I am a fourth year graduate student in Computer Science and it amazes me that something that began as a fling with CS during my undergrad has now transformed into my passion and my career. For an undergraduate degree in India, people are “assigned” majors based on their rank in an entrance exam. When I was admitted to my undergraduate college in 2005, my assigned major was Electronics Engg. However, at the end of my first year, I performed quite well in the introductory courses and based on my good performance I was given a chance to pursue any major that I wanted. I could choose any major I wanted Mechanical, Electrical, Computer Science, Architecture anything. I had studied Computer Science as a subject during high school. It was the one major that I felt most confident about and with that I decided to change my major to Computer Science.
Even though I was one of the ten girls in a class of 90 students studying Computer Science, I never found that discouraging. In fact, it was something that I took for granted. I used to think that fewer women in technical fields was something that happened only in India (a trend which is now changing for better with more women entering into engineering disciplines) and other “developed” countries had a much more balanced gender ratio in all majors including Computer Science. It is needless to say that I was extremely surprised when I found out about the skewed numbers of women in Computer Science all across the world. It was then that I realized that the reasons behind the lack of women in Computer Science are deep rooted in our incorrect perception of Computer Science and our own abilities as women. It also made clear the need for building a strong support system that can nurture and encourage women interested in Computer Science and help them feel that they belong here.
The support system that has helped me find faith in my abilities is Systers — an online community of women interested in Computer Science. I found about Systers when I was looking for a project to apply for to participate in Google Summer of Code (GSoC), 2009. That summer was going to be my last summer in undergrad and while I had applied to graduate school, I still lacked the self-confidence in being able to able to design, implement and write real world software. Of course, I had worked on a lot of interesting projects but they were only simple, untested prototypes. I wanted to convince myself that I could write usable, useful code and was looking for a summer project that will help me do that. It was Systers’ first time at GSoC too and the timing couldn’t have been better for me.
Systers uses a customized version of Mailman open source code to manage the conversations of the large number of its members. The Systers version also uses “dynamic sub-lists” — a Systers customization to Mailman. My project was to enable Single Sign On feature so that the mailing list users did not have to sign in multiple times for different mailing lists. For that I had to research the different ways one could implement Single Sign On (SSO), find the best solution applicable for Systers and implement it. Even though I could not finish the complete implementation of SSO, the entire process of designing a solution from the ground up and understanding the nuances of building a system that faces real users, gave me the confidence that I needed.
The Systers community also gives me the opportunity to interact with the many other women in Computer Science and continues to be a great resource when I am in need of any advice. Through Systers, I got an opportunity to interact with some really inspiring women in and have built a great network that I can rely on for finding mentorship and guidance.
Being a minority in Computer Science, it is very easy to feel isolated and overwhelmed. The important thing is to stay focussed and not lose faith in your own abilities.
All of us have it in ourselves to make a difference. I encourage each of you to continue to build your abilities, and your confidence to tackle new challenges. Take on new projects, learn new technologies that build on current skills, reflect on past accomplishments, and ask others for support. Make your mark.