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.