From “algorithm enchantress” Ada Lovace to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, there are many stories of women in the tech industry whose talent, skill and brilliance have done incredible things for technology.
However it's well-established that there are not enough women working in technology today. Especially when you consider that in 1984, 37 percent of computer science graduates were women compared to only 18 percent today.
We sat down with Kellie Thompson, the new chair of Neumont University's Bachelor of Science in Computer Science degree to talk about women in tech, her 15 years of experience in the industry, the value of failing, and her love of animals.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and content.)
NU: Thanks for taking the time to meet. Let’s talk a little bit about your path to Neumont, and computer science in general.
KT: Yes, I love technology. Originally I wanted to work in tech as a veterinarian. I followed my Mom and moved to Northern California. As I worked in the veterinarian field as a technician, I decided that I really loved animals but I didn’t want to be a vet. My mom was a computer programmer, she did RPG and she told me, "Don’t go into programming."
So I did, (laughs) and I’m glad I did. I love the problem solving, the constant learning and got my degree in Computer Science from Cal State Hayward. I failed one of my first tests in school and wondered if I should continue. But it was okay, as I’ve gotten older I better understand that failure is learning.
There are a lot of opportunities for women in tech and a lot of us are trying to figure out the puzzle as to why they are not [more women taking advantage of the opportunities]. For example, I’m not a morning person, but the world seems to be more geared to morning people. And the same thing is happening in the workforce – it is so geared towards men. So I had to look at the puzzle, and I’m still trying to figure it out, but how could I make it work for not just me but other women.
NU: Are there certain things that need to be done to make women feel more comfortable?
KT: You look at the numbers, and 90-plus percent of tech is men, that includes the leadership. But there are so many of the traits and characteristics we could all benefit from having more influence of women in this workforce and these leadership positions. One thing we could all do better is to reinforce positive behavior and look at the contribution of the individual instead of a person’s gender. I say I learned about the kind of boss I wanted to be a lot by working for people and learning what not to do.
NU: Not to go negative in the interview, but are you willing to share a few examples?
KT: I’ve seen lot in this industry, from the Dotcom bubble to experiencing sexism first-hand in the workforce. When I started in what I thought was my first ‘tech’ job, I had moved to the east coast, and it turned out to be more of a job as a secretary. That wasn’t for me. They had some very old ideas about the roles women should play in leadership and technology. I was told I was not qualified for positions and the main reason was that I am a woman.
NU: That seems crazy to think about people saying and believing. How did you handle the hostility?
KT: Looking back, I didn’t think about it or how it was playing out. Where I worked, for most of my life, I was one of, if not the only woman – but like I said, I didn’t think about it as much as I just worked hard, learned, created, and kept my eye on the prize.
NU: So along the lines of being one of the only women in tech at your job, I’ve been reading a lot about the pipeline to these jobs – that there just aren’t as many women to choose from by the time it gets to the workforce. The non-profit Girls Who Code reported that about 74 percent of young girls express interest in STEM fields and computer science, but by the time they are deciding what to study, there’s already been a drastic drop off in that pool. Is there something we should be doing different, earlier in their development?
KT: It makes me think about the larger issue of gender, and then something so simple as their toys. I mean, I love Barbie, sure, Barbie’s great—but how much problem solving is Barbie doing? You give a boy a truck, blocks – what does he do? He builds and creates and problem solves. He probably makes mistakes and figures it out. Our girls need to see it’s okay to make mistakes. In fact, the problem-solving piece of Neumont’s curriculum is one of the things that influenced my decision to come here to teach.
NU: Can you elaborate a little bit more about that?
KT: I like Neumont’s curriculum: the problem solving, the opportunities to create, and the hands-on approach. I like that instructors have flexibility within the curriculum to use their experience and passion to help these bright minds – many who are smarter than me – make valuable contributions to society.
NU: Wow. That's a great point! Thanks so much for you time today. It's been great meeting you.