Exago Women on Pursuing STEM

In Remembrance of Ada Lovelace, History’s First Computer Programmer

Each year, on the second Tuesday of October, people around the world observe Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of women’s achievements in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Journalist and social technologist Suw Charman-Anderson founded the day of recognition eight years ago in response to “online discussions about the lack of women on stage at tech conferences,” and now the holiday inspires debates, presentations, film screenings, and other events devoted to exploring the STEM gender gap. 

Ada Lovelace is credited with being the “first computer programmer” because the notes she appended to her translation of Italian mathematician Luigi Menabrea’s Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage (1842) nearly triples the length of the original document, are more extensive than Babbage’s own notes, and were the first to be published. She was lifelong friends with Babbage, who once called her “an enchanted math fairy” in a letter to physicist Michael Faraday. Her notes paved the way for Alan Turing’s seminal research a century later.

When I learned about Ada Lovelace Day, I found myself curious to know whether those of my female coworkers with technical backgrounds had struggled to find footing in male-dominated fields, whether they’d faced discrimination on account of their sex. I’m female, but I majored in English Language and Literature, so my experiences don’t really apply here. (Fun fact: Ada Lovelace’s mother expressly discouraged her from studying literature for fear that she would take after her philandering poet father, Lord Byron.) I’d come across horror stories of women struggling to be taken seriously in STEM departments and workplaces, but I had no sense of how close to home those stories might be. So I asked.

First I talked to Brittany Walker, currently our company’s sole female software developer. She started working for Exago in February of 2016 as an intern while she was still a student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) studying Computer and Systems Engineering. She’d drive down to Kingston from Albany once a week, fix issues, help tackle technical support tickets, and generally familiarize herself with the application code. In June of 2016, she finished her degree and became a full-time employee, graduating quickly from issue fixes to feature development. Because of Brittany, Exago BI supports Google Maps visualizations and will as of v2017.2 feature a new and enhanced dashboard designer.

Though Brittany loved Legos and puzzles as a child, she didn’t originally picture herself turning those interests into a profession. Like Lady Wentworth with Ada, Brittany’s parents played a major role in steering their daughter towards the sciences. 

“I have a memory of being in Kindergarten,” Brittany recounts. “They had us drawing pictures of what we wanted to be when we grew up. I drew an artist and showed it to my mom, who took one look and said, ‘Oh no, you don't want to be an artist. They don't make any money.’ I didn’t know what else to do, so I drew a teacher instead cause that's what my mom was. She told me I didn’t want to be a teacher either.”

Brittany’s parents nurtured her interest in art while simultaneously setting her sights on an economically prosperous future that would apply her aptitude for problem-solving. “They always bought me whatever art supplies I wanted,” she says. Sure enough, around the time she got accepted to RPI’s School of Engineering, she was putting the finishing touches on a five-by-eight-foot painting of a rock-climbing t-rex she planned to give her climbing gym. So while they supplied her with paint and canvas, they also enrolled her in a Lego Mindstorms robotics camp when she was twelve.

It was this camp, not the eight-week Women in STEM summer camp she would attend years later, that had the greatest impact on her professional aspirations. “Something just clicked with me at that camp,” Brittany reflects. “It was a lot of fun, and it gave me early exposure to thinking about how programming works.”

Lego Mindstorms kits pair plastic building blocks with programmable software and arose from technology developed at the MIT Media Lab. The toy and its educational counterpart, Lego Mindstorms for Schools, is named after Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas (1993), a pedagogical monograph by MIT professor Seymour Papert, who co-invented the Logo programming language. Whether or not she realized it at the time, Brittany’s formative experience at this Lego camp was the product of decades-long research into teaching young minds the fundamentals of computer science.

Despite RPI’s 70-30 male-to-female gender ratio and the even more male-skewed demographics of the CS department, Brittany never had cause to be concerned about her sex. “I honestly never saw, felt, or perceived the gender disparity at RPI,” she says. “I occasionally heard about it from other people, but I never experienced it personally.” The only times she’d even realize she was the only woman in the room were when the topic of conversation would turn to things like facial hair. For Brittany, Ada Lovelace Day is about recognizing the legacy she’s inherited from the men and women who helped make it possible for her to sail through school and into the workplace unencumbered by gender stereotypes.

Exago’s only female Sales Engineer, Emma Williams, progressed through the mathematics program Marist College in a similarly unimpeded fashion. Like Brittany, Emma joined Exago as an intern well before her graduation date. Hired as a member of the Support team, she quickly became the driving force behind Exago’s Support Lab webinar series, which has since supplanted the company’s older training webinars. She transitioned into the Sales Engineer role upon graduation in June of 2017 and now offers technical guidance to prospective clients during product demonstrations and evaluations.

Not only was her graduating class the largest graduating class of math majors in Marist history, it also boasted more graduating female math majors than male math majors overall. “So we were kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum,” says Emma, referring to the gender ratios most would expect in a college math program. “The girls were really running the math department. We ran the math club. The president was female, the vice president I believe was female. It was very female-driven, and I didn't feel any animosity.”

Unlike Brittany’s parents, Emma’s didn’t make a special effort to guide her toward a STEM career. (Emma discovered her love of math through an AP Calculus teacher in high school.) Rather, Emma’s parents focused on enabling her hobbies, even if it called for bending some gender rules. “I wanted to play on boys' soccer teams when I was little cause there wasn't a spring girl's team,” Emma explains. She began playing soccer competitively at the age of four and grew up with books on Mia Hamm on her bookshelf. “My parents said yes. I went to all the practices and was treated no differently, even though I was the only girl on the team.”

So far, Emma’s only STEM-related sexist encounter occurred in a college computer science course she had to take for her major. She was one of maybe five women in a class of about twenty-five students, and the professor was handing back a quiz. “I ended up getting the top score, and he—in front of the entire class—berated the entire set of boys for letting a girl beat them on a quiz, saying they were never going to make it in this field if a girl in college was beating them because this was a male-driven field.”

Emma recognizes that the sexist actions of one professor don’t necessarily reflect the values of the department as a whole, but she can imagine them deterring a female CS student. “I was kind of in shock. I'd never experienced anything like it, so I was very taken aback.” She didn’t speak to the department or in any way call attention to the incident. She just resolved to work harder and get the best grade on the next quiz, too. (She did.)

“We have Ada Lovelace Day to honor the people who didn't (or don’t) have it as easy as Brittany and I did,” says Emma. “I think that's something that we shouldn't forget. I think that's a progression in history that needs to be documented and celebrated each year.”

To all programmers—male and female—interested in working for a small-and-growing tech company on a product that could very well be called an Analytical Engine, Exago is hiring in Development and QA. Drop us a line.

Authored by
Nicole Hitner
Content Strategist
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