07/21/2012 05:15 pm ET Updated Jul 22, 2012

The Gals Who Build Google: A Chat With 3 Programmers

Anneke Jong | The Daily Muse

After valeting my car, I walk through an organic herb garden near a forest of plastic pink flamingos. A chorus of happy birthdays breaks out from a group crowded around a Justin Bieber piñata on the lawn. Nearby, four others play shirts vs. skins sand volleyball. It's easy to see why people like working at the Googleplex.

But while the perks are nice, the work is even more important. With over 10,000 engineers on its payroll, Google is one of the most popular employers for computer scientists. "I love working here!" exclaims Googler Jerrica Jones, a 23-year-old software engineer.

This spring, I wrote a series about how to fix the pipeline problem for women in computer science, and I concluded that we need to break down the stereotype about what a computer scientist looks like. An important first step: Start celebrating the women who've already forged a path in the tech industry.

So I sat down with Jones and two of her colleagues, software engineer Chen Xiao and engineering director Mizuki McGrath, to ask them about what it’s really like to be a female programmer. With a tray full of Google's famous free food, we meet over lunch at the web giant's Mountain View headquarters.

Jones is first to arrive, wearing pink Keds and a hoodie. Notably missing is Jones' sidekick Zoe, a three-legged Chihuahua, whose popularity is evident in the way her owner apologizes for her absence. Jones' sleeves are rolled up, revealing tattoos on both forearms. She gestures gracefully as she talks about growing up as a dancer.

"I used to dance 24/7. I'd never done anything with computers before I got injured and decided to go to college." At the University of Arizona, Jones switched her major five times before seeing a kid hack a computer on a TV show. "I thought, 'That’s cool. I want to learn how to do that,'" Jones admits. Despite having no prior exposure to programming, she rose to the top of her class and graduated with a 4.0 and a major in computer science. "I minored in dance," she adds with a smile.

Xiao's story begins in high school when she started coding simple programs for her TI-83 graphing calculator. "It wasn’t anything fancy; I just wanted to do something useful, like quickly solve a quadratic equation." McGrath’s introduction to computer science also came through math. "Math and figuring things out always appealed to me," McGrath explains. "I had to take computer science as a pre-req in college, and I really liked it."

But was it difficult being one of the only girls?

According to Jones, the key to overcoming the gender imbalance is to find advocates who will support you. "My first day of class, there were three girls and 100 boys—they were all talking about video games, and I felt like I was behind. But I figured I was there to learn, so I read the book before class and sat near the front. I got all my questions answered and had professors who supported me."

"It's a stereotype that you need to love video games," interjects McGrath. "It's hard to understand until you come somewhere like Google and meet dancers and skiers and hard partiers and all different kinds of computer scientists."

McGrath found role models in her female professors, but relied heavily on her friends for support. “My peers were motivated. You figure, ‘If my friends are doing it, I can do it, too.’” Xiao agrees: “The girls who do computer science are really tight.”

When I ask if there's a women’s group at Google, the question is met with some confusion. "You don't really need to join an affinity group because you can just walk two desks down and talk to an awesome woman," Jones explains.

Jones also says she's learned a lot from an environment with other female engineers. "There are a lot of compassionate people in programming. We think about service projects as a company, trying to improve people’s lives," she remarks. "People don’t realize how creative you can be in computer science. You can solve problems in any field you want. If you want to impact millions, this is a great option."

When asked why we need more women in computer science, all three Googlers agree with the prevailing wisdom that women bring a much-needed perspective. "We solve problems differently and have a unique approach to multitasking, juggling, and balancing skills sets," suggests Jones. "I mean, can you imagine what gaming would be like if there were more female engineers?" Xiao agrees, "When working on user-facing applications, I think of things my male teammates might not have thought of."

According to McGrath, women are only part of the answer. "More diversity makes for better products, not just more women."

Industry trends are slowly changing, and more and more women are following the path that Jones, Xiao, and McGrath have forged. Today's female programmers are still in the minority, but they're not letting it hold them back. In fact, Jones kind of likes the challenge of being a trailblazer: "That’s what makes it cool. There’s only a few of us—let’s be awesome."

This article was originally published on The Daily Muse

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