Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

How I Became a Woman in Tech

Logo I made for stickers I bring to events that expose girls to careers in tech.

One thing I have been doing a lot lately is talking to young women about potential careers in tech and STEM. They often know about the more popular science based jobs like engineers, doctors, and veterinarians, and the paths to those careers are fairly straightforward. The reality is there are many many more possible STEM jobs, but when you are in high school it can be very hard to see that. I am going to share my story for two reasons

  1. To show high school students one possible path to a job in tech.
  2. To show you don't have to have it all figured out in high school.

I am very glad that tech and computer science found me. I would love to help it find other smart young women before they go to university so they can be part of it too!

High school graduation

Become a Math teacher

When I was in high school I was very good at math. I took the high school calculus class and prided myself on obtaining better grades than the boys. When it came time to choose a career I went to the school counselor for advice. He said,

You're great at math and science and you are a girl, so you should be a math teacher.

My 17 year old self naively believed him and didn't even consider schools with engineering, mathematics, or computer science programs. I went to the University of Lethbridge in Alberta to become a math teacher.

The University of Lethbridge in Alberta is one of the top schools to go to to study teaching in the prairies.

Change of Heart

After my first year there I realized that the most critical part in becoming a teacher was to be passionate about teaching. Teaching is such an important job and I really felt (and still do) that to be a truly great teacher you need to be dedicated to it. I found that I was passionate and dedicated to mathematics and not teaching. I decided not to become a teacher. That was the best choice I could have ever made!

Java was the language I learned in my very first computer science class. It was also the main language I used as a developer at BlackBerry.

A discovery

I waited until my third year of university to take my first computer science course. All my friends told me it was very hard and no fun at all, so I had put it off. After the first few classes I realized it was no more difficult than my other math classes and I enjoyed it. That is when I fell in love with Computer Science. What I hadn't realized before was that the strongest skills you need for computer science are logical thinking and problem solving. These are exactly the skills that people who are talented in mathematics have. I loved that computer science gave me a real world way to use this talent.

Cryptography: the science or study of the techniques of secret writing, especially code and cipher systems, methods, and the like.

Cracking codes

Later in my third year of university I decided to join the co-op program to try and acquire some much needed job experience. It was a bit late, but I thought better late than never! In the summer I worked as a research assistant with a professor in the math department and wrote some code for him to help him with his research. While doing that a posting to work at Communications Security Establishment (CSE) came up. They were looking for math students with computer science experience. Excellent! That was me!

The job involved cryptography.

Cryptography the science or study of the techniques of secret writing, especially code and cipher systems, methods, and the like

This was the third biggest discovery of my career. I loved mathematics, computer science, and cryptography was the best way to combine both of those. I did three co-op terms at CSE and learned a lot about cryptography and being a software developer. I decided this was the career path I wanted to take.

A Decision

After my first two co-op terms I only had a year of courses left. Realizing my passion was cryptography and knowing most jobs in that field required a master’s degree, with encouragement from a fantastic female mathematics professor I decided to pursue a master’s degree.

This is me outside the math building at the University of Waterloo.

I was thrilled to be accepted by the university of Waterloo! Much of the cryptography work I had studied previous to my master’s was written by crypto greats like Dr. Alfred Menezes, Dr. Scott Vanstone, and Dr. Doug Stinson, and all three were professors at the University of Waterloo! While at the University of Waterloo I took courses from both Dr. Menezes and Dr. Stinson. It was like being taught by a celebrity. Both professors also became reviewers of my thesis on electronic voting algorithms. Later in my career I was fortunate to work with Dr. Vanstone and Dr Menezes in the private sector.

A few months before I was to finish my degree I started looking for a job. It was late 2002 and the tech bubble had recently burst. The job market for software developers did not look promising.

Connections are Everything

In the summer of 2003, while still a grad student, I attended a cryptography conference. There I met a co-op student that was working on the “crypto team” at BlackBerry (then called Research In Motion). I also met four of the other developers that were working on the same team. We had dinner together at the conference and they were all on their BlackBerries during the meal. At the time I didn't even own a cellphone, so it was a new experience for me.

After applying to various companies for jobs I ran across the co-op I met the previous summer. We made small talk and he asked me what I was up to. I mentioned I was looking for a job and wasn't having much success. He remembered I was finishing a degree in cryptography and suggested I email him my resume so he could pass it on to the boss of the “crypto team” at BlackBerry where he worked the summer before.

My first BlackBerry was the 7230. It was also my first cellphone!

Dream Job

A couple of weeks later I landed a job interview at BlackBerry and in January of 2004 I started my dream job as a security software developer at BlackBerry. When I joined BlackBerry there were fewer than 1 million BlackBerry users and only just over 1000 employees. I was able to ride the ride that was BlackBerry, and what an incredible ride it was.

I built the first wifi security protocols for the first wifi BlackBerry, was a key member of the team that developed the BlackBerry Smart Card Reader, implemented electromagnetic countermeasures for AES on the BlackBerry, maintained the BlackBerry Cryptographic API, filed many patents, acted as an internal security consultant for other teams, and lead the development of large features and projects.

I designed and wrote Java and C++ software for the SmartCard Reader, BlackBerry, and Windows Driver Components of this two-factor authentication solution.

After 5 years I had a baby and spent a year at home with her. I love my daughter to bits, but I really was happy to go back to work when she was a year old.

This is a shot of me at my desk at BlackBerry in the fall of 2011.

Leading

When I returned to work I dove back into my job and within a couple of months I was given the opportunity to become a team lead. One of my coworkers said,

This is the least surprising promotion I have ever seen!

Why? Because I had been doing the job of a team lead well before and after my maternity leave. It was a natural transition for the team and myself. I loved the new role. I was excited to continue leading projects, designing security architecture and features, and being an internal security consultant. However, with the new role I was also able to flex the new skills involved with people leading. I found I loved it! This was the fourth major change in my career.

Myself and @chantastique at Ada Lovelace day 2013.

Moving on

After eight years at BlackBerry I chose to move on. I left BlackBerry and went to Trustwave, a security company, as a development manager. It wasn't a good fit for me however, and in the fall of 2012 I accepted job as a development manager for a team at D2L (then Desire2Learn) in the fall of 2012. In the november of 2013 I gained another team and in February of 2015 I was promoted to Senior Development Manager.

Love what you do

I no longer work directly in the field of security, but I love the work I do. I focus on helping teams build high quality software as effectively as possible. I excel at building teams, fostering an environment for innovation, and helping them improve their skills and achieve their full potential. I enjoy working with teams and organizations to identify areas of improvement to help them be as effective as possible. I strive to collaborate with others to determine what we should solve, how to solve it, and how to test that satisfies the customer needs.

Be Open to new ideas

It has been 15 years since I took that first computer science class and I haven't looked back. I love tech, I am often an early adopter of new technology. I become as excited as a kid on Christmas day when I obtain a new tech gadget, or better yet, to be part of building something new. I love my job. I love how it pushes me everyday to be my best, problem solve, build new technology, and collaborate with smart people.

I am where I am today because I commit fully to my goals, I work hard to achieve them, and I am open to taking different paths when opportunities arise.

You too will figure some of it out along the way. Choose an area you like, commit to it and be open to opportunities.

Continue this journey with me on twitter @Dinah_Davis.

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