Representation Matters

August 24th 2022

A reflection on why representation matters to me as a woman in software engineering.

I am a software developer by trade after going through a coding bootcamp. I remember my cohort having this collective sigh of relief to have survived and graduated from an intense 3-month program. As we nervously faced the pressure of job searching together afterwards, we expressed disbelief and thankfulness to even be at this point – contending for high-paying tech jobs with skills that we only just barely acquired. Any job offer would be magical; the thought that we should negotiate like we were taught was beyond us. Any one of us would have been ecstatic to land a job – any job – with a company – any company.

Since I was starting from the bottom, I didn’t think anything of it when I started to experience discrimination, no matter how slight. I remember interviewing with a bunch of companies, anxiously going through algorithm, database or system design questions. I blundered through them, taking shots in the dark and not grasping if my answers were sufficient enough but hoping that they somehow were. I remember one interview in which I was asked if I had seen that question before (no I hadn’t) and being told I “must be a genius” if I answered so quickly. But I didn’t land the job. I figured it was because I was pregnant and really showing at that point. So I decided to tell companies upfront on the initial phone screens about my pregnancy – I didn’t want them to waste their time with all of the interview rounds only for them to reject me at the end. As expected, those phone screens didn’t fly.

After a while, I got tired of telling recruiters that I was pregnant since it basically was an effective way of screening myself immediately. So I opted to try my best to make it to any final onsite interview and let them decide for themselves. (Only a couple of years later did I realize that CA has this law: “It is illegal for employers to fire, refuse to hire, bar, harass, discharge, or otherwise discriminate against someone because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a related condition.”) Finally, I landed my first software developer job and I was over the moon! I remember discussing the offer details and telling them that I was 8 months pregnant and therefore wanted to know what the maternity leave benefits were. To my surprise, they were surprised. They weren't sure if I was pregnant – they thought maybe I just looked that way since it was their first time meeting me.

I remember being the only female engineer and the only junior software developer. I remember the awkwardness of being a new mom who, every couple of hours, walked across the room of mostly single guys, disappearing into the mother’s room and emerging with bottles. I remember the pervasive sentiment that I’ll never be like the others and that was just my place. I’ll never be a senior software developer or tech lead like them. I’ll never have a Computer Science degree like they had. I didn’t look like them, act like them, know as much as they did and couldn’t work the long hours that they could. I was different and different meant that I wasn’t good enough.

Imposter syndrome had set in – it set in deep. I didn’t know what I didn’t know and I didn’t want to overstep. I didn’t see the glass ceiling that I started to place on myself, but I definitely felt it. It got thicker and thicker with each micro-interaction. I tried to keep my head down and not ask questions anymore. I felt like things could be done differently, that the code could be written differently, but I wasn’t sure about my own judgment anymore – or rather, I wasn’t sure about my own judgment to begin with. I remember crying in front of one of my leads because someone was being a jerk and had talked down to me. I immediately regretted it because I saw how he treated me ever afterwards – as someone who was unstable and too emotional. It sucked to not be understood or worse: to be misunderstood. I realized that I shouldn't talk about my feelings at work. After all, men didn’t cry when their frustrations boiled over, so I shouldn’t either.

I remember that my coworkers would randomly take numerous days or a week off on short notice, even if they didn’t finish their projects. I remember finishing my project and after asking for a couple of days off, receiving “the talk” about how I shouldn’t ask for so much time off even though I took only a handful of PTO after working at a company for a year. I thought this happened because they were different. They were seniors, I was their junior. They deserved more time off, I didn’t. They were more knowledgeable, more highly paid and more important. They were different and that meant that they were better and deserved more.

And that’s just how it was. I was still so thankful – I mean, to still keep a high-paying job in the Bay Area after only going through a 3-month coding bootcamp was a dream come true! I remember meeting awesome people. I met tech leads who took me under their wings and showed me the ropes. Kind colleagues who asked about my difficult experiences and called it out as gender discrimination. I remember looking up to these men and appreciating them, but still thinking that at the end of the day, we were different. I was still a woman working alongside men. To me, it was subtle but pervasive – the idea that I just wasn’t like them. I not only mentally but also physically looked up to them and even though others didn’t necessarily make me feel this way, I developed this subconscious understanding that they were always going to be taller… higher… better. No matter how compassionate the people in my life were, I just wasn’t like them, and that was ok.

Enter NerdWallet.

I remember how the interview panel included a woman who came across as smart and fun. That was cool because that was new to me – I was only interviewed by men before. During my first week, I was so pleasantly surprised to have joined a team almost exclusively made up of women. The product manager, designer, data engineer, content, QA and most developers were female. In fact, our tech lead was a leader in a women-in-engineering social group, which – well – existed. I was so blown away by it all; this new environment which was not only uplifting but had females who I could connect with on a different level, who looked more like me and who had more similar interests. We talked about topics that affected women in the workplace, such as balancing career and family, making sure to assert our achievements when review cycles rolled around, wearing makeup to look older and to be more heard, and taking a step back from being glue when our professional development was on the line. I had a blast hanging out and working with all of these incredible women. Our team ran like a well-oiled machine and we easily and consistently shipped a lot over short periods of time.

For the first time in my developer journey, I thought that maybe I didn’t have to settle for being a junior developer forever. I aspired for more. I started to ask more questions, take on new tech challenges and speak up more. I started to be on the interview panel and be the one to interview others. I signed up for a NerdWallet mentor, who called out and counseled me through my imposter syndrome. I started to deal with my fears and build my confidence with the support and encouragement from those around me.

Then came a golden opportunity. Instead of backfilling a vacant senior software developer position, my manager asked me if I wanted to be a tech lead for a time. I felt so honored to have even been considered. Was I under-qualified, unready and in way over my head? Totally. But I grabbed the opportunity by the horns and worked my *** off. And by the end of that season, the unthinkable happened. I got promoted to Senior Software Engineer!

Although I did see it coming, I was still so flabbergasted. To shatter a glass ceiling of my own making was an emotional mixture of surprise and satisfaction. At the start of my software developer journey, I would have been content to be a junior forever. But here I was, with my recurrent self-doubt still lingering, a newly minted Senior Software Engineer with tech lead experience to boot! I couldn’t get over the fact this title could apply to a mother who went to coding bootcamp. For me, the culture of encouragement and inclusivity at NerdWallet really elevated me to this next level.

Teammates at an annual NerdWallet gathering

NerdWallet has such great representation among minorities that eventually, after a stint of being the only female dev on the team, I found myself on a new team with a handful of new women. I remember this one meeting in which it was all ladies except for one guy. He made some comment about how weird it felt to be the only one and I just had to stop, drop and LOL. How the tables were turned! This time I was the one who didn’t notice the imbalance. This time, I was the one who was focused on business as usual until he made that comment. It’s hard to understand how deeply representation matters until we’re in a situation in which it’s missing.

I am so thankful for the leadership here that makes resources plentiful for minorities and especially for women: a career accelerator program with Landit, engineering mentorship, a women-in-engineering employee resource group, company-wide evaluations of roles and pay equality, promotion based on merit, annual bias training and even a company-sponsored trip to Florida for the annual Grace Hopper Celebration! I’m so thankful that my manager saw my potential and gave me an opportunity to rise up to the challenge. I’m so grateful for those who named my insecurities for what they were and taught me how to deal with them, especially when I didn’t even know that I had them at first. I appreciate my leads who affirmed gender equality in the workplace when I expressed misgivings at being the only female dev in a newly formed team. I’m so thankful for the real-life example of what a successful female tech lead looked like. I’m thankful for the plethora of bad*** women leaders who were available to me, many of whom excelled in their roles. I’m so thankful for teammates who are down to read an engineering book to grow in our careers together and who genuinely value my opinions and feedback. These individuals, both men and women, all inspired me and helped me dare to dream for more, to get me to where I am now.

No company is perfect, just like no person is perfect. But one thing’s for sure – being in a supportive community, where people treat each other as humans first before their role, where every person is respected regardless of what type of minority they are or aren’t, where we can literally see diversity and inclusion around us, tangibly inspires someone like me. I hope this environment profoundly uplifts many others too. I’m truly thankful to our Nerds for creating and fostering this culture and I definitely aim to advance this culture as I continue to meet more and more amazing women in tech.