Computer Science Diversity Career Stories

Government IT worker finds pride and importance in his career through his work after September 11

Hispanic IT WorkerThe public often thinks of computer information technology as a fairly mundane and repetitive job, however in this career interview with a government IT professional, he shares how his work is anything but boring. He tells us how the events of September 11, 2001 affected his job and improved his pride and satisfaction in the work that he does keeping the world connected. Here is his story, in his own words:

I started out thirty years ago in a government agency as an IT professional. If I had to come up with three adjectives to describe me, I’d have to say I am resourceful, persistent, and inventive.

I’m a Hispanic male and that made it tough for me to fit in at work at first. Many of my supervisors and co-workers started out thinking of me as an Affirmative Action applicant with no education or skills. As they got to know me, they began to realize that I did know what I was doing and could play a valuable part in any project.

I provide support for computer hardware and software to people who might not have that much experience with computers. Every once in a while, I get to do some actual computer programming. Too many people think that computer programming consists of sitting at a keyboard and typing away as fast as possible — that’s not what it is at all. Most of the time programming is spent thinking things through and talking out possibilities with co-workers.

My job satisfaction rating would have to be a 9 on a scale of 1-10. I do work that I enjoy very much.

One assignment that did move my heart was when I was asked to do some continuing IT support work for a child abuse registry, a hotline anyone could call to report child abuse. I felt that I was part of a very worthwhile effort to make the world a better place.

One unique thing about my career is how it all started. I had gotten my training in computers through a few semesters of classes at a local community college, which was sufficient for me to sign up for a probationary appointment in government service as an IT professional. If I had to change anything, I might have chosen a starting IT position that would have involved more interaction as a educator.

One of the things I learned almost immediately is that there’s no shame in asking for help. An indecipherable database schema made no sense to me on one of my first assignments until I asked for some help.

The biggest adjustment I had transitioning from a student to a professional was adjusting to the fact that work is continuous and there are no clear-cut ends in sight for many tasks. School comes by you in chunks: a class, a semester, a graduation. Once one chunk is done, you move on to the next. The difference is that work is continuous and that can be daunting.

The strangest thing that ever happened to me on the job was also the saddest. One morning, I had just gotten to my job as a support tech for a unit responsible for computer networking all across the country. One of the managers came by with a worried look on his face, saying that the network responsible for computer traffic in and out of New York City had gone down and he didn’t know why. The date was September 11, 2001.

September 11, 2001 was a point in my career where I felt proud to do my job — we all pulled together to get things working again for the good of the country. Challenges like difficult co-workers and insane work schedules don’t hold a dime against that. The stress of the job does come from those moments when something is not working and you don’t know why. Those days before the a-ha moment hits are often the hardest, struggling to make sense of a problem.

No career interview would be complete without the question everyone wants to know, “How much do you make?” So here it is, in this profession, individuals can expect to make about $40,000-60,000 a year. I also take 2 weeks of vacation annually.

In order to get started in this field, a person needs to have a background in information technology — you can’t fake it. But, you can get that background easily enough through courses at community colleges. I’d tell anyone it’s worth it, if only for the satisfaction of a job done well.

Like many IT professionals, I hope my future holds the opportunity to become my own boss. I’d like to be running my own online empire five years from now, giving IT advice and helping others start their path to their future.

Computer Science Diversity Career Stories

Female Jewish software engineer thrives in male dominated field

This Jewish woman working in the software engineering field shares her work experiences and what it is like to be a woman in a field dominated by men. She enjoys creating things, which makes her job particularly exciting, but that desire to create has also lead her to a career on the side as a writer.

Q: What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?

A: My job title is Software Engineer and I work in the Information Technology field. I have approximately 17 years of experience developing and deploying software systems. I would describe myself as driven, intelligent and kind.

Q: What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best?

A: I am a Jewish female. Being a Jewish female has helped in some positions, but has definitely been a roadblock in others. I have experienced discrimination in the workplace, mainly for being female. However, I am not sure that this could be considered true gender-based discrimination. When I was starting out, the males in my field in the mid-1990’s were simply not accustomed to working with females. Everyone had to adjust when the influx of women began in traditionally male industries. Today, however, I do not feel that I am a victim of any kind of discrimination.

Q: How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?

A: The position of Software Engineer is really defined by the company. As a Software Engineer, you may be tasked with development of software applications, or you may be asked to be a member of a design team. The design team specifies the requirements of the software product, as well as how they will be met by the software team. Software Engineers may also be members of Deployment or Testing teams, responsible for installing or testing the application.

Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?

A: On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate my job at about a 7. No job or company is perfect. However, in general in the workforce, the politics and personalities are usually the main cause of my frustration, and not the job itself.

Q: If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?

A: Actually, I am a writer in my heart. I know that my calling is writing. However, because software development and writing actually utilize opposite sides of the brain, or so I’m told, there is a different satisfaction I get from working as a Software Engineer. Writing is something that comes so naturally to me, but application development is not. I get a lot of satisfaction being able to master something that does not come easy for me.

Q: Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?

A: In addition to being a Software Engineer, I am also a freelance writer. I write mainly technical pieces, but have been known to opine on occasion.

Q: How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?

A: I was introduced to programming when I was in graduate school. I was actually working on a PhD in Sociology at the University of Illinois. I discovered HTML programming and was able to instantly pick it up. I just looked at HTML code and immediately understood it without any explanation. I took this as a sign.

I did not go to school specifically for Software Engineering. This was most likely because in the early 1990’s, the Information Technology industry was still very new. Colleges did not offer very many classes in Computer Science, much less in Software Development. Over time, this has changed and now, most schools have a technical cirriculums that incudes programming and software engineering specialties.

Q: What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?

A: I learned that I may be smart, but I am never the smartest one in the room. However, I have noticed that many folks who work in the IT industry are very impressed with their own intelligence and knowledge. Not only are you constantly having to prove yourself, but dealing with all those egos is tiring at times.

Q: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

A: Life is hard and not everyone is a liberal thinker. When you get out into the “real” world, you deal with all kinds of people, cultures and ideas. I feel that I was sheltered while in school, and I experienced a somewhat rude awakening after working in the workforce for about a year or so.

Q: What’s the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?

A: The strangest thing that ever happened to me in this field was having the opportunity to make great money before the field caught up with the demand. IT people were hard to come by in the mid- to late- 1990s. If you were good and had experience, you were golden. This changed in the new millennium, however. The field has become very competitive.

Q: Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?

A: I love to create. The idea that I get to create every day of my life, whether writing or developing software, is amazing to me. Just to sit and make something from absolutely nothing except your own thoughts just thrills me every time I think about it.

Q: What kind of challenges do you handle and what makes you want to just quit?

A: Without a doubt, the thing that makes me want to quit the field is politics. Because software jobs are generally well-paying, there are a lot of corporate politics that swirl around positions, promotions and the corporate culture in general.

Q: How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance? How?

A: This is a complicated question because the job itself is as stressful as you allow. I could, and have, let a development project totally take over my life. I’ve sat in the same chair for 24 hours straight, and maybe even longer, to avoid stopping and then having to pick up the project later and figure out what I was doing when I stopped. This does not promote a healthy balance, but I’ve gotten to where I will only do this now about once or twice a year. To maintain a healthy balance, you absolutely have to set boundaries for yourself. For example, I have a standing rule that I do not ever work on Sundays, no matter what is happening. There have been rare occasions when I have to break my covenant with myself, but maybe only two or three occasions.

Q: What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?

A: The compensation for a Software Engineer is quite attractive. The salary range for my position is between 80 k and 200 k per year. The upper end of the range applies to those in network and system security. However, a person just entering the field probably could not initially command an 80 k salary. However, with some experience and a few successful development projects, you can achieve some pretty hefty compensation goals.

Q: How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?

A: I rarely take vacations, and I need to take them. In the past couple of years, I have taken at least a month off during the year. However, the month “off” usually entails taking on a full-time writing assignment and utilizing the other side of my brain.

Q: What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

A: At this time, you need at least an Associate’s degree, but this would be to simply get your foot in the door in a low level position. For a substantial job with some status and good pay, you really need to have a Bachelor’s degree. A Master’s will put you ahead of the crowd.

Success in this field is much more dependent on your aptitude and personality. What you learn in school will most likely be obsolete in a few years. If you can learn how to learn technical processes and procedures in school, this will take you far in the field.

Q: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

A: If I feel that my friend has an aptitude for the field, I would encourage them. However, if my friend is simply looking for good money and is not particularly interested in Information Technology, I would advise against it.

Q: If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

A: I would like to develop some amazing piece of software and retire on my laurels. Think Facebook!

Computer Science Diversity Career Stories

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.