Women in STEM and entrepreneurship

Interview with Kidscontent Owner Claire Comins [CC] and Aysegul Yonet [AY], Senior Fullstack Software Engineer at Autodesk A360 by Jessica Gerwin, a High School Senior who set up a coding club at her school in Marin, California. Jessica submitted an app for the Congressional App Challenge 2015 which led to her being on the Women in Tech panel for the Marin Teen Girl Conference 2016

JG: How did you become interested in STEM?
CC: I’ve always been fascinated by the intersections of art and science subjects. If I’d had different influences in my life, I might have studied engineering – at school, I was always coming up with crazy ideas for new inventions. As it was, I followed my passion for languages and studied French, Russian and then got a post-grade in Journalism. That led to a career in children’s publishing at BBC Worldwide. My career became more tech-oriented as when the iPad was new, I saw an opportunity for a new kind of publishing that was interactive. I worked with developers in London to launch an app for girls called Lily. It gave them ideas for things to create with technology: videos, animations, and quiz games. When I moved to California, I got involved in the Maker Movement and shadowed teachers at the Intel Computer Clubhouse in San Rafael.

JG: What was TinkerTech like to create?
CC: I’m still creating it! TinkerTech grew out of Codemaker Club, a series of after-school classes and camps I ran with the Intel Computer clubhouse here in Marin. The Clubhouse moved to Novato to become a makerspace at the end of 2015. I was being asked to run classes in a couple of local schools, so I started my own program in January 2016 to cope with that demand. Building your own business is fun, hard work, and rewarding – and specializing in teaching maker and coding is a great way to meet some fascinating, talented people here in Marin and the Bay Area.

JG: What is the most rewarding thing about running TinkerTech?
CC: Seeing the students really engaged in an activity.

JG: Barack Obama just funded a new initiative called Computer Science For All that aims to get young children involved in computer programming. The initiative calls for $135 million in Computer Science and Engaging CEOs and for philanthropists, creative media, technology, and education professionals to deepen their CS commitments. Do you think that this is a good plan?
CC: Yes, I do think everyone should have the chance to learn to code and understand what technology is. Coding is a learned skill, and, like learning to read music or speak a foreign language, it’s easier the younger you start and the more reason you have to learn it. I have always thought making an app is a great project: it gives you a purpose and allows you to research deeply into one area – and you don’t need to be able to code to be part of the team. It’s also a piece of technology that you can really have fun designing as you think about users and their needs. Girls who are interested in this should look at Technovation Challenge or the Congressional App Challenge and start thinking about an app they’d like to create.

JG: Only 4% of girls will choose to study computer science. Why do you think that so few girls choose this field?
CC: Lack of role models and a misunderstanding of what coding is.

JG: Do we need more women coders? Why?
CC: I think the jobs should be as open to women as men. As long as everyone has the chance to learn to code, they can decide if a job as a software engineer is something they’d be interested in.
What we really need is more women founding companies in the tech field, as well as on the boards of existing tech companies. Traditionally, the founder of a tech company is the person who wrote the original code, but I don’t think that needs to be the case any more. Tech has to work on such a big scale to be a business success, you need a great team that can consider the needs of all the users of their product or products.

JG: What makes you most excited about technology and code?
CC: How easy it has made it to communicate with anyone anywhere instantly. I also think now is a really exciting time for tech as with Artificial Intelligence, robotics and connected devices, people are inventing products and services that can make a significant difference to people’s lives.

JG: Do you have any advice for young girls who are thinking about entering the tech sector?

CC: Go for it. Technology is more than just a job sector – for most people in the developed or developing world, it’s something that we’d find hard to live without. The more diverse and representative the people who are developing the technology are, the better for everyone. For real advice on programming and what it’s like to work in the industry, join some some girl-only coding groups and talk to as many women as you can who work in tech. For this interview, I talked to an engineer I met through GirlDevelopIt who is a Senior FullStack Software Engineer at Autodesk. Her answers are below. She was super helpful!

JG: How can we get young girls to be interested in computer science?
CC: Keep talking about the good role models and show them some of the exciting things that they could help create.

From here on, the interview continues with Aygsegul Yonet, Senior Fullstack Software Engineer, at Autodesk A360 cloud platform.

JG: Only 4% of girls will choose to study computer science. Why do you think that so few girls choose this field?
AY: I think the percentage of women choosing computer science is particularly low in US. I am from Turkey, it is more common for a women to choose CS degree, since it is a very flexible and an enjoyable field. My guess is the image of a programmer in the media is heavily male oriented. The US is surprisingly a conservative country when it comes to gender roles in society. One common theory why women haven’t been in the industry is because of the first computers were advertised almost as boy toys. Not having enough exposure to computing makes it a harder for girls to be interested. On the other hand, a little known fact is that most of the first programmers were women. Take a look at the life and work of some amazing women in computing in this article by npr.

JG: Do we need more women coders? Why?
AY: I absolutely believe that we do need more women in the industry. Number one reason for me is we need to solve our own problems with programming. If the tech industry is mostly men, the products we have available reflect that and some of the needs of women are ignored. I will give you few examples. I have been a part of Ignite Hackathon with Black Girls Code. The team event was in a safe space for women. At the end of the hackathon, girls came up with the best solutions to their day-to-day lives, from being bullied to being assaulted.
An obvious example for me of when the needs of women is not considered is the Facebook app. Any time you open up the the Facebook app on your phone, Facebook suggests to you people who are in the same location as you are. A women would know that when they are in a coffee shop and open up their apps, they will not want creepy person sitting on the table next to them to see their, name, school information, holiday pictures…

JG: What are some challenges that women entering the tech sector might face?
AY: Every woman is as capable as a man to get into the sector of course. One of the biggest challenges is the images of women and sexism in the industry. Sometimes, men are more exposed to computer concepts than women because of their particular interests in gaming or robotics. Not having the initial exposure intimidates female students sometimes. Computer Science is not particularly harder than anything else and it is a learned skill rather than a talent. There is no bad time or age to start learning it.

JG: How can we get young girls to be interested in computer science?
AY: Having more events and giving more girls to space to explore is a good start. We must stop telling girls that they are not good at math, sciences and programming. We need to expose them to more role models as well. How many movies do you see female computer geniuses that are saving the day vs male hackers? The representation needs to change.

JG: What are some roles that computer science plays in government?
AY: As in anything else, the government uses Computer Scientists for any and every job. Some important ones are data scientists, data analysts. They look at a set of data and figure out what to do. For example, we are able to look at the health care data, climate data and estimate what the future is going to be like. This kind of data analysis allows the government to make informed decisions. Security is an important sector as well. Programming is necessary for any tool from a robot to simple scanner.

Jessica Gerwin was a co-panelist with Claire Comins on the Women in Tech panel at the Marin Teen Girl Conference, 2016 http://marinteengirl.org/