My CS Journey: 12 years later

Lessons learned & why I’ve stayed

Christine Chapman
Jan 24, 2019 · 8 min read

In 2006, in a small classroom around tiny monitors and windows XP computers, I took my first coding class. Arguably, “html is not coding”, but it was my gateway to computer science. The class itself was pretty uneventful. In retrospect, the most remarkable thing was that the gender imbalance was not an issue. I sat next to other girls, it wasn’t necessarily 50/50, but I didn’t notice the ratio and that was huge.

Lessons learned:

  • Multiple ways to get around the school’s MySpace blocker. (I didn’t even have a MySpace.)
  • The building blocks to take my ideas and share them with the world (HTML/CSS). I went on to work on a charity website in high school for a cause I was really passionate about and to date I’ve probably made 25 small to medium websites based on this foundation.
A classroom of Windows XP computers

I moved to Florida and took a class on Visual Basic. Visual Basic is a terrible language, but the worst part of the class was the environment. There was only one other girl in a class of 30, and she didn’t have any interest in learning or doing the assignments, but we had to sit together for some reason. There was a group of 4 guys who would talk to me so I could fix their assignments for them, and everyone else pretended I didn’t exist. The 4 guys I was helping would get stressed out by IDE compiler errors while they were typing. If they had just finished typing their line, it would have righted itself, but they could never grasp that concept. Is that a metaphor? I’m not sure.

Lessons learned:

  • Complete your thought, then look for errors. Don’t doubt yourself.
  • When you’re in the minority you can feel the need to be perfect or better than everyone else in order to justify your place in the room.
  • If people don’t like you, doing their assignments for them is not going to change things. You have better things to do with your time, young Christine.

Senior year I took AP CS and I was the only girl in a class of 25. I learned Java. (Arguably entering college confused about the difference between a class and a method means I didn’t really learn Java, but it was still a huge milestone.) Though we were ostensibly studying for the AP exam, most of the class was spent learning a core concept and then creatively applying it to a passion of ours. I worked on abstract art projects, games and word puzzles, and typically my projects referenced Harry Potter. My classmates made projects referencing Pokemon.

Lessons Learned:

  • Confidence with Java, a language I have used every single day at work.
  • Fundamentals are important, but the value of CS is in its applications. I’ve gone on to apply CS to biochemistry, online harassment, and diversity in tech and I’m grateful that my early CS experience encouraged creative applications.
  • People have different interests, that are not necessarily gendered, and being passionate about these interests is great as long as it’s not at the exclusion of people with different interests.

Having graduated high school, I assumed the worst part was over and believed I’d have a head-start and was excited to learn more. I quickly learned that my past experience was not enough and I struggled with most of my classes. CS started to define my identity and I started to see my long-term success tied to concrete accomplishments in CS (getting a passing grade, taking a specific course, getting a TA position, getting an internship). When I wasn’t hired to TA the intro course, I remember thinking “now I will never get an internship and then I will never get a full-time job, and I will never be able to do CS professionally.” My grades were ok, but not great, I didn’t get many job offers, and I constantly felt like a failure.

I learned about imposer syndrome for the first time, but learning this wasn’t enough. In upper level classes, I was afraid to go to TA hours or ask my friends for help a lot of the time, constantly worried someone would say ‘how did you get this far and not understand what x is’.

The friends I hung out with (who were honestly just doing their best, I don’t blame them) explicitly and implicitly convinced me to value working hard over healthy eating and sleeping schedules. A particularly memorable moment was a friend judging me for heading out to eat breakfast after an all-nighter at 5:30am. “Shouldn’t you keep working?”

College was the first time I remember crying over CS, whether that was getting the lowest grade in the class for the second project in my Software Engineering class, or failing to get hired for a TA position, I did not take it well. I kept a log of all the internships I was rejected for and reviewed it daily. Despite this, my guy friends would regularly remind me that any success I did have could be attributed to my gender.

“You only got invited to that Dropbox dinner because you’re a girl.”

“If I were a woman, it would be so easy to get an internship.”

Having no internship offers at that time, I really felt like a failure.

One of the only photos of me in the CS department. In this case teaching middle schoolers Dr. Racket as part of Bootstrap,

Lessons Learned:

  • There are many pathways to success. There are some more obvious pathways than other, but everyone has their own pace and interests and missing one step does not mean all is lost.
  • One class should never define your identity. Just by taking classes in the department, you are a computer scientist, no grade or class or person can take that away from you.
  • Taking care of yourself is important. Though college-me would never believe it, sleeping and eating regularly will make you much better at your schoolwork and leave you much happier.

Having graduated and landed a full-time job, I again assumed the worst part was over. I was finally a “Real CS Person” and no one could take that away from me. How wrong I was!

Me, a new software engineer, showing off my pager to a friend during one of my first oncall rotations.

My first year was really hard. I was back in an environment where people genuinely believed in fundamental differences between men and women and I experienced a lot of micro-aggressions. Dealing with uncomfortable situations related to diversity and inclusion occupied so much of my mental space that it clouded my entire experience.

In school things had often been bad, but there was always a goal to work towards and the belief that becoming a software engineer was a worthwhile pursuit that would make up for any struggles. In the workplace, I didn’t have that goal to work towards and I felt very lost.

But I pushed through it and over four years later I’m still here, I’m still in tech. There were definitely hard days, but things got so much better. I made friends with so many wonderful people, I started a community of women in the office, and eventually I got better as a developer and started to love Android development and then services development.

Along the way, so many interns passed through our doors, many of whom I was lucky enough to mentor or get to know at lunch and more than anyone, they changed my experience. The interns who passed through our doors motivated me to keep coming to work on the hard days and keep working at getting better, if not for me then for the next round of women in tech who were coming. That may sound strange and not relatable, but at the time I needed something to work towards and it helped. I’ve been lucky to see so many of them return and grow into great software engineers and I know that choosing to stay for them was the right decision.

Nearly two years ago, I joined my current team. Within a few weeks, the need to stay for other people faded away. The supportive, collaborative, and fun atmosphere of the team drew me in. We worked on hard problems together and we laughed a lot. I felt happy at work and that feeling has only grown with time.

4 years from now, I don’t know where I’ll be, but I hope I’m still on a team like this.

Lessons Learned:

  • Keep searching for the right culture and the right team for you. Don’t settle for a team or a job that makes you miserable. You will find it and it will be worth it.
  • A great manager is critical, I am lucky to have had many wonderful managers along the way.
  • You’re never too young or too new to make a difference. 4 months into my first full-time job, I founded our office’s women in engineering group. Looking back, I was very bold and determined for such a new hire. But no one stopped me, in fact many encouraged me. Try to make the changes you want to see, the worst that will happen (hopefully) is indifference. If you’re lucky, many will champion the cause with you.
  • Find your community. I didn’t do any of this alone, so many great co-workers, leaders, and mentors helped me get where I am today. Outside of work, I found community through Women Who Code, Lesbians Who Tech, Tech Ladies, and many other Meetup groups.
A group of wonderful Women Techmakers at Google I/O 2016

From sitting behind a Windows XP desktop in my Intro to HTML class, to connecting my macbook to a giant curved monitor at my standing desk every day, a lot has changed in the last 12 years. CS Education in high schools is on the rise with 135,992 students taking last year’s AP CS Exam. African-American students taking AP CS rose 44 percent to 7,301 last year, Hispanic and Latino participation increased by 41 percent to 20,954 students, and female participation rose 39 percent to 38,195 students. Girls were only 28% of all students taking AP Computer Science exams, while underrepresented minorities were only 21%, but change is coming to our classrooms, our colleges, and our workplaces.

This is only one story and certainly not representative of all the issues people face in tech. A lot of luck and privilege have helped me along the way, but it was still really hard. There were a lot of chances for me to leave, but I stayed. If my story resonates at all with you, I hope it helps. You might stay in tech for a whole career or go onto something even better, but I hope you find a team that makes you happy and work to leave things better for whoever comes next. For me, it has made all the difference.

Christine Chapman

Written by

Software Engineer // Programs Director for @UpliftTogether (Opinions expressed are my own.)

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