Entering Software as a Woman: Advice to My Younger Self
I recently spoke on a panel about Women in Tech. After talking, I was approached by a man who coaches High School girls basketball. He asked me about all of the things I had faced going into computer science and what advice he should tell his girls around things to look for, things to avoid, and more generally how to navigate getting into tech as a girl.
I’ve been asked the question about advice to my younger self several times before but I’ve never had a good answer to it. I had always thought about the question in terms of what I would do differently. Because I feel that I’ve ended up in a place that I’m happy, I’ve never had much to tell myself to try to change. After all, it all worked out!
In my conversation with this coach though, I realized that perhaps I had been approaching the question from the wrong perspective. What would I tell someone else? Not only what would I try to change, but what were the things that went well? What are the things I would definitely recommend to someone else trying to get to where I am now? I doubt that I gave the coach a great answer having spent zero time thinking about this question from that angle. Hopefully I can provide a better answer now.
Find a support group
It doesn’t really matter who or what that group is. If you’re going into a challenging field (like all of school was for me at MIT), it’s going to be much easier if you have people to support you. This support can take many forms and can be whatever works for you. One of the things my roommate and I started, which we still do to this day, is to just randomly tell each other that we thought the other person was amazing (Sharmeen, if you’re reading this, I still think you’re amazing!). We weren’t just saying that to say it, we both genuinely feel the other person is amazing.
Even coming from a close friend, hearing praise every once in a while is always a nice reminder that just because I focus on my own flaws, objectively, that’s not how others see me. It’s good to get your head out of the weeds and see the big picture even if it’s only for a moment. I also had a variety of other support groups — I had other friends with whom I would have random rant sessions to help us get our frustrations and fears off our chests. Even just having friends who would let me see that they were struggling too was encouraging. Just knowing that I’m not the only one having a hard time is enough to keep me going sometimes.
Learn to ask for help
This is something I didn’t get good at until after college. Instead, I learned the hard way that in a real job, they actually really didn’t like it when I tried to do everything completely on my own. Asking someone else often felt to me like I was exposing weakness or like I wasn’t quite stretching myself to my fullest potential.
In one of my early reviews from my manager at the time, one of the biggest pieces of feedback that I received was that I needed to learn to ask for help. That manager later told me that my ability to ask for help had been her single largest concern about my career development. As I learned, in almost all cases, asking for help speeds up how quickly you can get something done and in many cases helps you to learn more than you would have on your own. This is obviously a balancing act — if you’re asking for help to the point where you’re not doing much, you won’t learn anything either, but don’t be afraid to go to office hours or to ask another student for help or to work together to finish something (assuming, of course, that the class and teacher allow for this).
Don’t be hesitant to ask for help in other areas too. I’m not sure how it came up, but when I was preparing to do my first internship interviews in college, I spent an hour on the phone with someone several years older than me who walked me through exactly what to expect from a technical interview, what the interviewer is looking for and how to prepare. I’m positive I wouldn’t have done as well as I did without her help.
Similarly, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need (or want)
Thankfully this didn’t happen very often to me, but I did have one recitation in college where I was the only girl. I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb and I hated it. I’m sure I noticed the situation way more than everyone else put together, but that doesn’t change the way I felt. As a result, I stopped attending that recitation. I also didn’t really feel like my situation was enough to warrant asking to switch recitations. In retrospect, if it was impacting my learning in any way, it was absolutely worth trying to switch. Even if it was 100% in my head, if the gender imbalance in my class was affecting my learning, that’s enough of a reason to try to make the situation better (especially if that option was available).
Grow a thick skin
Unfortunately, sometimes people will say something and you will have no control over that. A friend was told she only did well in a class because she flirted with the TA (not true). Many of us had to try a little extra hard to prove ourselves. Go ahead and feel the anger and injustice of these situations. It isn’t fair. But don’t let them stop you from being amazing. Letting other people’s insecurities and insensitivity cause you to change who you are or what you do is letting them win. They aren’t worth listening to, so don’t.
Believe in yourself
There’s research showing that from a very early age, we teach girls that if they do well at something it’s because they’re smart or talented in that area. Meanwhile, we teach boys that it’s because of hard work. As a result, later on, when a boy runs into something super challenging (like the intro computer science class at MIT) and doesn’t do well, he’ll assume that it’s because he didn’t work hard enough.
Meanwhile, the girl will assume it’s because she doesn’t have the skills or intelligence needed. Very occasionally, she might not have what it takes, but that’s rarely true. If things get hard, and they likely will (or you don’t need to be reading this), believe that you can do it. You do have what it takes. It will likely require even more hard work. It’ll likely require some blood, sweat and tears, but you can do it.
Look for a program trying to improve their diversity numbers
Many schools, such as Harvey Mudd, are working hard to get their computer science departments to 50% women and are succeeding. They’re looking at a lot of the research around what makes computer science more appealing to women and what they can do to make the environment more welcoming. Even if you feel like you are already excited enough about CS to not need a more customized program, the fact that these schools are trying to improve things means that they will be open to listening to complaints. They will be actively looking to make sure discrimination isn’t happening. If they’re succeeding, you’ll be less likely to need many of my other pieces of advice.
I know that I’ve been incredibly lucky. While, like anyone, I’ve occasionally faced some adversity, I feel like I’ve run into a lot less than many other women in my field. Being one of a small minority of women in computer science likely won’t be easy and you might run into hard situations. I don’t want to tell you that it will be effortless, because it won’t. You’ll question if you belong. You’ll feel alone. You’ll probably even struggle from time to time. That said, I do want to say that it is possible to succeed and it is possible to love being in this field. I love what I do, I love the people that I work with and I wouldn’t trade being a software engineer for almost anything. I’m proud to be a woman in tech and I hope you will be too.