Women of Color in Tech

Mapping the Future: How Olivia Horace is Digitizing Local Communities

Olivia Horace ● GIS Technician ● City of Columbus, GA

Olivia Horace ● GIS Technician ● City of Columbus, GA

When Olivia Horace started high school, she intended on becoming an explosives technician. While it’s hard to beat the appeal of blowing stuff up, an inspirational high school teacher helped her discover she had a talent for computer programming and she turned her interests to software engineering. She found the world of programming purely by chance. Oliva was supposed to be in a wood working class, but was placed into a computer science class instead. At first she hated it, but once she realized they weren’t going to let her out of the class, she started paying more attention and found that she really enjoyed the challenge. The teacher encouraged students to solve problems on their own and Olivia quickly built the skills that allowed her to skip the first required programming class when she enrolled at Columbus State University.

Olivia’s most memorable project in college was a game she created for her object-oriented design class. It was the first time she really struggled with a project and couldn’t immediately figure out a solution on her own. After visiting the instructor, she was frustrated to realize that she needed to redo most of her work. However, she persisted, recreated the project, and did well on her final presentation. The accomplishment of running into concepts she couldn’t grasp, getting help with understanding, and then being able to successfully implement a solution in a short period of time gave her the confidence to face future challenges. It’s also a great example of the importance of failure and persistence in the learning process.

After graduation, Olivia took a job with the city of Columbus, Georgia’s Consolidated Government as a Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technician where she maintains and fixes existing systems. She works on digitizing unnamed streets such as parking lots and driveways as well as cemeteries. These are important because emergency responders, such as police, firefighters, and ambulance drivers, rely on these maps being as accurate as possible to provide services to the community. Future projects include digitizing maps from the 1960’s into the system and matching them with local geography.

While Olivia didn’t intend to pursue GIS, she is learning a ton and is proud of the work she’s doing. It’s not everywhere you get the opportunity to learn how to map the world. And that’s her biggest piece of advice for future engineers:

“Don’t be afraid try new things even if they don’t initially sound interesting. You might be surprised!”

For women going into technology she recommends,

“not to be intimidated and don’t let others run you over! Share your ideas. Even if one person ignores you, it doesn’t mean others will. And network, network, network. The more people you meet, the more opportunities you will have for new possibilities.”

Olivia’s next stop is as a software engineer for company in Atlanta. Who knows where life will take her after that?

The Hidden Value of Detours: How a serendipitous stumble into a cyber-cafe catalyzed Gladys Maina’s IT career

Gladys Maina ● Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Professional and Mentor in Kenya

Gladys Maina ● Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Professional and Mentor in Kenya

Gladys Maina wasn’t always going to be an IT professional. A dutiful daughter, she initially obeyed her parents’ directions and pursued a medical laboratory certification, following in her medic father’s footsteps.

“Then during a long holiday, a friend introduced me to a cyber-cafe. These had just started coming up in Nairobi, Kenya in 2004. They said, ‘Here, you can pay a bit of money and then you can access the internet.’ I came from Nyahururu, a village, so I was very impressed. I remembered thinking, ‘this is what I want to do.’”

Gladys describes the halcyon days of the early internet with fondness, reminiscing on MSN and chatting with people around the world. The feelings of liberation and connectedness that the early days of the internet provided proved to be alluring distractions from the career opportunities that awaited her in the medical field. She got her opportunity to switch sectors when a friend recommended her for a sales position at a newly opened a cyber cafe. After working in that role for three months, she became a cyber cafe attendant.

“That meant internet was free. I could research as much as I wanted, and had a computer at my disposal.”

Later, she studied information of management systems at Kenya Methodist University and is currently pursuing a master’s degree at the University of Nairobi. Now, she’s optimistic that young women from similar backgrounds as her, who haven’t grown up in Kenya’s biggest cities, will have a more direct path to tech access. She points to innovations like the Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD) communications protocol, which enables information and money transfer over basic phones.

“For instance, you can use a standard phone to enroll in M-Shule [mobile learning management platform delivering educational content via SMS]. You don’t really need to have a smartphone for you to access technology. The government of Kenya is trying to digitize a lot of schools and services, from issuing tablets to students to establishing walk-in centers such as Huduma where you can access internet and get government services.”

Access isn’t everything, though; it’s always helpful to have somebody model what success looks like and encourage you throughout your journey. That’s why Gladys is active in mentoring young women pursuing STEM paths, working closely with African Women in Technology since 2016, and mentoring girls through the Ghana-based Nsesa Foundation. The experience of working with young women has left her with strong beliefs about the importance of lifelong learning and letting youth choose their own paths.

“Mentorship is a symbiotic journey where you are both learning. I believe you are never too old to be taught and never too young to learn. I would tell [parents and educators] to let their young ones pursue their dreams.”

She alludes to her own decision to switch fields as one of the reasons she feels strongly about giving young people the freedom to decide their vocations, and says that choices about work can cause friction in relationships between parents and children. In such situations, all is not lost.

“You can finish the degree that your parents are paying for, get a job, and then work toward what you want to do. That’s what I did. My parents finished paying for the medical laboratory school, but for my diploma, bachelors and masters, I paid using my own money.”

Her story is a testament to the value of flexibility and risk-taking, starting small and working your way up. Today, technology has advanced from the days when Gladys worked as an attendant in a cyber-cafe and chatted on MSN. So too have public perceptions of women in tech.

“Now people can celebrate women like Sheryl Sandberg or Marissa Mayer. Here in Kenya I look up to Dr. Chao Mbogho, who has been changing the narrative and showing that women can make it. We aren’t born with a male brain or a female brain. You can achieve what you want, you just have to put in the hours, then keep on going. Sometimes it will get tough, but you have to keep going, keep learning, and keep developing yourself.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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!”

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.”