When I was in middle school, my family acquired our first personal computer: the IBM Personal System/2. What could you do on an IBM PS/2? Play ‘King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella’. And boy, did my sister and I play.
The same year we got the computer, I learned how to code Turbo Basic. With a few lines of code, I could tell the computer how to make my duck move across the screen. It was amazeballs! I was convinced that I was but a few steps away from creating a world like the one I obsessed over in KQIV.
At the time, I was oblivious to the factors that would set me up for my future life. For example, I was fortunate enough to live somewhere with a public school system that had the resources to offer courses like computer programming in middle school. I was also fortunate enough to have a parent who worked as a computer programmer/analyst for General Motors. I was mostly fortunate that this parent was my mom. That’s right, I’m a female developer.
I majored in Linguistics as an undergrad, freaked out about how to parlay that into a paying job and decided to get back to my roots by pursuing a graduate degree in Computer Science. Now here I am — well established in my career as a technical professional. It all sounds simple enough, but it was far from easy. At first I was convinced I wasn’t smart enough, then I felt embarrassed and afraid of asking ‘stupid’ questions. I was meandering and stumbling my way through a career in a field where I constantly felt the need to prove my worth and value. Now 13 years into my career, I finally feel confident and secure. And it didn’t come a moment too soon.
As soon as I moved to the Bay Area, — the hotbed of all tech goodness — I decided I needed to be more, share more, have more. Through the years, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on how I came to thrive in this field. Most of my reflections kept circling back to my mother. It was never weird for me to see women programming or to think of them as technical. I had never even acknowledged that there were so few women in computing until I sat in my 200 person ‘Data Structures and Algorithms’ class and noticed that I was only one of two women in the class.
My mother knocked it out of the park at work. I know she did; she just gave off that vibe. Having my mother as a technical role model exposed me to the fact that becoming a software developer was a viable career option for me and that it was something I could excel at it. Every girl deserves to know that and it something I felt that I could share.
My first real coaching/teaching/mentoring opportunities came with Black Girls Code. We held a workshop to help kids get exposed to programming using the Microsoft tool called Kodu. The tool teaches kids how to build games with visual programming. We also held workshops to teach kids how to code in HTML and CSS. I fed off the energy of those experiences for months afterwards. I was hooked and knew that having a more prolonged presence in the kids’ worlds could only be better.
Last October, I signed up to mentor high school girls in how to develop, pitch and market a mobile application. Technovation Challenge is an awesome program designed to encourage girls to consider careers in technology by developing confidence and teamwork in a supportive environment. For the past four months, I’ve been working with a group of seniors at Immaculate Conception Academy (ICA). ICA is a college prep school that educates young women with a commitment to providing an outstanding education and relevant corporate work experience to students with limited financial resources.
Mentors agree to commit at least two hours a week for 12 weeks working with the girls and their teacher/coaches to build their mobile application. Every Tuesday, I left work a little early to make my commitment to the girls. Part of what makes me love working at New Relic is the support (financial, time and energy) and encouragement with which everyone has backed these efforts.
For the last four months, I’ve gotten to know five very smart, and different young women who are motivated and interested in different things. I’ve been there to help push them, encourage them and support them.
Of course, sometimes explaining control statements, separating out functionality to do repeatable tasks and other technical stuff can’t always compete with discussions about prom dresses and college essays. In varying degrees, they’ve been excited, committed, confused, disinterested and tired. The program is challenging and I hope that is the part that sticks with them. That they can achieve remarkable things, even when they’re challenged to do something beyond their comfort zone.
Several weeks ago, the girls delivered their application pitches to a panel of judges (professionals who work in technology, including New Relic’s very own Chris Kelly). The girls were poised, confident and accomplished. This being a ‘mentor thing’ is pretty rad!