03/27/12 | Uncategorized

Women In Technology – Past, Present, Future

This week, I delivered two keynotes to middle school and high school girls interested in tech careers.
By Gayle Laakmann McDowell (Founder & CEO, CareerCup)

The first one was for the Philadelphia area awards dinner for the Aspirations in Computing Award, and the second was for a wonderful event called Girls Exploring Tomorrow’s Technology. I’ve printed my message below which addresses why everyone – both boys and girls – should consider a technology career.

I wanted to talk to you today about why I think technology is such a great field to enter. But, first, I think I need to tell you a bit about who I am and how I got here.


Fifteen years ago, when I was fourteen, my mother sat me down for a “chat.” She told me I had to take one programming class before I graduated high school.

Now, for some people, it’s surprising that it was my mother – and not, say, my father – who would require me to learn to code. But the truth is that I’m far from the first woman in my family to be “geeky.”

In fact, it started with my grandmother. My grandmother was the first woman at John Hopkins University in engineering. This was in the 1940s of course – a time when few women even went to college, let alone take something as “serious” as engineering.

My grandmother later transferred to Cornell with my grandfather, where they wouldn’t let women enroll in engineering. So instead, she did a math major, but decided to sit in on — and do the coursework for — my grandfather’s engineering courses. I can only imagine how well that went over with my grandfather’s buddies, to have his wife in their classes. And kicking their butts.

When she graduated, she and my grandfather started a successful engineering firm together – a company that they ran for the rest of their lives.

My grandmother lived in a world where the rules actually barred her from doing what she wanted – but she found a way to do it anyway. Her attitude was “rules be dammed. I’m going to do what I want.”

My grandmother must have set a good example, because three of her four daughters chose engineering majors. My mother, of course, was one of them.

I once asked my mom why she majored in electrical engineering. Her response: “Because it was the hardest.” Well, okay then.

By the late 1960s, when my mother was in college, the rules had slightly relaxed from my grandmother’s time – women were now actually permitted to major in engineering. Of course, that didn’t stop her professors from actively discouraging her from pursuing the sciences.

Her freshman year, her physics professor asked all the students who got As on the midterm to stay after class. My mother, one of the A students, listened as the professor explained why they should all strongly consider engineering. He explained that it was a difficult exam, and by getting an A, they have demonstrated that they have quantitative skills and ambition to excel in such a rigorous field.

After his speech, the students got up to leave. The professor then pulled my mother aside: “Oh, Kathy, obviously I didn’t mean you…”

My mother went on to not only major in electrical engineering, but also to get her PhD in it – while working full time. She’s now launching her fourth medical device company.

So, you see, when my mother told me that I was required to take a programming class, there would be no whining about it being too hard, or there not being enough girls in it, or it being too nerdy or geeky or whatever. If my mother could do it, and her mother – not to mention my aunts too – with actual real obstacles in the way, the least I could do was give it a shot.

I wasn’t too happy about the situation, but what choice did I have? So, I figured I’d take computer science my freshman year of high school and get it out of the way.

Becoming an Inventor

Unfortunately, then, something terrible happened: my mother was actually right about something. Which is weird, really, because when are parents ever right about anything? But, the sad truth was… I loved programming.

Programming was different than anything else I’d done before. I’ve always enjoy math and science, but this was more like… grown up legos.

I was the kind of little girl who, when she got a barbie, was like, “but what does it actually do?” I never really understood what other girls like about Barbies. I mean, rearranging Barbie’s limbs to make Mutant Barbie and then setting its hair on fire was fun and all, but then what do you do with it? Booooooooring.

I much preferred legos. I loved legos as a little kid. I loved how you could turn these tiny little bricks – that, really, were stupid and useless on their own – into houses, cars, stores, and so on. Programming was just like that. Building some really cool thing from these basic little parts.

Actually, programming was more like super-charged grown up legos, because you could do so much more with it. In my first two months of programming, I was already writing games – in fact, some of the same games I remember growing up. Except this time, I was writing the games. So they went by my rules.

And that’s what’s so remarkable about technology – it gives you the ability to create.

Most of my non-techie friends are in what I would call analytical roles. Some sit at their desks and analyze financial reports. Others analyze market data and make recommendations. That’s great – hey, the world needs those people too. But, interestingly, so many of them say, “darn, I wish I’d gotten an engineering degree.”

Because that’s what’s so empowering about technology. You’re not studying what’s already there, or analyzing a bunch of information. You’re not piling through mountains of numbers to make vague projections about the future. You’re actually creating something new. You are an inventor, and you can invent anything you want. You have immense power.

College Opportunities

So I stuck with Computer Science for the rest of high school, and throughout college. Now, I’ll be honest. It’s not always fun. Some aspects are less enjoyable than others, and there are great teachers and less than great teachers in every subject. Plus, it can be really challenging sometimes.

What got me through these courses – the reason that I stuck with it – is that I found a side of it that I loved. I loved the part where I was actually building software. And I knew, that if I stuck with it, I would not only love what I did, but I would get some incredible opportunities.

After my freshman year of college, I landed one of the prestigious Microsoft internships and got flown out to live in Seattle for the summer. While most of my non-CS friends were working at restaurants, I was building real experience. That was amazing.

Opportunities like this are so much more common in engineering because the US is severely lacking in sufficient technical talents. Companies are literally throwing everything they can to recruit talented engineers. Huge paychecks. Free gourmet lunches and dinners. Free soft drinks. Onsite massages. Flexible hours. Bring your dog to work (cats are rarely permitted – sorry cat lovers). It’s literally perk overload.

What can you do with an engineering / computer science degree? Anything and everything.

But the true benefits of pursuing computer science are not just money and glitzy perks. It’s about this simple fact: you can swim farther and faster when the tide is in your favor.

So I wanted to speak to you all to tell you all to pursue technology and engineering careers.

Not just because we need more females (but we do).

Not just because we need more people in the field (but we really, really do).

But also for you — because I truly believe that it’s one of the best investments in yourselves that you can make. The possibilities are endless.

When I graduated from school, I took a role as a Software Engineer for Google. Now, many people think, “well, of course that’s what you do with a computer science degree. You go write code for some big company.” But the truth is that there is no standard career path.

  • Some of my classmates chose to join a start-up instead and build software all day.
  • Some went to start-ups to design, but not actually build, the software.
  • Some went into marketing roles because a CS degree is really, really valuable there.
  • A lot of people went to take on a role called Program or Product Management, where they help figure out what kind of software people wanted.
  • And then a bunch of my friends went to work for banks on wall street. They love CS majors there, even for non-coding roles, because it’s like a giant stamp of approval that you’re smart, quantitative, and can work hard.
  • And still others went to launch their own businesses.
  • One good friend of mine went to be an agent for stand-up comics in New York. And, yes, he was a computer science major too.
  • A few went on to get their masters and PhD degrees, and are working towards becoming a professor or a researcher.
  • Still others went on to become lawyers. In fact, some types of law require an engineering degree.

Many are still doing what they started off as – though much more senior – while others have switched careers. The fact is that it’s easy to switch careers and to move up quickly and to do anything you want when you have a skill that is desperately in demand.

For me, I graduated college and went to work at Google as a software engineer. A few years later, I sort of accidentally launched a company and I’m now some bizarre mix of an engineer, an author, and an entrepreneur.

And I can tell you, without a doubt, it would be a whole lot harder to be any of those things – let alone all of them, or be successful in all of them – without a technical degree. It just wouldn’t be possible.

As I said before, you can swim farther and faster when the tide is in your favor.

The Future

What I’m most excited for though is the future. My future. Your futures. Everyone’s future.

Technology is increasingly the backbone of the world. You connect with your friends through your iPhone. You record the events of your life in digital pictures and then you upload them to Facebook and Flickr. You can do almost all your research for school work online. You can decide that you want a song or book or movie and be reading or listening or watching within seconds. You might buy so much stuff online that you may forget that actual, physical stores exist.

But what’s happening today goes so, so far beyond that.

  • Self-driving cars are being developed as we speak. This doesn’t just make your parents’ morning commute a little less stressful. It’ll also give freedom to disabled people who may currently depend on other people for getting around .
  • Foreign language translation is not just about dodging learning French and Spanish in school. It also will connect people in non-English speaking countries, giving them access to critical agricultural and healthcare information.
  • Video conferencing is helping grandparents watch their children grow up. It’s enabling soldiers to say hi to their children on their birthdays. But it’s also enabling patients in developing countries or rural areas to speak with a doctor.
  • Robotic devices help Amazon ship your purchases to you cheaply and efficiently. But they also help find survivors after earthquakes and tsunamis.
  • Even things as seemingly frivolous as YouTube, or Twitter, or Facebook is helping launch revolutions around the world. And even within the US, it’s enabling kids who are victims of gay bullying to connect with people who will support them and tell them hey, it gets better. This stuff is so, so important and technology is enabling it.

So technology is not just about making our lives easier and more convenient. It’s also about saving our lives. It’s about connecting with friends, family, and even strangers around the world. It’s about learning and growing. And sometimes, it’s just about making our lives a little less hard and a little more fun.

Where do we go from here?

In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the light bulb. That was a pretty cool thing at the time – light bulbs basically eliminated the need for candles. But to say that that – eliminating candles – was the entirety of his impact would be doing a great disservice to Mr. Edison. After all, I don’t think you can build a computer monitor with hundreds of mini-candles. So no light bulb means no computers, no smart phones, and virtually none of the technology we depend on today.

This is where we are with technology. With the internet, computers, and mobile devices, we’ve only just scratched at the surface of what we can do. This isn’t going away; in fact, the pace is accelerating. We can barely even guess at where things will go from here. We just know that it’s going to be really exciting.

Technology is a wave that’s moving very fast, and it’s growing in size. It stands to change everything in its path.

So get on board.

This post was originally posted at Technology Woman.

Gayle-pinkAbout the guest blogger: Gayle Laakmann McDowell is the Founder and CEO of CareerCup, which provides programming interview prep for candidates interviewing with Microsoft, Google, Amazon and many other companies. She is the author of two books: Cracking the Coding Interview and The Google Resume. She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Computer Science, and an MBA from the Wharton School. She lives in Palo Alto, CA. Follow her on Twitter at @gayle.



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