Being a Female Software Engineer
What's it like being a Software Engineer?
Valerie works in downtown San Francisco at a tech startup. She lives with her best friend since first grade and rides her bike to work most days. She loves travelling, dancing and Thai food. At the weekends, you'll find her out and about on her bike, with friends or family or watching movies.
Job title: Software Engineer
Current employer: Tripping.com
Hours: 40 hours/week
How long have you been working in this field: 2 years.
What do you do in your job?
In short, I build websites!
What does a typical day look like?
Usually I get up at 7am to make some tea, eat breakfast, and study a software topic I find interesting or a tool that I'm currently using at work. Typically, I get to work after 9am, check my emails, meet with the Engineering team to discuss what we're each working on that day, and then get to work.
The engineering team that I work with is made up of 5 people. We have a stand-up meeting every morning, which is a 10-minute meeting where each engineer says what they're planning to do that day and any issues that they need help with. Our work is structured in 2 week batches, so at the end of each 2 week "sprint", we also meet to discuss how the work went and how we can improve in the next 2 weeks (engineers are always looking for ways to improve our work!).
What’s your favourite part of your job?
What I like about my job is that it is super flexible - no two days are the same, and for the most part I can arrange my day how I like. Some days I am very focused, trying to get a new feature out. Some days I pair program with engineers more, which is fun and collaborative. Sometimes I'm involved in site architecture-related planning discussions around new areas of the site that we want to build.
What were your favourite subjects at school?
Math, Jazz Band, and Dance.
Was there anything you liked doing at school that helped you get to this career?
There is a lot of crossover between different types of Engineering. Toward the end of college, I took classes in Inventory Planning and Supply Chain Management, which involves coordinating parts (like computer chips and screens) from manufacturers around the world to build hardware (like computers). In the same way that software engineering involves understanding what outputs from a system (like a user signing up for an account) results in which inputs go into another system (like storing that user information in a database).
What did you want to be as a child when you 'grew up'?
Can you remember what your parents reactions were to that aspiration?
They always encouraged it! I loved writing short stories and poems, and they were the first to read them.
Can you remember your parents or teachers wanting you to go into a specific career when you 'grew up'?
I don't remember anyone ever steering me in a specific direction (although a lot of people thought I would be a dancer, since I went to performing arts schools), but sometimes teachers were hesitant to challenge me as much as they could.
At the end of 6th grade, my mom and I discussed my skipping a grade in math with my math teacher at the time. She said that I could try but that I might get a B. I ended up going for it and loved the challenge of doing 8th-grade math as a 7th-grader.
By the time I got into high school, it was obvious I would excel in a STEM-oriented career. I discussed all sorts of options with my family, from accounting to engineering, and engineering is what I found most interesting.
Are there any specific qualifications you are required to have in your field?
Not necessarily. A Computer Science degree or attending a coding boot camp (like I did) certainly help, but aren't required!
What did your career journey look like?
After my freshman year of college, I worked at Macy's and had a couple of internships. Then, after finishing grad school (Cornell University, studying Operations Research - optimization / supply chain), I started at my first tech startup as a project manager. From the beginning, I tested both the hardware and software products that my company offered. Once a position on the software QA team opened up, I jumped at the opportunity to expand my technical skills. After a few years in QA, I decided to get more formal training in Software Engineering through a coding boot camp in San Francisco. After that, I got a job at Tripping and have been there a year and a half.
What do you think are attitudes towards and expectations of female engineers?
When people hear about female engineers, they often assume that they are more user-facing engineers (like UX engineers or front-end engineers), whereas most of the women I know prefer back-end (data and infrastructure) engineering.
Are people normally surprised when they find out what you do?
Definitely. Even in a city of engineers, where more and more women are getting into Software Engineering, I can walk into an engineering conference room full of men and get surprised looks.
What are the challenges and benefits of being a software engineer?
There are huge benefits to working in Software Engineering - flexibility, mobility, and the huge demand for engineers, particularly in tech hubs like the Bay Area.
One challenge that I hear about time and again, especially being both a woman and a boot camp grad, is ‘Imposter Syndrome’, where you doubt your accomplishments. It's certainly not limited to Software Engineering - I've experienced it in every job I've had - but given that Software Engineering is a male-dominated field, it can bring about insecurities. Not having a Computer Science degree, being the only woman in an Engineering meeting, having all of your work reviewed meticulously -- many factors contribute to this feeling.
But, for me, whilst tackling Imposter Syndrome is a constant challenge, I’ve found lots of things to help. Keeping track of what I've learned and my achievements since I graduated from the boot camp, showing friends what I've been working on, and pushing myself to study the languages and tools I use, allow me to feel more fluent in the world I work in and to recognize the skills I have.
What’s your favourite part of your job?
One of the things I like about software engineering is the huge variety of work that you can get involved in. I'm currently a full-stack engineer, so one day I'll work on visible changes to the website (like adding a new page or a new section on an existing page) and the next I'll be fixing issues with the data we work with. Depending on your interests, you can choose to specialize your work, such as focusing on the user interface, working with large amounts of data, or managing the servers that the company uses.
Whichever way you go as a software engineer, you're solving problems all day. Imagine that you work on the website, and a user notices that one of the pages doesn't load properly. As a developer, you get to dig into the code and figure out what went wrong and how to solve it. (I previously worked as a software tester, so you're constantly identifying problems but never solving them... there's something really satisfying about getting to solve problems that other people find).
What are 3 things you have to like to do your job?
Working with others (I'm constantly working with other engineers, Product Management, and management to do my job most effectively)
A love of learning
What advice would you give to younger girls who are aspiring coders, or who haven't even considered it as a career?
Try it out! There are so many great beginner tools out there to learn how to build websites and understand algorithms. You don't have to like math or know how to design a website to enjoy it -- there are so many ways to be a Software Engineer.
Hours: Around 40 per week
Starting salary: The average annual salary for a software engineer is between £25,000 and £50,000.Typically a graduate software engineer salary starts at£18,000 a year. At senior or management level, software engineers can earn £45,000 -£70,000+ per year.
Qualifications required: Varies from technical skill and interest to degrees in a computer related discipline.
In 2015, women held only 25% of all computing occupations - Women in Tech: the facts.
Photo of Valerie at work at Tripping.com
"You don't have to like maths or know how to design a website to enjoy it - there are so many ways to be a Software Engineer."
A web page that Valerie built at work for Tripping.com
www.tynker.com: Tynker is the #1 Kids Coding Platform where millions have learned to code. Tynker offers self-paced online courses for children to learn coding at home, as well as an engaging programming curriculum for schools and camps.
https://code.org: Code.org® is a nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to computer science in schools and increasing participation by women and underrepresented minorities.
Prospects.ac.uk: Find out more about becoming a software engineer.
National Center for Women & Technology (NCWIT): Get resources, tools and facts about women in tech.