Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech: “Always try to be humble and thoughtful to your colleagues” With Kelly MacLeod of Topcoder
Always try to be humble and thoughtful to your colleagues. I remember getting home from overseas, sitting in my living room and thinking I could have been better to my fellow soldiers. Whether you’re in combat or in front of a computer, approach every person and situation with humility.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Kelly! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’m an army veteran; I grew up as the child of a military family, so I’m a “military brat” so to speak. I started coding Japanese anime in middle school. By the end of high school, I had ruled out Web development as a career path, as at the time I wanted to keep it as something that’s fun, not a job. I went to college and joined the Army National Guard and went through Basic Training as an undergrad. Between my sophomore and junior year, I had my first deployment to Iraq. While there, I saw a strong need for psychological services for the veteran community. So, when I returned, I changed my major to psychology and finished college with a B.S. in 2013. By the end of that same year, I went to Afghanistan. When I returned, I got my first job outside of the army as an admin in the housing department. I was there for a few years and appreciated the skill set it gave me, but felt I needed to pursue another path. Flexibility would be key to whatever profession I chose though, as my husband is a law enforcement officer and he didn’t have any flexibility.
I took personality assessments and explored the best careers for introverts who don’t want to work with people. Web developer was suggested. I thought, “OK, universe, I’ll start coding again.” So I searched for free learning resources that I could use remotely, as I live in a rural area of North Carolina. That’s when I stumbled upon Operation Code, a non-profit dedicated to helping military members, veterans and their families become software developers. I had found my tribe!
Eventually, a partnership person at Operation Code reached out to me and suggested that I get involved with Topcoder, the world’s largest talent network/digital crowdsourcing platform with 1.6M+ gig economy technologists in 190+ countries. He suggested I become a project “co-pilot,” essentially a junior technical project manager for the company’s design and development challenges. I doubted my skills at first, but applied anyway. I taught myself to code before and after work, and during my lunch breaks. After a few interviews, I got the job. Faster than I even realized, I became successful enough with Topcoder to quit my admin job and focus on freelancing from home for Topcoder. I had transitioned into a full-time career as a Topcoder coder and project manager.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I got to talk to with a group from NASA at our most recent Topcoder Open, the world’s largest live computer programming competition. The NASA team who attended the event are in charge of their internal crowdsourcing initiatives and came to speak at our Girls in STEM and Innovation Summit events. They were really down-to-earth, yet are so groundbreaking in their use of crowdsourcing for digital innovation in the public sector. It was fascinating to hear what they’re currently planning to crowdsource. To me, NASA still has a mythical quality about it as an organization — i.e., if you work at NASA you’re a genius and you win at life.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
It wasn’t a mistake so much as it was a very valuable lesson. I was working on styling a small website, and was having a hard time figuring out how to make an element do what I wanted it to do. I had been playing with it for hours and I had gotten very frustrated. I had tried the standard tricks, but nothing that I had tried worked. So, I decided to take a break for a while and hopped in the shower.
As soon as I had lathered up my purple toning shampoo, the solution to the site design problem popped into my mind. I also have the memory that rivals that of a goldfish, so then it was a race against the clock to make sure I didn’t forget what I needed to change. So I ended up in a towel, soaking wet, with soapy purple hair, shower still running, hustling across the house to update a single line of code. Fortunately, it worked.
Now anytime I am stuck on a problem, I make sure that I take a break and relax. Oftentimes, the solution will come.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Topcoder is unique for so many reasons. First, the flexibility afforded by the company and the gig economy lifestyle is invaluable. Living in a rural area, I am not near any tech hubs. Topcoder allows me to utilize my talents as a Web developer regardless of where I live and work, or when I work. Second, Topcoder’s passionate community of 1.6M+ gig economy technologists is the lifeblood of the organization. I have never come across so many talented and passionate people, from nearly every country on the planet and with so many diverse backgrounds. What makes Topcoder Members a great community is our collective passion for technology and the opportunity to work on really cool projects that only an open talent model platform like Topcoder could provide — all while making a good living.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’ve got some cool things on the horizon, and I’m currently following this really awesome project that Topcoder is running with the US Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They are creating algorithms to enhance sub-seasonal forecasting, reducing risks to our water systems, and helping water managers efficiently manage hydrological regimes. These forecasts have major implications for USBR, who manage the water resources for all of agriculture in the United States west of the Mississippi River. These outcomes are really exciting on a personal level because my hobby is gardening, and I want better estimations of my last frost date and a heads up for when I have to be extra-diligent about watering.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
The “status quo” I see for women in STEM right now is growth — there are more opportunities for education in STEM, more opportunities for careers in STEM, and the perceptions of women in STEM is slowly (slooowly) changing for the better. Considering the opportunities for advancement and salary afforded by STEM careers, I’m not surprised that many women veterans are being drawn towards STEM professions. I saw a statistic recently that women veterans are twice as likely to pursue STEM-related occupations as their civilian counterparts.
We need to keep pushing to maintain this positive change. Thank you for this series; representation matters and it’s helping spur this growth!
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I cannot speak for the experiences of all females, or females in STEM. My experiences have been part and parcel of the stigma of being a female. And it happens in every sector. We’re perceived as less competent, less intelligent, less committed, desperate for one thing or another, etc.; the wage gap, having to argue that the wage gap exists; sexual harassment, having to argue that the behavior in question was in fact harrassment; lackluster parental leave policies; always having to “prove myself” (even though I already have); being talked over or dismissed; being assumed that I am “the tag-along,” “the spouse,” or “the dependent”. These challenges stem from cultural problems that begin and end with our male colleagues. They need to be the ones addressing them.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
● That women aren’t technical.
○ I don’t even know what this means. Does it mean that women aren’t logical, detail-oriented, research-oriented, or able to follow directions? Does it mean that women are not subject matter experts in a given domain? Because we are/can be all of the above (of course, this depends on the individual).
● That the reason girls aren’t in STEM is because their brains aren’t built that way.
○ Here’s some recent research that disputes this myth.
● That we want to get hit-on at work events.
○ We don’t. It’s uncomfortable, unprofessional, and it’s also incredibly insulting.
● You can in fact be pretty AND smart.
● That “soft skills” don’t matter in tech.
○ Soft skills make you a good employee in any sector. Also, “problem solving” is a soft skill and literally what STEM does, so I don’t understand where this myth comes from.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
The greatest lessons I learned were from my experience in Iraq, but they apply to everything — home, work, relationships, etc.
- Always try to be humble and thoughtful to your colleagues. I remember getting home from overseas, sitting in my living room and thinking I could have been better to my fellow soldiers. Whether you’re in combat or in front of a computer, approach every person and situation with humility.
- When the going gets tough, quitting isn’t always the answer. While being deployed, you develop tenacity and grit that is essential to being a woman in tech. The fastest way to go through it is to just go through it.
- Do not feel pressured to “be one of the guys” to fit in. You are absolutely wonderful the way you are as a woman.
- Trust your colleagues; you don’t have to do everything yourself. It’s a skill unto itself to be able to effectively delegate.
- It’s OK to fail. This was very hard to learn since if you fail in the Army, it’s likely someone isn’t going to survive. Fortunately, civilian life is a lot more forgiving. There have been a couple times where I have told my supervisor, “Sure, I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’ll figure it out as I go along.” Pair that with asking for help when you need it and owning up to your mistakes, you end up becoming a one-woman power house.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
This advice applies to both men and women. As a leader, you need to know everything every team member does to some extent. You don’t have to be proficient enough to fill in, but you need to at least have an appreciation for what their day-to-day looks like. Also, as a leader, you have to be the master resource gatherer so that you can empower your team to be successful.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Remember to delegate and cross-train. You don’t need to take it all on your shoulders to prove that as a woman in STEM, you can do it all. Put people in charge of things and have them manage it and report back to you. I have never seen teams who work in silos reach excellence. They complete their work, sure. But cross-training allows folks to fill in for their team members and keep the entire project moving.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are a ton of folks at Operation Code (sharing some first names here, Conrad, Ashley, George, Kyle, Jenn and David) all who challenged me, encouraged me, and put me to work building stuff.
When I quit my old admin job and started freelancing, my spouse put me on his health insurance, which was a huge (and expensive!) gesture of faith in me. And at one point in my freelancing career, I was discouraged enough to start looking for full-time admin assistant jobs again. I shared this with him and he told me (paraphrased), “You’re a web developer. That’s what you do, that’s your job.” That really helped get me through some imposter syndrome funk. Without him supporting me, I would have never had the ability to interview for my full-time job at Topcoder.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’m using my journey and experience to help other veterans, both men and women, pursue careers in tech. Currently, I serve as an ambassador and mentor to the members of the Topcoder Veterans Community, helping others transition to and thrive in a career in software development, design and testing, as well as data science. The Topcoder Veterans Community provides both educational and real-world IT challenges exclusively for veterans that allow them to hone their skills, and then ease into a full-fledged career in tech. The goal is to get vets coding, building, trained and compensated to participate in mainstream Topcoder Community challenges.
Although a career in technology post-service is not uncommon, initiating it through a crowdsourcing platform is probably not the first thing that ex-military personnel will think of. Awareness is the key to make people see that Topcoder is the gateway to pursuing a career in tech. Many military veterans fall victim to pyramid schemes when they come out of service. I want to help them pursue a better path because they’re capable of becoming top-notch coders if they put in the time to learn and practice new frameworks and languages.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
That first statement is terrifying! Be kind and have empathy for others; meet them where they are. Everyone has equal worth, but are not born with the same circumstances. Your experience in life isn’t typical. Just be kind.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Just keep it moving.” I tend to be a little neurotic and get “stuck” when I feel like I’ve messed up. I had a supervisor in the Army who had to coach me through some rough spots. She told me to “just keep it moving” a lot. And now when I feel like I’ve messed up or otherwise have gotten stuck some how, I “keep it moving.” This is usually done by going back and trying to pin-point my errors and do some extra research so I don’t make the same errors again.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I would love to have lunch Dwayne Johnson — so I could make my spouse jealous. On a serious note, his journey is similar to mine in that he reinvented himself professionally several times. He went from being a college athlete to a pro wrestler to an actor, which appears to be his true calling. He’s also a role model. He has a foundation that works with at-risk and terminally ill children, and frequently works with the Make-a-Wish Foundation.