Where Are All the Women? The Changing Face of Technology

Chris: Welcome to the ‘tech lowdown show’.  Each episode will be discussing opportunities in the tech space of entrepreneurs from the U.S. and around the world. I’m your host Chris Jones. Our guest today is literally changing the face of the tech world. The statistics on women in the tech industry are staggeringly dismal for such a large industry. Less than twenty percent of software developers in the U.S. are women. African-American, Asian and the Latina women combined represent just eight percent of the computing workforce. Also just zero point four percent (0.4%) of high school girls choose Computer Science as a Major. I can go on and on with dismal stats highlighting the problem but today we’ve got a tech industry veteran who not only knows the numbers but is also doing something to change it. Cynthia Tee is the executive director of Ada Developers Academy, a free training program for women and non-binary people who want to become software developers. Cynthia is an MIT grad who spent twenty years at Microsoft working on everything from the Windows Appstore to tablet P.C.’s. Now she’s beginning her third year leading Ada Developers Academy which is graduated over one hundred fifty students and has a ninety seven percent placement rate for its alumni. How’s that for making real change. Cynthia It’s a pleasure to have you on the show, what’s the low down.

Cynthia: Hi Chris, it’s honouring and a pleasure to be on this show as well, and I am.

Chris: Wonderful, I’m excited to get into this. I want to start; you graduated with a master’s degree in Computer Science from MIT at a time when there were even fewer women in tech. What drew you to Computer Science at that time and what was your early experience like in the tech space.

Cynthia: You know I had parents who really encouraged me to get into science, math and actually Computer Programming. My father bought me a computer at a very young age and so I got some exposure there. And I was really fortunate to have parents to really encourage me to enter this field and so you know, I grew up in the Philippines in Asia, and so it was my parents were educated in the United States and I also aspired to go to university in United States. And they really encouraged me to pursue Computer Sciences as a major. So that’s how I chose it and I’m at it.

Chris: That’s interesting and what was it like for you in the early days? Were you the only one in the classes? What was that experience like?

Cynthia: Well, they were like carnivals essentially  who majored in Computer Science out of a class of over a thousand. So it was quite, we were quite a minority and we all knew each other and we were able to work together and it definitely felt very different and intimidating at times. I definitely experienced that in as much as I had a little bit of exposure. I would walk into a classroom and everybody else seemed to know a lot more than I did and I played around with technology a lot more. But I just kept on going and eventually got an internship and ended up at Microsoft. Yeah it’s been good always since, so.

Chris: Wonderful, I know I read an article where you mentioned that you were, when you started at Microsoft, your managers , your managers,  managers right up to Bill Gates were all women. What was that experience like and I read that you said you didn’t realize it wasn’t normal at the time.

Cynthia: Yeah you know I certainly went to the university where there are very few women and I went to Microsoft and it was just very pleasant. It was great to be; it was a it was a division that was charged with creating software for of the home use and at that time you know it was all about PCs and all of that stuff, and so it was a long time ago. And this division was really led by women and my entire management chain and even their peers, a lot of them were women, and so I thought it was a great place to be. I didn’t choose the group because of that expressly, but I was definitely implicitly much more drawn to their attitude, their culture, and their mission. And I’m really glad because I think it would have been very tough for me to stay in this field had I not had a lot of those old models around me, early in my career.

Chris: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I know there are a lot of articles and statistics attesting to the challenges faced by women in tech companies. Can you tell us some of the real challenges that you experienced, that you saw taking place during your time?

Cynthia: Yes I think as somebody who is under represented, you know you always feel like you have to work three times harder than everybody else and show up three times more than everybody else. And so there’s always a constant pressure of having to prove yourself and I think that gets reinforced by everybody around you certainly, even culturally brought up not to raise my voice for example or push back on anything and that was a really hard thing for me to try to do in this environment where when you’re surrounded by a lot of men and even if the leaders were women. I think they definitely built a more inclusive culture, but in our day to day, a lot of the software developers around me were still men. And it was challenging sometimes to get your ideas heard or to feel like you felt you have a constant pressure of having to behave like them in order to be heard, and that really takes its toll and can sometimes be very frustrating.

Chris: Yeah I’ve heard a lot of women who have gotten into the tech space, particularly on the software side end up leaving as a result of those types of pressures. They’re kind of the below the surface pressure that doesn’t really add up or at least it’s not immediately apparent. But then over years it ends up pushing people out of their work space.

Cynthia: Yes, I think it takes a lot of; you know the advice that was given to me by one of my mentors as well, you have to figure out a way to integrate. And when to integrate is to be like the others around you, and I think I’ve seen quite a few of my peers and even some of my mentors who lose themselves a little bit because of that;  which is really sad to see it really takes its toll on you over time. So the advice I was given to me was well, you better integrate and then when you get into a position of power, when you can influence things, then you can bring back some of yourself to really create an inclusive environment and that’s what I did. That is actually not the same advice that I would give to people today; I think you have to have a better balance than that, otherwise you’re just perpetuating the same culture. I mean I understand why I had to do it and why many of my mentors had to do that but it really is tough. You start to realise after a while that you really inevitably supported propagating the same behaviour that you are trying to fight.

Chris: Yes, I’ve heard that; I’ve spoken to folks about that and that is a real difficult challenge spoken to both women as well as minorities about that. How do you find your place without losing yourself within this environment where you are the other and you’re trying to make a spot for yourself.

Cynthia: Yeah

Chris: Ada is doing some amazing work with great results. Tell us a little bit about Ada and about the selection criteria for the program. I know many students are making a massive career transition, so how do you ensure that you’re selecting students who can handle both the rigors of the training and also be prepared for success after the training is completed.

Cynthia: Yeah, It’s about a year learning, it’s about an eleven months training program. It has six months in the classroom attached to a five month internship with a software company in Seattle and then basically our students graduate eleven months and the way, we get a lot of applicants which really tells me that there’s a ton of interest. In our last admission cycle, we had over four hundred seventy people applied actually from across the country. And it’s tuitions free, it focuses on women and non-binary people. It is a yearlong; it has an internship and it’s very mission based as a non-profit. All these things are really what draw a lot of our applicants to us. We look at a couple of things; we look at the technical potential that people have and the problem solving potential. Our online application also looks at the ability to problem solve, and if you make it to the second phase of our application, we actually give our applicants a set of videos to learn some programming basics and then ask them to write a simple program based on that. And then we also have the other side of our application process which really speaks to a person’s goals and motivation, why they want to become a software developer, their sense of self-awareness and ability to collaborate because a lot of what we teach is how you can teach yourself new skills and new technologies. These things change all the time and as a software engineering, the fact is that we really want to find people who are very self-aware, are able to push through when they make mistakes, not be themselves too much over the head about it and also work with other people. You know we build software, you know with people, it is a really hard selection process. I would say that every time I go through it, I select a group of very capable people, but I’m sure there’s another forty eight capable people when they’re at a four hundred and seventy applicants. It’s just that we don’t have space for everybody and so we actually have a large percentage of our student population apply again and there’s no shame in that. And so in any given quarter we have anywhere up to eight, ten, maybe sometimes even twelve people who applied more than once, twice, three times before they get in. And you know they’ve  kept going in terms of their learning and their growth, and so since we have these application windows open twice a year and more frequently now than we did when we originally open, it’s not too long a time to wait to jump onto the next cycle.

Chris: Right and you mentioned you get applications from across the country. What’s your typical mix between local Seattlites and folks from elsewhere?

Cynthia: We typically have about a third of our cohort, up to a third of our cohort come from out of Seattle. They’re basically rooted to take the program. Most of them stay in Seattle actually, at least after they graduated maybe a year or two, but some of them do go elsewhere after they graduate.

Chris: That’s amazing, so folks are literally picking up their lives and coming in saying get me on in the  training, let’s see where it takes us.

Cynthia: And speaks to their grit right in terms of how much they want this career change, and that’s really what we look for, we ask a lot of our questions is you know, how much are you willing to put into really make this career transition because it’s a hard one. It’s a really intense one, yeah.

Chris: What are typically the beliefs or stereotypes about software engineering that have kept women out of this field traditionally?

Cynthia: I think it has a reputation for being very homogeneous essentially. Whenever people think about software engineers, they think about very typical aggressive type A white male engineers who are all about doing the work, being loud and aggressive, thinking that the only way to have fun is their way of having fun and not really thinking about other people. And not that there’s a lot of bad intention behind that but I think when you propagate building a team of the same type of people, you basically build a culture and a way of doing things, even a way of socializing that is really optimized for that set of people. And so I think that does make other under-represented people, not just women but under-represented minorities overall feel really left out, feel like they’re their skills and what they bring to the table isn’t really being heard or valued. And so I definitely experience that. I feel like I’ve had to you know, there have been a lot of my male peers who are a lot louder, a lot more aggressive, who ask for jobs and will get them over me just because I don’t push harder. You know, I tend to not be as aggressive or self-promoting as other people, so I think it’s definitely one of those things where it’s not only the entry but the retention and the promotion of under-represented people that is a problem.

Chris: Now I know you guys place your students into internships and into jobs particular with a lot of local companies. What are the changes that you’ve seen at local companies there that are enabling these opportunities now come about for women.

Cynthia:  I think that the tech industry in general has come a long way especially over the past couple of years, and recognizing that things really do need to change, I think there’s a lot more awareness now that people need to get things differently. In Seattle specifically, a lot of our sponsor companies do support Ada because they understand that you need to start looking at how you hire differently, you need to start looking at towered very differently. And so if you just rely on our pipeline of university students, you’re not going to really make that much of the dept, because in as much as some of the universities like Harvey Mudd for example are making huge progress in terms of the diversity, there is not enough graduates every year and there’s not enough progression every year. So I think people are realizing you have to hire different talent and the fact that you know our adult population, fifty percent of them are women like that something that you can barely find Palin over there right now. And I think that’s really what it is trying to prove is that there’s a full pool of talent over there right now, and investing in your, and developing that talent and getting it ready is really not a long time to wait to diversify. So I really heartened by that, I think the hardest transition actually for a lot of companies to make is OK well we can open the pipeline and we’re willing to consider this, how do we then turn our own culture so that those people will stay and those people feel like they can grow and those people feel like they can have a great career here. And in as much as a lot of people have very good intentions, I think it’s hard to translate that intention to breaking specific habits that have happened like in terms of how you do performance reviews or in terms of how you do promotions, in terms of how you pick people for leadership positions for example. Those are really hard things to change over time, but I’m hopeful that a lot of the tech companies we have in Seattle are talking about it as it’s a star, they are temporary aware of it and a couple of them actually have demonstrated that they’re making good progress there.

Chris: That’s awesome. I want you to touch on entrepreneurship a bit. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to you by one of your Ada graduates, Yordanos – she’s a bit of a special case because she decided not to immediately take a corporate job and to try to build her own business. What impact do you see Ada having on female entrepreneurs in the future?

Cynthia: I believe that a lot of our Ada graduates have so many skills outside of software development and I think if any entrepreneur will probably say that building a software is probably the easy part from being an entrepreneur or being an entrepreneur is really a lot about your vision, how you develop the idea, how you iterate on it, how you sell it, how you pitch it; what’s its vision, how you make money  of it, all these things which I think from an Ada graduate’s perspective because they have so much life experience doing other things. That level of experience is actually already there and they are a lot more quick to adapt and really use a lot of these their skill sets in addition to be technically proficient enough to build whatever section they want. So I think it’s a great combination. I think it’s really inspiring. I think that it just goes to show that you really don’t have to be you know invested in this four year college degree to be an entrepreneur. A couple of my graduates don’t even have a college degree to be honest and they’re very successful just simply because they have the life experience and the grit to do these things. And I also think they bring a very more diverse perspective into what makes a successful product because they really come from very different background than most people. That I guess suffer today is built for people with non-traditional backgrounds as well, so I think they might easily adapt to that, bringing that perspective to table.

Chris: Yes, I agree with you completely. You’ve mentioned twice the term ‘grit’. And it’s one of my favourite terms as an entrepreneur and as an athlete. Can you speak to what exactly that is and how important that is for students coming out of Ada.

Cynthia:  Yeah I think ‘grit’ is this notion that if you ever encounter any difficult situation where you’re actually not successful or don’t feel very ready, don’t feel successful or are not doing something right, that you have the determination to pick yourself up and keep at it. Programming and of itself nobody gets right the first time. I don’t know the developer who gets or could read the first time maybe the tenth time. They try and so really just getting used to that it takes grit, but above and beyond that, making sure that that doesn’t get to too much in the end and you know bring yourself confidence down. I think that impossible syndrome is very common among all of us, I mean I still hear it today and you have to find tactics to pick yourself up from that and deal with it. And you surround yourself with people that help pick it up or you find your own method of picking yourself up from those moments they will happen over and over again. And I’m not saying you have to get rid of those moments, it’s impossible but you have to find your toolbox of how to deal with those moments, get yourself to keep going to spike those moments, and get yourself to not question yourself too much along the way.

Chris: I hear you there. How is Ada supporting graduates after they move on to their jobs.

Cynthia: We have let’s see, our core oldest graduates are now about three years in and you know we have everybody from that to some people who just graduated a few months ago. And so we’re always here to help people find a transition to their next job. Not all my graduates need that help for sure, but you know when they come asking for white jobs or references you know, we either put them into the job cycle that we’re already handling for graduates or we exercise our  network and connections to find them new roles. I’d like to do more in the future outside of job transition and placement.  I’d like to expand Ada to help people not only find their next transition but have continued educational opportunities that help develop them and maybe some sort of more structured mentoring or leadership training. I notice that there’s a lot of work in the industry in general going into pipeline. There is some amount of work going into developing entrepreneurship. There’s some amount of, you know there are organizations that focus on once you become a more senior manager but there’s very little in between. So when the people there who are jumping to the in the industryfor their first couple of years, I think would you know, I would love to put a lot more in place there to continue their sense of community and growth.

Chris:  It makes a lot of sense and folks who are listening, that might be in there. You can stick your hand up and help. I’m sure there is always need for mentors.

Cynthia: Yeah there’s always a need for mentors, volunteers and a whole lot of activities. We do it Ada to help prepare our students and a lot of these mentorships do last over, way past graduation.

Chris: Wonderful, I want to move into what I like to call the real low down segment of the show and here we’re trying to get but need to service a little bit, try understanding you a bit more of some of the challenges that you’re facing. You’re not just changing the face of tech, you’re trying changing lives at Ada. Are you able to share with us a student’s story that was particularly poignant to you?  You don’t have to share names or anything just interested in and how you have an impact on you know a particular person’s life.

Cynthia: Yes there are quite a few. I will pick one in particular and maybe I can pick two if I can slip at two. I interviewed a student who basically came from [Unclear 22:37]. And so I interviewed her over Skype and I had no idea actually what her background and history was. She basically started at Ada and in her first week when I met her one on one, really thank me for creating, and my staff for creating such a supportive environment. She said you know, I was really scared to death when I interviewed because I didn’t think I would get in and I have been homeless for a while. I have lived below the poverty line and all I could do for a large part of my life was to just think about what I needed to do to put food on the table. And so just this is a huge opportunity for me. This is a huge thing, to be in an environment where other[Unclear 23:16] twenty three other people who are so nurturing and caring and the staff is a huge night and day difference for me because the lifewhich I live before was just so day to day how to put food on the table, what am I going to do to earn that money to get there and I was just really surprised. First of all, I could not even tell any of that when I was talking to her, interviewing her. I thought she said I thought I screwed up the interview and I said No, you did great. I thought you didn’t; she didn’t even tell me any of this which is fine but just I could just tell by the way she answered my question, she had a lot of that determination to succeed and turn her life around. So she’s graduated and she is no longer in Seattle but is a wonderfully strong. It’s been hard for years. It’s  been a hard transition but just as she is a software engineer somewhere else in the country as a really great software company and I’m just really happy for her. But its stories like this, I have a student who’s about to graduate, actually who is Dhaka dream child and I actually did not even realize that when she started but again was never able to avail a college degree because it was always too expensive.  Never had health care coverage and she’s brilliant and you know she went through Ada at a time where we had the elections which is terrifying, actually do have more than one adopted child is part of the Ada community and it was just terrifying to have to go through that. And you know we worked with her to help her realizing oh here are some of her options and it turns out they’re actually very few options. But you know I’m happy to say that two companies loves her, would love to give her a job and I think she’s just well on her way, as she puts it, she’s on her way to having health coverage for the first time. You know and having all these things that many of us in this country often take for granted. But it’s things like this where I actually realize like this is really the main impact that you’re making. And not only is to impact the diversity of the industry, but really changing and this a great equity work accessibility to this career that you’re giving so many people who are underprivileged. There’s just no way these people would have found themselves to even a college degree path. These pathways that Ada creates are really the thing that really inspires my staff and myself.

Chris: It’s absolutely captivating stories. Finally what does the future look like for Ada and for you in particular?

Cynthia: For Ada, I would definitely you know, we just expanded over the last year to serving ninety six to [Unclear 26:24] and I’d love to see us continue doing that well and really proving this model through to where we can actually place all our students. We always strive for one hundred percent. You know we have a fairly high placement rate but none of us are really satisfied till all our graduates get something and we consistently help our graduates even after they graduate there’s always a handful that don’t actually find something until a month or two or a few months out. And we keep going with that. I would love to as I said build out a program for our alumni but not only our alumni but anybody underrepresented in Seattle. There’s quite a few other underrepresented minorities that enter tech another way not through Ada and I would love to provide a community for that and I would love to provide continued education learning opportunities for that. I think it is very strong in two things, one is community and one is teaching side like to carry that out to who helping retention. I  think our engineers stay in the industry. And as, I mean I think that I never could have told you a couple of years ago that this is what I would be doing. Honestly I thought I would still be building products as a technical program manager but I really love this. I really love me, I’m making a bigger difference now than I was when I was building Windows. I would rather impact one hundred people’s lives very deeply every year than you know the millions of people around the world that I you know, I built a piece of user interface for. And just to me, that has more meaning, really addressing a societal disadvantage here and you’re really addressing equity and for me that is I will use you know every better credibility that I have got in the industry over time in order to g ain more equity for people.

Chris: Wonderful, Cynthia, this is an absolutely fascinating, please tell listeners how they can find out more about you in Ada Developers Academy.

Cynthia: You can harp on our website ‘adadevelopersacademy.org. Ada also on, @AdaAcademy. I am  on Twitter @cynthiatada. And we are also on Facebook and Linked In and so we have a great following, you can also follow a lot of our students there are very active on social media and on Twitter to find out more about the program. All our students and alumni are always happy to talk to people about that, but that’s the best way to keep in touch with us.

Chris:  Wonderful.  I’ll have links to Ada in the show notes. If you liked the show, please download all the episodes and leave us a 5 star rating on iTunes! You can find show notes at techlowdownshow.com and follow me on Twitter at cjones2002.

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