I gave the keynote talk at University of Oregon's student-run TechTogether conference, an event organized by the Women in Computer Science (WiCS). The title of the talk was simply, "Yes, You." Here's a summary of the event, written up and photographed by Zach Bruni and Sterling Gonzalezof Lane Community College.
The keynote began with a little exercise. I put some quotes on the screen. One at a time. Folks in the audience kept track of how many resonated with them.
- I breathe air, in and out.
- When I was in high school, I didn’t expect that I would choose a tech major for college.
- I had never programmed a computer before I got to college.
- I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college.
- Neither of my parents work in tech.
- Not very many people in my major look like me.
Everybody scored at least one. Over half the audience scored at least three. (I score a 5).
In that brief exercise, the audience and I learned a lot about each other. First, and most importantly, we are all human beings breathing in and out, trying to get through the day. We also learned other things. Some of us are the first in our family to go to college. Some of us don’t look like a character in a Nerd TV show. Some of us took another path to tech. Sometimes, characteristics like these can make a person feel like they do not belong in their own field.
That’s not okay with me. I want my field to be a place where lots of different kinds of people can experience a sense of belonging. It’s not enough for me to just sit at my desk and type code. I also spend a lot of time trying to rub a little crud off my field, to take action to make it a little bit better.
So, here's my message to all the folks at TechTogether and everyone else when it comes to a sense of belonging in Tech:
Yes, you have a contribution to make.
Yes, you can make good money.
Yes, you get to define for yourself what your success looks like.
Yes, you will make mistakes.
Yes, you can do this.
Yes, you belong.
Together, the audience and I explored that — for many folks in tech — there are some real external obstacles to a sense of belonging. One of those obstacles, one of those things on the outside of our circle, is tech is a field of all look same.
But there are things that we can control. It may not feel like it. Look at the feels that can happen because of all those shitty external obstacles.
I feel isolated.
I don’t feel like I belong.
Feelings are real. But there are also very real things we each can do to change how we feel.
There are a handful of things that predict undergraduate success and degree completion. Grades in high school, for example. But since there are no time machines, there’s not much we can control there. But there is one thing that an undergraduate is totally empowered to do:
Seek creative means to develop career networks and psychosocial support networks for yourself.
That is, meet lots of people. Grow relationships with them. Help them. Get them to help you.