3 Young Voices and Their Pathways to Careers in the Tech Industry

As 2021 Women’s History Month comes to an end, we want to conclude with stories of three young women and their journeys through computer science courses, internships, competitions, and more!

CSforALL ‘s Next Women in Tech, 2021

Maggie Amador

Student at St. Mary’s University of Texas

Maggie Amador, Student at St. Mary’s University of Texas

Have you ever based your whole career on a show you watched when you were fifteen? Well, I have… sort of. I was fifteen in a health-oriented magnet high school with no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. Then as the avid TV watcher, I am, I saw an interesting new take on crime investigation with a show called Stitchers, and as I invested myself in the new episodes

each week I began to become very interested in the job one of the main characters had. She was a computer scientist and could hack into almost anything the team needed to solve a crime. This revelation of a new and interesting career field happened at the perfect time, as I debated on what elective to fill my schedule for my sophomore year of high school. At last, I chose to take a course called “Computer Science Pre-AP,” which would unknowingly be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

After three more years of computer science courses and learning all the ins and outs of my first programming language Java, I decided I would pursue this field further as I entered college. As I became more confident this was a field I wanted to pursue I began to involve myself with organizations such as Rewriting the Code, the National Center for Women & Information Technology, Technolochicas, and of course CSforALL! These organizations filled with amazing and talented minorities in technology have given me more advice, opportunities, and lessons about all things computer science than I could have ever imagined. I would not be where I am without these communities and the support and encouragement I have been able to rely upon through them. I am now a junior at St. Mary’s University pursuing a major in computer science, I have had the opportunity to intern at three companies, and have secured an internship for this summer.

I am the aware first hand that finding an internship is hard and I can guarantee you that it was no easy feat and while it’s more easily said than done, there are two pieces of advice that I believe helped me get to where I am today. One is that it’s never too early or too late for that matter, to start looking for internships, start applying, or start learning. I was fortunate to have been offered an internship post-high school graduation, but this internship was possible through the initiative I took on beginning my search when I knew my experience and options were going to be limited. This ties into my next piece of advice which is to not be afraid to apply to a position you feel unqualified for. As a freshman in college, I was turned away by lots of companies at career fairs all while being told to come back when I was in my junior or senior year. I would leave my resume anyways as I walked away feeling hopeless, but as soon as I got home I applied to my favorite companies and soon enough landed a position as a software engineer intern. You never know unless you try and why not apply even if you don’t meet all of the qualifications. Your hard work, perseverance, and confidence can get you farther than you think.

With all this being said, the future of technology lies in the hands of all of us. The minorities who make their voices heard and speak up for those who are following in their footsteps. My journey began with a very entertaining crime investigation show who showed a woman in the role of a mainly male-dominated career. It was inspiring and while I no longer want to be a hacker, I am where I am today because of inclusion and that is what the future of

technology needs. More people need to see themselves in the positions that they aspire to have. It’s hard to imagine yourself working somewhere or doing something when no one there looks like you. The gender stereotypes that withhold people from finding their passions must become a thing of the past. By pioneering the change in the field of technology more people can begin to see themselves where they would have never even considered.

Ama Koranteng

Ph. D Student at Johns Hopkins University

Ama Koranteng, Ph. D Student at Johns Hopkins University

When I started my undergraduate degree, I considered majoring in computer science and pursuing a software engineering career after graduating. I entered several software engineering-oriented communities through various social media platforms, in hopes that I could better understand the field and increase my chances of finding internships and eventually, full-time jobs.

Through these CS circles, I quickly gathered that side projects were a must, and that competitions and hackathon participation (and ideally, awards from them), were extremely important. As someone who enjoyed problem solving in CS, but not enough to regularly pursue entire side projects, hackathons, and competitions in my free time, I felt massively discouraged. If I couldn’t make computer science a dedicated hobby outside of school, could I still be successful in the field? Fortunately the answer to this is “yes;” however, I think it is too easy for new members in the community to come to a different conclusion. Making computer science a hobby outside of school and work can be difficult for marginalized members of the STEM community, including low-income and minority students. Side projects and hackathons are usually unpaid (in fact, depending on the project or the hackathon, you may need to pay out of pocket). If you are a low-income student who may need a paid job or whose free time needs to be allocated to other responsibilities, turning computer science into a free-time, unpaid hobby can be near impossible. As such, I believe communicating that side projects, hackathons and the like are borderline expected can be damaging. In particular, this messaging may be more likely to push low-income and minority students away from software-related careers.

It took almost my entire time as an undergraduate to realize that it’s completely ok — normal, even — to not want or be able to pursue involved and unpaid computer science-related projects in my limited free time. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t encourage students to try out CS projects whenever they can. Of course, if someone wants to pursue these things, they should! However, I believe there’s an important difference between encouraging these kinds of explorations, and stating them as an expectation for a career.

I was under the impression for years that I had to find a career that I was wildly passionate about, so much so that I’d pursue the work regardless of whether I required an income. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with having this level of passion for what you do (Who doesn’t want to get paid for something they’d do for free?), I believe it is significantly more difficult to find that level of passion than higher education and many career-oriented communities let on. For quite some time, although I knew I enjoyed thinking about computer science problems, I worried that I didn’t like it “enough.” I couldn’t see myself wanting to prioritize computer science projects over quality time with friends, over other hobbies, and over mental health. I didn’t consider computer science as some significant part of my identity, nor could I see myself dedicating my non-work life to the field. Recently I learned that it’s extremely common for computer scientists in the workforce (and even in academia) to feel similarly. Since many career-oriented communities emphasize the importance of finding academic subjects and careers that fulfill you in some grandiose way, it’s possible for students who don’t identify with that level of passion to become discouraged, even if they have genuine interests in their field. As a result, I believe it’s important to communicate that while finding some deep-rooted passion in your work is amazing, it isn’t a requirement to find happiness and success in it. Simply enjoying your work is more than enough.

Stella Chen

Co-Founder at creAItivity

Stella Chen, Co-Founder at creAItivity

In my opinion, computer science is like magic, but real.

Growing up, I had little guidance in technology. I was discouraged to explore the field because “it’s too hard for a girl like me”. However, I never gave up — I taught myself programming languages, did independent research, got involved in large national nonprofits, and even founded my own initiative — creAItivity.

Alongside several talented friends I met at an AI4ALL summer camp, I co-founded creAItivity after observing the lack of artificial intelligence resources for underrepresented communities. Coming from an immigrant, low-income household, I understand the struggles, so I want to empower those like me. The pandemic posed a challenge to our original plan of having a hackathon in 2020. But we decided to take advantage of the situation and host a COVID-19 competition in which teens use technology to solve issues caused by the virus. The competition was well-received and we were even featured on Patch and East Bay News. Since then, we received microgrants from AI4ALL, The Awesome Foundation, Be a Philanthropist, and KidsRights to fund our actions. We’ve also launched our AIshop series and tech magazine featuring industry professionals. Most recently, we are hosting our two-month-long AI Ethics Lab with 120+ participants studying the ethical implications of technology together through workshops and discussion. I learned to believe in my mission and preserve despite the circumstances, and I will carry that with me as I keep expanding creAItivity.

Throughout my journey, I’ve questioned myself a lot, and I know many other women and minorities might have the same feeling — that we don’t belong here, and that we aren’t good enough. For about 2 months, I could barely fall asleep every night, mindlessly scrolling through social media while feeling that what I’m doing was “worthless and trivial”. When you are inside of an emotional void, it’s quite difficult for anyone to pull you out. In fact, you are the only person that could get yourself out of the situation. For those of you who have experienced, or are currently experiencing the deep sense of imposter syndrome, or feeling discouraged because you “aren’t able to fit in”, please know that you are special, capable, and worthy. Give yourself some time to relax and destress, talk to someone or a community you trust, and please do not compare yourself with anyone else in the world because you are unique, and what you are doing is impactful.

The tech industry is full of ambitious and talented people, and I’m certainly very excited to see the innovations this industry as a whole is going to make in the future. However, I think it’s important to note that diversity, respect, and open-mindedness are essential as well. We don’t lack talents, but we do need more people to come together and form a supportive community that includes every and all.

Computer science is like magic because it makes the impossibilities come true. Computer scientists don’t just stare at the 1s and 0s all day. Instead, they combine technology with many disciplines in designing a more equitable future that represents the unheard voices in communities. My advice for those looking to found an initiative or get into the field in technology is very simple — be unapologetically brave. Go ahead and do what you want to do, and never, ever, let anyone tell you otherwise.

Here’s to these three women and all the women around the nation pursuing the tech industry!

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