The Women of DuckDuckGo

A look at four journeys that led to working in tech

What do a musician, a craft beer-lover, a traveling photographer, and a foodie have in common? They are all women working at DuckDuckGo, the internet privacy company with its roots as the search engine that doesn’t track you. Read on to get an insider’s view of how each of these women arrived at DuckDuckGo and what their advice is for the next generation.

Meet Olivia Haas, Natalie Banegas, Isabel Alvarez, and Holly Habstritt Gaal. GDI interviewed each of these ladies and learned that despite working in different capacities at DuckDuckGo, they all share an interest in online privacy, solving complex problems, and continuous learning. We also learned that each woman’s path into tech was unique.

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Getting Started

Holly and Olivia were exposed to coding from a young age. Holly learned to program with Logo and Hypercard in elementary school. She discovered IRC (Internet Relay Chat) when she was twelve years old and was inspired by graphic design publications and skateboarding magazines. “Even though I am from a very small town, it only took one or two people with the right encouragement to motivate and point me in the right direction, which is something I try to remember when talking to kids and students still discovering what interests them,” she recalled.

Olivia started writing code in middle school in order to create digital assets to customize her Neopets pet pages. After studying architecture in college and finishing her degree, she realized that architecture wasn’t for her following an internship in the field. Through GDI’s Philly chapter, Olivia learned about a development apprenticeship at a local design studio. “Over six months, with exceptional mentorship, I learned full-stack development and was offered a full-time position. With time and guidance from the UX team, I was leading UX research and strategy, ushering projects from inception through launch and beyond,” she shared.

Isabel and Natalie both discovered their interest in programming while pursuing their degrees. Halfway through completing a bachelor’s degree, Isabel learned about a study group working on free and open source software for education. She was also influenced by a mentor. “My networking teacher encouraged me to do my degree final project on measuring the impact of security on network performance and that led me to my first job in the area of network security,” she said.

While pursuing business administration in Stockholm, Natalie got into tech while helping the university to build up its alumni network. Natalie worked on the alumni website and built a database in .NET/C#. “An exciting world of software opened up and I decided to switch faculties and study computer science,” she explained. After a stint in the corporate world and traveling full-time in a 40-foot motor home, DuckDuckGo contacted her about a software engineer position. “Since online privacy has always been an important issue for me, it immediately sparked my interest. The fact that the entire DuckDuckGo team is remote allowed me to continue my digital nomad life,” she said.

Having an Impact

Now, Natalie works to build new features to expand DuckDuckGo’s local search. “I love working on projects that interface with millions of users: this is why I’ve always preferred front-end development. At DuckDuckGo, the front-end layer is responsible for customizing the search results UI based on the search query, which requires solid engineering skills. My favorite part of the job is to create elegant and robust solutions that expand the functionality of our search engine,” she explained.

Isabel works on the System Operations team, responsible for keeping everything running smoothly 24/7. Her favorite part of her job is working to improve DuckDuckGo’s infrastructure on monitoring, automation, reliability, performance, security, and other areas. “I love my job because most of the time we want/need to implement things that we don’t know exactly how to do yet, so everyday there are learning opportunities just around the corner,” she said.

Holly combines her creativity with her coding skills as a Design Lead. “Since I’ve taken on design leadership roles, I don’t code much anymore, but having had that experience allows me to better understand a project’s complexity, ask the right questions, and collaborate with engineering teams,” she explained. “The combination of doing mission driven work while solving complex problems fulfills the responsibility I feel I have to empower people to take control of their privacy online,” she added.

In her role as Design lead, Holly balances hands-on product design work with other tasks including hiring, mentoring, research, and user testing. “I really enjoy collaborating with a cross-functional team when making product decisions, since my own perspective can then be challenged by colleagues with different functional backgrounds. We’re all challenged to question our assumptions at DuckDuckGo and use experimentation and user testing to validate our ideas, which is a core value that ties our cross-functional team together,” she reflected.

Olivia is a member of the User Insights team with a focus on UX research. “I recently wrapped up two projects supporting new product launches: a diary study for our new mobile browser and creating a messaging strategy for onboarding users to our new browser extension. I’m about to run a series of usability studies for our apps and extension,” she explained.

“I love that each project requires a different approach but all require special attention to detail and communication. Week to week, I might be observing user behavior, designing experiments, or working on a messaging strategy. Each problem presents new collaboration opportunities and challenges. My work centers around identifying the right questions to ask and finding answers to those questions,” she added.

The Next Generation

Each woman offered her advice for other women navigating careers in tech. “There will always be moments when it feels like things are way too difficult to succeed but that’s only one side of the tunnel. On the other side, there is just another lesson learned and the next time you’ll find it awesomely easy,” said Isabel.

“Don’t fall into a developer stereotype: try to nourish other areas of your life, don’t live to code. A fulfilling and balanced life is key to a great career in software engineering,” cautioned Natalie. “Every career has its dark side: don’t focus on all the bad apples in the industry. Instead, seek out organizations conscious enough to treat people with respect and see strength in diversity. Believe me, these people and organizations exist! Embrace your own personality and don’t try to hide it to fit in. By being a minority, you have a unique advantage of offering new perspectives in your work, and you should see this as an advantage and start monetizing it. Shine on!” she added.

Olivia focused on the importance of listening to your intuition. “Realize when something is off. Are you feeling bored or unchallenged? Should you find a mentor? Is your mentor the right one? Is insecurity at play? Are you happy at work or wishing for something else? Take time to cultivate self-awareness and continue to grow. Continue asking questions, experimenting, and taking chances,” she said.

“Respect your time. Spend your time wisely and make sure others are using your time wisely. It can be tough, but try to strike a healthy balance between investing in the right relationships, helping others, and honing your own craft,” advised Holly.

“Mentoring and sharing your skills with others can be very rewarding, but be sure you are also taking care of yourself so that you can meet your goals and continue to build the skills you need to succeed. For example, spend your time with those you can learn from and who will challenge you. Choose side projects where you’ll learn and can practice a new skill. If you do this, eventually you’ll be able to make an even greater impact on others when you take time for them,” she added.

Interested in a Career in Tech?

DuckDuckGo is currently hiring for Backend Roles, People Ops, and more. Visit DuckDuckGo’s website for the latest job listings or find one of the 60+ GDI chapters near you and sign up to take a class to start your journey into tech.

GDI empowers women through coding and community. Visit our website and follow us to learn more about our accessible, hands-on classes offered across the US.

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