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Software engineer shares thrills and spills of the computer science industry

This software engineer made her mark working on major projects for a world-renowned amusement park while overcoming discrimination and sexual harassment. 30 years after beginning her career in computer science, she finds her job worthwhile, but finds personal fulfillment and reward through writing and sharing her story.

What is your job title? How many years of experience do you have in that field?
My job title is Senior Software Engineer. I have worked as a software engineer for 30 years.

Would you describe what you do on a typical day?
A software engineer’s job involves computer programming, but the job has a wider breadth than just writing computer code. I’m responsible for gathering requirements, designing, implementing and testing software for a product that’s used by major corporations to design mechanical objects including cars, ships, factory equipment and smaller consumer items like cameras, vacuums, mobile phones and other electronic gadgets. The type of programming that I do involves computer science, mathematics and 3D computer graphics.

On a typical day, I am either designing and writing new software or fixing problems (or “bugs”) in software used by customers. I am a member of a team that’s located elsewhere in the U.S., so I may be talking to one of my teammates by phone or attending a meeting that takes place via conference call. My company is multinational and I work with employees and customers all over the world. I receive 50-100 email messages a day so I spend part of my day responding to email requests and questions.

What is your ethnicity? What kinds of discrimination have you experienced?
As a Caucasian female, I am a member of a minority in my field. In addition to Caucasian males, my industry is dominated by men from China and India. In my current company I don’t experience any overt discrimination, but women are mostly left out of the casual socializing that many of the men engage in. Groups of men network by going out to lunch together, but because of cultural customs they do not include women. The women who are engineers (as opposed to clerical workers) do not typically network in the same way. This situation makes it harder to get noticed as a woman.

My first programming job was with a major entertainment company that runs a movie studio and several world-famous theme parks. I experienced a great deal of discrimination and harassment at that company, despite the fact that I was successfully completing major projects. I left that company due to the discrimination I was experiencing.

If you’ve experienced discrimination, in what ways have you responded and what response worked best?
At my first software engineering job, I was naïve about the interest that my male co-workers showed in me. What I believed was professional mentoring turned out to be an interest on their part in dating me or having an affair. Some of these men later took credit for my work or ideas or made untrue claims about the quality of my work. I talked to my manager and to his boss about the problem but felt that I was going against a “good old boy” club. I then spoke to the company’s Human Resources department, not realizing that the company’s goal was to discredit any possible claims of sexual harassment.

The response that worked best for me in this case was leaving the company. Since I had just completed my Computer Science degree and had a few years of valuable work experience, I was able to quickly find another job that almost doubled my salary. After I few months in my new position, I realized how unprofessional and discriminatory my previous co-workers and managers had been.

Where you work, how well does your company do ‘equal opportunity’? Is management white and male? How are minorities perceived and treated?
I am lucky to work for a multi-national corporation that is very conscientious about equal opportunity. Management is not exclusively white and male. People of other ethnicities are well represented and are treated equally and with respect. I think that women must work harder to get ahead, but many women do and have advanced to senior technical and management positions.

What don’t they teach in school that would’ve been helpful to you?
My university degree prepared me for the technical aspects of my job but did not provide enough training in making presentations. I overcame a fear of public speaking and learned on the job how to present my ideas to my manager, teammates and larger groups of people. I also had to learn (often the hard way) how to network and protect my professional reputation.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
As a senior in high school, I was interested in both Math and English and had high SAT scores in both areas. As a freshman in college, I took an elementary Computer Science class. I enjoyed the subject matter but was intimidated by the fact that I was the only woman in a class of 50 students. Also, those were the days of mainframe computers and punched cards, so programming was frustratingly time consuming. At the end of my freshman year I decided to major in English with a minor in Dramatic Art. I was interested in costume design and went on to design costumes for several university productions.

After completing my English degree, I worked for a few years making costumes for movies and plays. The job involved long hours and very little pay and I didn’t seem to be getting closer to my goal of becoming a costume designer (as opposed to the person who just sewed the costumes). I decided I wanted a career that was more stable and paid more money. By this time computers had advanced and the first personal computers were being introduced, so I made a career in computers my goal.

I went back to school and earned a BS in Computer Science. While working on my degree, I participated in the co-op program which involved working full-time as a software engineer in place of taking classes. After my co-op assignment was completed, I was hired as a part-time software engineer with the same company. Because I had gained experience with personal computers (called micro computers in those days), I was assigned to some major projects that were part of a new theme park. It was a very exciting experience.

I don’t regret anything about the way I got started as a software engineer. My degree in English enriched my life and helped me develop my writing skills. Most software engineers are not good at writing, so this has given me an edge.

On a good day, when things are going well, can you give an example of something that really makes you feel good?
Even though I’ve been programming for 30 years, I am still passionate about fixing a bug or implementing some complex functionality. Working through a problem, using the knowledge I’ve gained with years of programming experience and then seeing the results of my work on the computer screen really makes me feel good. Luckily, I’m able to experience this feeling almost every day.

When nothing seems to go right, what kind of snafus do you handle and what do you dislike the most?
One of the most frustrating aspects of my job is realizing that some code I wrote has a bug in it that has been found by a customer. In this case, I have to quickly find a better solution. Another frustration is encountering a problem that I can’t solve. In this case, I have to ask a teammate for assistance. Most software engineers like to find their own solutions and don’t like having to ask for help.

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance?
Most people would view my job as stressful because there is little room for error, but I’ve been doing it a long time and have learned to deal with the stress. The field of software engineering is demanding and many people put in long hours, but after a few years I learned to limit the number of overtime hours per week that I work. This has helped me avoid total burnout and work-related problems in my personal life. I have become more efficient at my job (“working smarter”), so I don’t need to put in as many hours as I once did.

On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What would it take to increase that rating?
I would rate my job satisfaction as 8. A more exciting work environment and more opportunities to travel would increase my rating. On the other hand, I am paid well and have flexible hours, so those are big pluses.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough considering your responsibilities?
The salary range for a software engineer doing the type of work I do ranges from $75,000 to more than $150,000 per year. Engineers with more experience and more years at a single company can expect a higher salary. I believe this salary range is very fair considering the responsibilities.

What’s the most rewarding moment you’ve experienced in this position? Of all the things you’ve done at work, what are you most proud of?
My most rewarding moment in my current position was playing a major role in reinventing our product for the Microsoft Windows platform, which opened the door to more sales.
I am most proud of work I did for my first job, where I completed several large projects for a new theme park. The night before the theme park opened, I stayed up all night installing a series of video games that I designed and implemented. When I went back to my hotel to change clothes for the park’s opening, I turned on the TV and saw that Today and Good Morning America were featuring the park’s opening.

I recommend that software engineers volunteer for high profile assignments. This type of assignment carries a lot of risk in terms of failure, but is also the most rewarding and is the quickest way to get promoted.

What’s the most challenging moment you’ve experienced? What would you prefer to forget?
I was most challenged when I became a manager shortly after giving birth to my second child. I had a great deal of stress in my personal life, which included my father being ill with terminal cancer, and I was put in charge of a team that was somewhat lacking in talent. I had a very difficult time letting my team members fail since I felt it would reflect poorly on me as a manager, and so I completed work that they should have been doing. Since then I have left management and become a senior member of technical staff, where I am much happier.

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
At least a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science or a related field such as Mathematics or Electrical Engineering is required for a position as a Software Engineer in a major corporation. Many of my co-workers have master’s or doctorate degrees. Graduating from a prestigious university is definitely a plus, as is work experience gained through a paid internship or co-op position.

The skills that help a person succeed in this field include a love of solving puzzles, an ability to think logically, intense concentration and focus and an attention to detail. A software engineer often works on a program with tens of thousands of lines of code and needs to retain a mental image of how the code is laid out and interconnected, so an ability to think in abstract terms and an exceptional memory are also important. People who don’t enjoy math “word problems” or who aren’t good at solving them would probably not succeed in this field.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
I constantly recommend my line of work to bright young people. It is a stable industry that will continue to grow in the coming years. The work remains interesting over the long term and pays well.

If I had a friend that was considering my line of work, I would assess their education and skills and try to honestly let them know if I thought they would be a good fit for the job.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
Because I have been with my current company for more than 20 years, I receive 5 weeks of paid time off. I find that this is enough. Because of the pressure of my work schedule, I rarely take more than a week of vacation at a time. This is also true for many of my coworkers.

Are there any common myths you want to correct about what you do?
The biggest myth about Software Engineers is that they are “geeks.” While it’s true that some of them fit the stereotype of a guy with poor social skills who’s good with computers and loves science fiction, there are a wide variety of other types of people who are employed as Software Engineers and are good at their jobs.

Does this job move your heart? If not, what does?
My job provides satisfaction though I can’t say that it moves my heart as much as it once did. A few years ago I began writing as an outlet on the side, and I would have to say that moves my heart more. I think that anyone who works in the same field for several decades needs to expand their horizons and try something new in order to stay vital and connected.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
I would retire from Software Engineering and work full time as a freelance writer or book author.

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
I think I’ve been able to succeed in a male-dominated field because I have always been academically competitive. Also, I grew up with three brothers and no sisters, so I am used to being outnumbered by men. I came of age in a time when “feminist” was not a bad word, so I wasn’t afraid to stand up for my rights when I felt they were bring denied.

Finally, I never felt that I had to choose between being feminine, having a family and working as a Software Engineer. It’s possible to have all of these things at once.

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  • As a 20 year old Hispanic male, I know what it is like to have preexisting ideas of what I can or cannot do. On many occasions I have had people blatantly ignore me or take my answers with a suggestive expression. It just takes some confidence in yourself, which is my advice to the interviewee, to be persistent and have your ideas acknowledged, because like in my own experience, when they realize you are right and have more good ideas, they will include you. One day you may even surpass them, because you are not dismissive of other peoples ideas and can work together with other people. Also don’t be worried about being considered overbearing at times, because how else will you get where you want. You don’t want to look back and say if I only tried harder.

  • Very good interview. I have been slowly aware of the difficulties in this field, with all the stigma and stereotypes that it entails to be in Engineering. And although I have not experienced the same -mostly because of gender differences- it is also hard for me to compete with people who have more ability to communicate in English, and because of that some of the Latinos do not pick this field, it is difficult to explain other people what is wrong with your code when you think in Spanish.

  • I find this story incredibly inspirational and relatable. It is extraordinary how you overcame the harsh multitude of obstacles during your career, especially working in a male dominated field. As a student I know what it is like to have your hard work discredited or have someone else take credit for your accomplishments. I have experienced it on several different occasions. I have a wonderful single mother; she has been discriminated against because of her sexuality similarly to the oppression you suffered through in the workplace. On one occasion my mother and I went to several car dealerships so she could acquire a new lease for a car. Many of the dealers tried to take advantage of her. Luckily, prior to entering each dealership, we had worked out several hands and eye signals that we used when we thought the dealer was trying to rip her off. They thought wrong, incorrectly believing that they could scam the smartest woman I know. We eventually found a dealer that offered her a fair deal. It is truly a shame that some of the dealers tried to scam a poor, single, hardworking, lovely woman.
    Seeing as you have found success in life I aspire to have the same mentality and success that you have so rightfully earned. In the field of computer science I want to specialize in cyber security. I find the field very fascinating and see it as a career I can spend my life working in. This ever growing field is advancing our understanding in this digital age that we live in. The cyber sphere is rapidly evolving every time we blink. As a Latino minority of Mexican descent, my heritage has shaped who I am as a person. It was heartwarming to read that the field of software engineering isn’t full of “geeks” as many people have stereotyped it as, but rather full of diverse, hardworking people that get along rather well. A great work environment is one of the most important contributions to success. When you quit the company that contained oppressing and intolerable employees I was very impressed. You found a new job that paid double your salary shows that, standing up for your rights leads to a better future. Your new work environment helped create your success story. Not only does a good work environment create success, the colleagues you work with, the skills you develop, all confirm how hard you have worked.

  • The stress related with being a programmer is something I am very familiar with as well. Deadlines are extremely important in the field and I got the privilege of experiencing some with my internships last summer. Bugs definitely are an annoying thing to deal with when programming. I believe though, these challenges are really what makes mathematics based programming really fun.

    As for discrimination in the workplace, I have not experienced much of that at all as I only have experience as an intern, but I do have some experience with racial discrimination in a schooling environment. Similarly to how you had trouble socializing with many of your male coworkers, I have had trouble socializing with students of all ethnicities due to the fact that I am a mixed black/white male. My experiences differ both from my African American friends and my Caucasian friends because my parents found a mixture of both cultures to raise me in. I do find it interesting that women in the software engineering field do not socialize the same way that men would. Reading this will definitely make me cautious of the possibility from systematically excluding women from the social aspects of the workplace.

    I am happy to read that you overcame all difficulties you have had thus far in your career and are happy in your field. I hope that as I enter the professional workforce I can find a contentedness that you express here.

  • As a female studying computer science, I can definitely relate to the discrimination faced in this male-dominated field. Although I’m sure the male-to-female ratio has decreased since 30 years ago, and there are many programs in place to encourage women in tech, discrimination like that is still prevalent.

    When I was in high school I was part of a STEM magnet program, which was around 70% male. Even within that program, girls were discouraged from taking classes in certain subjects because we were told they were “too hard” for us. One of the strangest things that many boys in my year said throughout high school was that “all girls in STEM do biology because it’s the easiest science.” We heard things like this all through high school, and sure enough, by the time senior year rolled around, most of the girls opted out of electives in physics and computer science, choosing biology instead.

    Whether the stereotype was originally just an observation or not, it definitely negatively affected a lot of the female students, myself included. Despite enjoying my computer science classes and taking computer science electives throughout high school, when college applications rolled around, I didn’t believe I was qualified to study computer science at the college level. Fortunately, my mother and a great teacher encouraged me to study what I wanted, and I am now in my 2nd year of my computer science bachelor’s degree.

    Reading stories like this of women thriving in tech despite obstacles and discrimination is definitely heartwarming and encouraging. Thank you so much for sharing your experience, and I hope to one day be looking back on 30 years of experience in software engineering as well!

  • Being ostracized always impedes an individual’s performance. However, this article portrays that despite any obstacles one may run into, perseverance and strong will both enable an individual to succeed in almost any circumstance.

  • I found this article to be extremely empowering and strongly relatable to myself and many others I am sure; whether someone is a minority, a woman, or has experienced some type of background they must overcome, he/she can relate to this dedicated woman’s story. I myself am a young, Caucasian woman who has found herself up for the challenge in a male dominated field of Computer Science. I have completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics and will be earning a Master of Science degree in Applied Mathematics to apply my knowledge in national cybersecurity. While I have yet to taste the hardships that will come with starting my career in government, my past experiences have already prepared me for what I am to look forward to.

    Beginning as early as High School, I was already attending college math courses and had realized my interest in software programs; I enrolled in my school’s AutoCAD class as I thought it would be quite interesting to apply Math and Computer Science in Architectural Engineering (not your average high school girl’s dream). On the first day, I walked in the class and was immediately judged being the only female in the class. This didn’t bother me, and as the year went on I was consistently earning the highest grades in the class. It’s not that the guys in my class were rude or mean, they just didn’t include me in their group work or conversations; although I would occasionally get comments that the teacher only gave me high grades because he was “interested” in me. This was by no means true; I worked hard for my grades.

    Fast forward to college, when I double majored in Math and Computer Science and yet again I was faced with a male-dominated environment. Because my first programming language course involved a lab, my class was to meet in the computer lab once a week to complete a weekly assignment. Often, some of the male students in my class would offer to work with me, and I was flattered; like the woman in this article I was naive to their personal interest in me, since they would try to do the entire project alone and never even ask for my input though were supposedly working together. I wish I would have had the courage to speak to my professor with this concern like this woman who was brave enough to go to her Human Resources department.

    While I’m sure a career in the government will be more civilized since woman are now being recognized for their equal potential to that of men, nothing will compare to walking into a classroom full of male students in my college Computer Science course and the professor politely saying, “Sweetie, I think you’re in the wrong class, can I help you find your way?” This woman is truly motivational that my future will not include having to sacrifice between being feminine, having a family, and being successful in a male-dominated career.

  • Being a woman in a primarily male industry is extremely complicated. I have experienced many sexual harassment situations simply being a receptionist in the field. Many do not believe it when it is reported and simply ignore it and I am glad she was strong enough to quit that job and move on. I can completely understand the frustration in that topic, though following on with the career is the best option. Not all companies will allow the sexual harassment and I am very lucky to work in a woman owned business.

  • This interview of a female software engineer represents the prevalent obstacles that women or many of different races may face consistently. This woman instantly becomes a beacon of hope with her strong presence of fearlessness, confidence, and poise when dealing with the discrimination she faces in her workplace.

    Being an Indian female, this article truly hits close to home. As I carve the path to my future career, college has always emphasized one thing about ethnicity and diversity; that it will benefit you greatly in your years at school and also that future universities and future employers will value you much more with your cultural background and individuality. While all of these things may be quite true, what may be forgotten, at times, is the struggles and discrimination that we may face. This interview sheds some light on these struggles, and it inspires me that this woman overcame these obstacles with such grace, and succeeded so well. This woman furthermore proves that there is no measure of success based on gender or ethnicity. I commend her and strive to obtain her level of courage and confidence.

  • You’re story is quite inspiring, and I applaud your perseverance. I took interest in the topic myself because I would also like to go into Software Engineering. However, I was not expecting to read about such adversity in the field, even with the apparent uneven male-to-female ratio. It is sad to still see so much discrimination in our society today. However, I am glad that you remained confident and chased your goals. Intelligence has no gender, shape, size or color. There may be “researched correlations”, however, success in a field is mostly weighed on the passion, determination and hard work of the individual. There are plenty of female engineers in my class that are dominating as far as skill and grade point; I look to them as not necessarily competition, but motivation.