In a sea full of software engineers, I stick out like a sore thumb. So much, in fact, that I often need to clarify what I'm doing in a crowd of Silicon Valley's tech elites. The biggest red flag? I'm female.
When I explain that I'm a software engineer, people often respond with surprised expressions or snarky quips about not looking like a "typical" engineer. Most women would find these responses offensive, but these are actually the moments I celebrate most.
Situations like these are the breakthrough moments when stereotypes start to disintegrate. The preconceived notion that software engineers look a certain way, dress a certain way, or act a certain way no longer hold true. For me, witnessing someone reevaluate their opinion about women's role in technology is empowering, and being the catalyst of these moments is even more rewarding.
I've enjoyed challenging gender stereotypes since childhood. Growing up, I had two main passions: art and computers. These two passions came to a standoff in high school when a class schedule conflict made it impossible for me to take courses in both topics. I had to make a choice: Art with my best girl friend or Intro to Programming with a room full of boys that I had nothing in common with. I chose Intro to Programming.
I immediately felt like an outsider in the programming class. I drew even more unwelcome attention to myself when I wore my cheerleading uniform to class. The first time I did this, the teacher laughed unapologetically at the sight of a cheerleader in his class. According to him, cheerleaders don't program.
My self-consciousness quickly faded when the first test of the term came back, and the top score came to me. As he handed back the test scribbled with "100%" on the top, he looked me once over in my cheerleading uniform and gave me a nod of surprise and approval. I said nothing at that moment, but I knew I had silently screamed a disruptive message to him: Cheerleaders CAN program. And they can program damn well.
Ever since high school, I've thrived on breaking the stereotypes of what it means to be a software engineer. I remember getting advice before starting my first job about dressing professionally, so people would take me seriously. The rules were:
1). No high heels.
2). No skirts.
3). Nothing "girly."
Apparently, to be taken seriously meant blending in as best I could. But I didn't want to compromise my self-expression. I love wearing nail polish. And four-inch heels. That doesn't mean I'm sacrificing any part of being an engineer.
I've worked in a male-dominated video game industry where I got to build platinum titles such as Dead Space and The Simpsons Game. I've been a software engineer at tech giants Google and now Facebook, where I get to build products for hundreds of millions of users. Each experience has taught me so much, allowed me to work with some of the smartest people in the world, and has given me the opportunity to succeed as a woman in technology.
I'm proud of my career -- not just because I love what I do, but because it has challenged so many expectations on what women are capable of. And by challenging these stereotypes, women can break them down little by little until they no longer exist.
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