Pathways To Tech: Three Women Find Their Way

By Mike Rogoway
The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Meet three women who found their way into the tech industry by disproving stereotypes and taking a leap of faith.

The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

Tech wasn’t their first choice.

They were thinking biology, environmental science, maybe medicine.

To one, tech seemed out of reach — reserved for men who spent their childhood rebuilding computers. To another, years into a doctorate in another field, it felt like it was too late to start over.

They made the leap anyway, three women who found their way into tech by disproving stereotypes and overcoming their own skepticism to discover new careers.

Emily Bookstein
Age: 28

Education: Studied environmental science at Stanford University

Background: Originally from San Francisco, was living in the Bay Area before code school.
What she likes about tech: “To me it feels like cleaning my room. I really like putting things where they belong and a lot of programming is putting things where they belong.”

Advice for those thinking about code schools: “You have to know yourself and whether you have the emotional and organizational capacity to be thrown into a swimming pool.”

Erika Arnold
Age: 31

Education: Lewis & Clark College, University of Illinois at Chicago.

Background: Grew up in the Bay Area. Was earning a doctorate in biology in Chicago when she decided to change course and study technology. She completed her doctorate, then returned to the Bay Area for code school, ultimately moving back to Portland for her first tech job.

Pathway into tech: Teaching herself software development to help with her biology research. “I’d taught myself how to write bad code…Gradually I came interested in writing good code.”

Katherine Wu
Age: 29

Education: Studied biology and psychology at Boston College

Background: Originally from New Jersey, Wu held various jobs at Google before deciding to pursue software engineering full time.

What she learned about writing software: “I wish somebody had told me that engineering is about solving puzzles.”

“I knew if I didn’t jump for it or try for it that it was just going to haunt me in the back of my mind,” said Emily Bookstein, 28, now in her second year as a software engineer in the Portland office of fast-growing tech company New Relic.

Oregon’s high-tech work force, like the tech labor pool in general, is overwhelmingly white and male. That shuts out a huge segment of the state’s population out from some of the most lucrative jobs in Oregon.

Tech companies generally acknowledge the crisis and many — from industry giants like Intel to tiny Portland startups — have committed themselves to remedying it. Progress, though, has been frustratingly slow.

There are many reasons, from entrenched biases to unwelcoming offices. Another factor may be that tech companies say they want workers who have years of training in their fields, and that means that even if the education pipeline begins diversifying right now it might be years before that results in a more balanced work force.

These three women didn’t wait. They joined a 10-week crash course at a San Francisco code school, then all moved to Portland to work in New Relic’s software engineering office. It was a big investment of time and money — $15,000 — more than many people can afford (though New Relic offers partial scholarships to women living in Portland.)

But these three say they’re thriving, and their experiences illustrate one pathway into tech.

“The picture of a software engineer shouldn’t be just a white, male, upper-middle class programmer,” Bookstein said. “There’s a diversity that feels healthy and is growing.”

Before starting at Hackbright in 2014, Bookstein had worked various jobs to support environmental and community causes. Tech appealed to her but felt out of reach — despite her Stanford education.

She recalls telling her boyfriend, “I really want this but I’m afraid I don’t have the mental capability. I’m afraid I’m not smart enough. I’m afraid I’m not smart enough at math.”

Encouraged to make the leap, Bookstein said the intense experience in the code school convinced her software wasn’t about one specific capability — math, for example, but a broader set of critical reasoning and problem-solving traits.

“I still don’t think I’m good at math,” she said. “I just now think it that it doesn’t matter, that my other skills compensate.”

A mythology around tech keeps many people away, according to Katherine Wu.

“I think people are afraid of computers, and technology in general,” she said.

Wu wasn’t afraid. She’s spent years working on the periphery of tech, at Google and elsewhere, gradually drawn closer to the software at the heart of it all. But she didn’t see a path inside.

“My whole career before was: I am running away from things I don’t like,” said Wu, 29.

In her free time, Wu enjoying sewing, knitting and cooking from scratch. It felt a world away from software development — until she began thinking of coding as a process of creation. Then, it fit neatly with her other passions.

“I wish somebody had told me that engineering is about solving puzzles,” Wu said.

Erika Arnold was nearing completion of a three-year Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois at Chicago when she realized her education was leading to an academic career she didn’t want. In fact, the computer programming Arnold had done as part of her research became her favorite thing about her work.

“I’d taught myself how to write bad code,” she said. “Gradually I came interested in writing good code.”

So a week after earning her degree, Arnold flew west to start the code school in San Francisco, investing $15,000 in the 10-week course and then moving to Portland to join New Relic. It’s a left turn she never envisioned, but Arnold, now 31, said it’s work she really likes, with an opportunity for growth.

“I would have really surprised myself,” she said, “hearing from my future self that I’d be doing this.”

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