software engineer

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.”

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

Anna Andresian ● Staff Software Engineer ● AltSchool

Anna Andresian ● Staff Software Engineer ● AltSchool

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Samira Korani ● Python Developer ● ARPCO

Samira Korani ● Python Developer ● ARPCO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Raquel Romano ● Principal Software Engineer ● Threadloom

Raquel Romano ● Principal Software Engineer ● Threadloom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zorah Fung ● Software Engineer ● Sift Science

Zorah Fung ● Software Engineer ● Sift Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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