Day 1: female role models/solidarity in tech
I would not have started studying computer science if it hadn’t been for my sister (hey katie zhu). I probably would’ve played it safe, styling my LiveJournal or MySpace page with basic <b> and <i> HTML tags, but nothing more. I probably wouldn’t have ever touched the command line with a ten foot pole and recognized it only from TV shows in the scenes where the token hacker whispers “I’m in.” I probably would never have set foot outside my comfort zone because I thought, at age eighteen, there were things I could just never be: a hacker, an engineer, someone who is into math.
That all changed when Katie declared a computer science major in her sophomore year of college. She, like me, had always been interested in liberal arts and languages more than math and science. Our parents were English majors/lawyers/professors — engineering (surprisingly) was never a field we envisioned ourselves entering. When she started coding and exploring opportunities in technology, it all stopped seeming like an impossibility. Just because I didn’t start learning to code “early” (before college) didn’t mean I couldn’t start now. A coder was no longer the nerdy dude or the whiz kid who’s been eating binary for breakfast since they could crawl. A coder could be anyone — someone like my sister, someone like me.
She also actively encouraged me to follow her path, or at least be willing to take a few steps in that direction. She framed it differently — it’s not the House of Cards deep web storyline or The Social Network stroke of genius on a dorm window — it’s problem solving and building. It’s something that can be learned. It’s a lot of work. It’s late nights banging your head over errant semicolons and learning to Google properly and sifting through StackOverflow posts. It’s a lot of self-doubt and persistence. But it’s also incredibly satisfying. It’s no secret that technology shapes everything about our world — how we interact, how we travel, how we learn, how we find cute dogs. I do not want to live in a world built by a homogenous group of white dudes, and it took seeing someone like myself in the industry to realize that there was a place for me too.
In sophomore year, I joined the Knight Lab, where I met and became friends with so many amazing coders, who similarly did not get involved in technology until college. In the beginning, we worked on side projects, debugged error messages, and dug through documentation. But soon we started supporting each other in subtler ways. We encouraged each other to pitch lightning talks and sessions at conferences that we didn’t feel qualified for. We shared job and internship opportunities that we wouldn’t have found otherwise. We acted as a sounding board for someone whose boyfriend didn’t believe she could make a career out of coding and that she was just “dabbling.” We swapped career advice and did interview prep. We publicly supported each other by tweeting and sharing cool things we’ve worked on or built. We talked to each other about imposter syndrome, because that uncertainty has a way of lingering no matter how many lines of code you write.
There is power in seeing someone like you in a space you previously could never envision yourself in. You are less likely to doubt yourself and more likely to take risks. You are more likely to pursue your passion despite being in an industry that may not always be welcoming. You are less likely to compromise who you are to fit into an environment where you are not the majority. You are less likely to remain silent when you’re harassed or your capabilities are questioned. It is for these reasons that role models, representation, and visibility matters. Solidarity among women in technology and supportive communities remind us that we are not alone and that we can do this. That we belong here too.