to be practical to humans!”

During her sophomore year, Jessica took a course on quantum computation. The course explored the practicality of quantum computers, which are a relatively new type of computer that “solve certain problems that would take billions of years to solve on a regular computer in just seconds.” Jessica quickly discovered that “quantum computing is at the intersection of physics and computer science,” which catered directly to her interests. This was enough to set her out on exploring career options.

While in college Jessica explored various paths, including investment banking at Goldman Sachs, strats at Morgan Stanley, software engineering at Google, and management consulting at McKinsey. With these diverse experiences under her belt, Jessica graduated from Harvard in the spring of 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in physics and computer science.

Jessica says that of all her experiences and internships, her most meaningful accomplishment is her blog, where she shares how she navigated challenges with applications and interviews — the “things that no one really tells you.” She authors articles that cater to a wide range of student needs, from applying to universities to career interview tips. Jessica’s articles have even been featured by Time and Business Insider.

In an attempt to search for something that combined her love for the theoretical and practical sciences, she chose to further her education in quantum computing. She is currently exploring this intersection at Stanford University, where she is a PhD student and Knight-Hennessy Scholar specializing in quantum computing. Jessica emphasizes that her success in finding her passion comes from “not being afraid to go outside of the typical situation” and “asking so many questions.”

“Ask yourself why you do what you do. If you know why you’re doing it, you have a purpose, a direction, a goal,” she says. “This can help when you encounter a challenge. It becomes clear how to best approach it.”

Paving the Way for a more Sustainable Future: How Tatiana Estévez Carlucci is developing technology to harvest water from fog

Tatiana Estévez Carlucci ● Founder and CEO ● Permalution

Tatiana Estévez Carlucci ● Founder and CEO ● Permalution

“I have always wanted to make a difference by improving the world as much as I can.”

Even at a young age, Tatiana had a knack for improving the way machines worked. She often disarmed things that didn’t work in her childhood house, such as the washing machine. Her love for  improving processes developed into a passion to make the world a more sustainable place to live. Originally entering college as a business student, Tatiana opted to take several engineering classes and formed a deep connection with environmental engineering and water-related technologies. This connection led her to found, Permalution, a company that focuses on fog water harvesting and holistic project development.

“I believe that some of the big issues that we face worldwide are companies that are not sustainable. If we put our money into businesses that are environmentally cultured, I think we can have a cleaner long-lasting environment,” Tatiana says.

With this vision for the future, in 2015, Tatiana founded her startup while she was living in San Francisco. However, it was only after she moved to Mexico that the company really started to grow. She wanted to focus on harvesting water from fog using similar methods to traditional rainwater harvesting. Utilizing fog as a source for water could have several applications including, harvesting steam to recycle water in the textile industry, developing self-producing energy systems, and helping improve farming and agriculture.

There are five main types of fog, and although Tatiana wants to eventually harvest them all, she and her team are currently focused on harvesting coastal fog which mostly is formed close to water. Tatiana’s first task was to start looking for different designs and materials that would improve upon older methods. Although she had background knowledge from taking mechanical, electrical, and environmental engineering classes in college, it still took an extensive amount of research to ultimately design her first project.

“I built the first functional prototype to show my roommate we could harvest the fog that passed through our window, and in the morning, the whole floor was wet and damp, “ Tatiana proudly shares.

After improving the design, it was featured as a finalist in Singularity University’s Global Impact Challenge. It was also featured in Fast Company as one of the 3 new devices that could “suck water from thin air.”  With that recognition, Tatiana realized that Permalution had the potential to be implemented globally. She began building a team that included two thermal engineers to help further develop her prototype.

They continued to develop their design through a partnership with a research center at a university in China that was developing a synthetic silk from a spider that had the properties of water capture. Tatiana and her team built upon that experience to design more scalable, yield-improving materials.

Permalution first identifies a place that seems optimal to harvest fog. Secondly, the team sets a sensor module that runs for 4 to 8 weeks that allows them to determine where to place the fog catcher. The fog can then make contact with the membrane and start draining the water that usually falls in the gutter.

“We can harvest up to 3 times more water with fog than rain in areas where fog conditions are optimal. We are now exploring [how] to add solar energy and rain harvesting to the modules. We can use the membrane we created to use cloud seeding technologies to create fog anywhere in the world.”

Tatiana and her team are in the process of building a 20 meter replica of the prototype in Mexico for a massive reforestation project in Tepic, Nayarit. She explains that the water industry is highly regulated, so in the process of creating a new product, she must also navigate governmental laws and public policy related to water which can sometimes be a hindrance.

“I try to focus on the opportunities of the future instead of the current limitations. The encouragement I received from other fellow women at the CleanTech accelerator program and through competitions was gold to me. I learned a lot from women who became my role models, so I try as much as I can to assist, motivate, and encourage women who have their own initiatives.”

For this reason, in addition to the work Tatiana is doing with Permalution, she also founded Tech Quiero, an organization that supports women and girls with learning how to code.

“A misconception I often have to dispel, mainly for women who have the spark to be engineers, is that it is not about working with engines, as many believe. The word engineer comes from ingeniare which means to use your genius to put things together and make something new, useful, innovative. This is the basis for creating a new world.”

Tatiana hopes that other women can find their calling in life and believe in themselves enough to help further the creation of this constantly changing, new world we live in.

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.”

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.”

Merging Women’s Studies and Engineering: How Mona Mohammed applies her unique experiences to transform wastewater treatment

Mona Mohammed ● Graduate Student in Environmental Engineering ● Bucknell University

Mona Mohammed ● Graduate Student in Environmental Engineering ● Bucknell University

(Photo credit: Salma Mohammed)

For a young Mona Mohammed, watching her father work on water projects in Yemen as a civil engineer inspired a desire to pursue a similar career. Despite discovering her interest in engineering early, Mona questioned that interest at multiple points along her journey. She first left Yemen in 2008 to attend Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong (UWC) for an International Baccalaureate Program. It was there that the intensity of a physics class first caused her to question her decision to study engineering. After her time at UWC, Mona decided to take a gap year and return to Yemen.

During that time Mona had a year long internship with the GIZ Yemen German Reproductive Health Program. In that role she helped coordinate the efforts of field staff in raising awareness around issues of reproductive health, including child marriage and its impacts on the wellbeing and education of girls in Yemen. Mona says, it was during her experience that year, that she understood the lack of access to water and sanitation to be the most pressing issue facing Yemen. Her experience also helped her recognize the gendered nature of this challenge.

“It is usually poor young girls who are tasked with securing water for their families. This is usually means spending time out of school, taking long walks in dangerous conditions and carrying heavy water every day.”  

As she was applying for universities, “my friend came over and spoke about her experience studying civil engineering and encouraged me to apply, as she thought I would really enjoy it.” Mona credits this encouragement, along with support from family and friends, as a key part in her decision to become an engineer. She acknowledges how that guidance is especially important for women to push past some of the barriers they face in pursuing STEM fields.

“Even though people suffer to different extents from the lack of access to water based on their socio-economic class, water scarcity is a national problem as different parts of the country are expected to run out of water by 2020,”  says Mona. “To me, becoming an engineer meant finding ways in which my family and I could continue living at home.”

To that end, Mona moved to America in 2011 after being awarded a full scholarship to study at Bucknell University. There, she received a dual undergraduate degree in women’s and gender studies and civil and environmental engineering.  When asked how women and gender studies tied into her career path, Mona says she views her women’s and gender studies major as another tool in her engineering toolbox.

“[The major] is a lens that helped me analyze engineering problems from a gendered perspective and ask questions such as, what are the differences in the impacts of water scarcity on each gender.” She continues “using this lens, has the implication of changing the power dynamic for women and giving them more time to join schools and learn different skills.”

Mona is convinced that a sustainable solution to the problem of water scarcity has to be one with women at the center of it. She also jokes that gender studies is what “kept [her] sane”, as she navigated different cultures, and faced different forms of sexism, in her home country and in the USA.

Mona is continuing her education at Bucknell University, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental engineering. Her research focuses on improving wastewater treatment and evaluating its social, environmental and economic impacts. Mona looked at improving anaerobic (without oxygen) wastewater treatment, which produces methane. In its gas form, methane can be used for energy production and heating. However, not all the produced methane is in gas form, some of it is dissolved in the water leaving the treatment plant. That dissolved methane contributes to a great extent to global warming. As such, Mona designed and operated a biological reactor that oxidizes dissolved methane into carbon dioxide, potentially reducing the carbon footprint of wastewater treatment plants.

Despite her determination to further her studies and accomplish more, she encountered common challenges many women in this field face. To overcome those challenges, Mona encourages others to persevere and develop a support system (in her case it was family and friends) who you are comfortable going to in times of need. An important person in Mona’s support system was her graduate studies advisor, Professor Deborah Sills.

“Women have to go through a lot more to get into and remain in [STEM] programs,” Mona says. “When I was applying to grad school, Professor Sills took me in as her master’s student. She has both supported and challenged me throughout my masters. Having a professor here who would always advocate for me and at the same time expect the best of me definitely pushed me to meet these expectations, so I’m forever indebted to her.”

Furthermore, sexism in STEM remains a big inhibitor for women to continue in fields such as engineering. Having a female mentor and a role model in her advisor, Mona was able to see first hand the intersection of social awareness and justice with engineering research and practice.

After graduating, Mona plans on returning home to Yemen to “help with the relief efforts of the humanitarian crisis.” As the peace talks continue, she hopes for an end to the war and an avoidance of a man-made famine in Yemen. She intends to contribute as a water and sanitation engineer in what she hopes will be “a dawn of a reconstruction era”.   

Mona emphasizes how impactful combating the water crisis would be for women in Yemen. A resolution would mean a drastic change in their societal roles and open up innumerable opportunities.

The Power of Mentorship: How Jackie Chen is Inspiring the Next Generation to Create a more Sustainable Future

Jackie Chen ● Distinguished Member of Technical Staff ● Sandia National Laboratories

Jackie Chen ● Distinguished Member of Technical Staff ● Sandia National Laboratories

From a young age, Jackie Chen was a scientific observer, studying her father’s movements in his basement for hours on end. Whether her father was diligently writing detailed Chinese calligraphy or building mechanisms, such as four-bar linkages (which are basic movable chains connected by four joints), Jackie was entranced by his focus. Those early experiences sparked an interest in constructing devices for herself. Jackie attributes her success to the encouragement and the mentorship of her parents and the professors that followed them. Now as a professional mechanical engineer manifesting code to understand ‘turbulence-chemistry’ interactions in combustion and to improve engine models, Jackie provides that same support to future generations of engineers.

As immigrants from China, Jackie’s parents strived to give their family every opportunity for a better life. Growing up in Ohio, Jackie was heavily involved in school activities, piano lessons, Mandarin classes, and extracurricular science fairs. It was during her time in school that her parents provided her with considerable support and guidance.

“During that time in the 60’s and 70’s, there weren’t a lot of Asians in Ohio, so experiencing bias toughened us up. I had a lot of encouragement from my family, and they taught me to embrace diversity and to not conform to what other people think I should be.”

With this steadfast attitude and the advice of her father, Jackie went on to study mechanical engineering at Ohio State University. Jackie realized early in her career the value of seeking out mentors. In college she encountered one of her first professional mentors, Professor Lit Su Han. Along with his graduate students, Jackie was invited to work on a turbine blade for a heat transfer experiment, which proved to be pivotal in her decision to focus her future work on fluid dynamics based on smoke visualization of flow over the blade in the wind tunnel.

After graduating, Jackie went on to pursue a Master of Science in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley where she once again found a mentor in Boris Rubinsky. Under his direction, Jackie developed a new skill and learned to freeze biological tissue to then observe its topology under a microscope. Her exploration of several different disciplines of science drove her to further her studies, obtaining her Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. As part of her research she worked with a relatively new tool at the time to study turbulence physics.

“I enjoy scientific investigation because of the excitement of understanding new phenomenon.  In my current job, I am able to test new ideas using high-fidelity turbulent combustion simulation tools performed on some of the world’s largest supercomputers.”

One of the simulation tools that Jackie uses now as a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff of the Combustion Research Facility at Sandia National Laboratories is something she pioneered with her fellow postdocs over the past few decades.  Together they developed the first principles direct numerical simulation code (DNS), S3D, that is used by combustion engineers and computer scientists worldwide to study the nuances of fundamental turbulence-chemistry interactions in combustion and to evaluate asynchronous programming model paradigms for advanced computer architectures.   The frequent refactorization of S3D by Jackie and her collaborators is driven by the need to keep up with the evolution of high performance supercomputers which have grown exponentially in performance over the past decades.

The tool she developed is now a standard being used internationally by many research groups, giving Jackie the opportunity to travel, present her findings, and mentor other young students.

From her work with undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students, Jackie has come to realize the importance of  future generations creating sustainable new technologies and her role in guiding them.

“It’s extremely gratifying to watch somebody that you mentor develop confidence and capability and then pursue their own careers when they leave. Many of them have gone on to have successful careers in academia, national laboratories and industry.”

From observer in the basement to award winning engineer, the roles have reversed for Jackie as she provokes thought and instills knowledge in her students, the way her father and professors did for her.

“I would tell them [students] to stay the course and not be afraid of impediments that come their way.  It is important to have good mentors and role models at all levels because it shows it is possible, with a good work ethic and determination,  to be successful in overcoming challenges and embracing new opportunities.”

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.”