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Ada Lovelace Day: Celebrating Women in STEM

 
 

The Endava Experience | Raluca Macovei |
13 October 2020

This year, 13 October is Ada Lovelace Day (ALD). Ada Lovelace, officially known as Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was a 19th-century mathematician who became renowned for her work with computer algorithms, proposing that a computer could be put to other uses than simple calculations. Thus, she is considered to be one of the first computer programmers. Honouring Ada Lovelace as a female IT pioneer, ALD “is an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM)”. This year, alongside a podcast with ALD founder Suw Charman-Anderson, we wanted to celebrate by interviewing some of Endava’s female tech leaders about their professional experiences

On the panel, we have:

  • Chris Cooper-Bland, Group Head of Architecture
  • Irina Dominte, Design Lead, Microsoft MVP, Romania
  • Luisa Sepulveda, Head of Development, Bogota
  • Raluca Macovei, Group Head of Development


1. WHAT HAVE BEEN THE BIGGEST CHANGES IN COMPUTER PROGRAMMING OVER YOUR CAREER? HOW HAVE THEY IMPACTED THE WAY WE WORK?

Raluca: Sometimes when you follow something day to day, it’s hard to see major differences as a lot of the time it’s incremental improvements that build on what was there before. The biggest change is that the number of dimensions that those changes occur in has started to grow exponentially, with more and more job types and specialisations in computer science appearing every year, if not every quarter, and all of them have a real impact in our everyday lives.

Just one example: Machine Learning and AI were accelerated by hardware and the amount of data that led to better and more sophisticated algorithms, but they also led to much simpler APIs in Cloud, which makes them easier to use, thus lowering the barrier to entry in the domain.

Also, we are entering an era in which software and digitalisation surface the problems in our society (like ML learning prejudices), and the next step would be to focus even more on user experience and on designing human-friendly software systems.

Chris: When I started in computing, it was the mainframe era. On my training course in COBOL we were taught about punch cards, we wrote our code in pencil on coding sheets and sent them to Data Prep who created a card pack for us. Luckily, I was assigned to a project working on the new ICL mainframe, which allowed direct keyboard entry, but the display was still a green screen terminal. Now we have touch screens and voice to communicate with our computers, but the biggest change is the number and complexity of systems both within organisations and for individuals.

I agree with Raluca about the new roles and specialisations that have emerged due to the increasing levels of sophistication of solutions and the amount of connectivity. The focus has shifted to what you develop, rather than the difficulty of coding, because of the number of frameworks and libraries available. Of course, the internet has made a huge difference to how people gain knowledge about how to develop systems. When I started it was like a dark art in some areas – you went on a training course, had some manuals, and that was it, go forth and code!

Luisa: When I started 15 years ago, I remember a world where women were the minority in tech jobs and were driven away from everything related to the industry. I was almost one of them. I found many complications developing software, such as IDE use, procedural programming, and data centres in the office occupying large spaces. In addition, everyone had to go to the office to have access to those services or databases. Repositories were just starting then, and I remember sharing code by email or on USB devices.

As mentioned by my colleagues, many things have changed over the years. We have new approaches now: OOP and functional programming have changed the way we develop software. Cloud services are reducing physical data centres and are improving the service performance and capacity. There are also improved repository strategies, and topics like ML and AI are improving technology and our lives. Meanwhile, let’s not forget that many women are becoming interested in the field with excellent results.

Irina: Taking up Chris’s “dark art” comment, compared to what we have today, programming paradigms and tools were still somewhat rudimentary 10 years ago. There weren’t so many blogs, tutorials or free resources powered by the community. If you had a specific problem or wanted to learn a new piece of tech, you either went and found a book, or asked a colleague. Nowadays all programming languages have evolved, and with them a lot of tools that contribute significantly to the speed of development. Over the years, the quantity of data that we need to store and process has been growing, and with that there are more and more domains that require near real-time or real-time processing.

Users and organisations need fast responses, thus feedback and performance are paramount. Fortunately, the cloud and modern tools help us deliver quality products faster and easier, abstracting the tasks that developers previously had to do from scratch and allowing them to focus on the business requirements. Although programming has become easier in some ways, I think there is a bit of pressure to keep up with all the innovations. There are many resources to upskill and it is hard to choose, especially when there is so little time.

2. WHAT MISCONCEPTIONS WOULD YOU LIKE TO CLEAR UP AROUND COMPUTER PROGRAMMING?

Chris: I have never understood why more woman don’t go into IT as programmers in the UK. To be a good programmer you don’t need to be good at maths, as it is far more about logical thinking and understanding how things impact on each other. It is also a team activity; you need to collaborate with your team and the users or customers of the systems. The days of “the programmer” as the total introvert who can barely hold a conversation have passed – if it ever actually was a reality outside some very special cases.

Raluca: I agree with Chris. Especially on Ada Lovelace Day, I’d like to remove the misconception that computer programming is a strictly male world. Indeed, when I started my professional career in 2003, and before that in university, the percentage of females was around 10‑20%. Fast forward to 2020, and in Romania the share is now almost 50‑50, but when I travel to other parts of the world, I can see that the gap is still high in other countries.

Luisa: I also agree with Raluca and Chris about the participation of women in IT, especially in computer programming. However, I think soon we are going to have at least 50% of female contribution in the industry in most places around the world. The mindset has changed, and opportunities are opening up.

Another misconception that I want to mention is that people think they only need to learn and work with the best programming languages, but this is misleading as the best language is the one that fits the current purpose or fixes the current problem. There is no best programming language; it depends on what we want to do. And there is no best project; even in a project with the oldest technologies, we have something to learn.

Irina: “You have to be an expert in order to share knowledge.” I think this is one of the most harmful misconceptions around computer programming. No one will ever know everything. Personal and hands-on experience with a specific topic makes you unique and valuable. People want to hear and learn from those who dare to step out of their comfort zone, to help others grow and learn something new.

3. HOW HAVE THE PRODUCTS AND SYSTEMS YOU DEVELOP CHANGED OVER THE YEARS?

Luisa: There have definitely been many important changes over the years, but for me, there are three that explicitly bring benefits for the software creation process but also for the end user. First, user experience (UX) has become the process that provides meaningful and relevant experiences to the user. No product is an island; with UX it is possible to understand that a product is connected and to integrate a set of experiences aligning everything in terms of branding, design, usability, and function.

Another topic is the scalability and reliability that let us build a robust platform to support the number of companies and people using the technology. And last but not least, the data science concept that provides user information is helpful to understand and analyse actual phenomena, providing tools to act according to the circumstances. Thus, my most impactful changes are focusing on the user, availability, and information.

Chris: Picking up Luisa’s user focus, when I started the systems were mainly business systems for use by employees, but now almost all systems have an end-user aspect and the complexities that brings. I worked on some systems which processed very large volumes and needed to be scalable, but traffic was reasonably predictable. Now, with direct consumer access, one mention in the media or by an influencer can cause a flood of hits. Also, the need for security has grown hugely with systems being accessible by anyone, anywhere.

Irina: From my experience, most of the systems today are somewhat compliant to the Reactive Manifesto. The systems need to be reliable, resilient, elastic, message-driven, with near real-time responses, and a touch of UX. There is this chase to have the perfect product for the most demanding user, and this is only a response to the times we are living in. Data is growing, storage is cheap, processing power is somewhere in the middle, and the users want everything fast and easy, and we know they will leave a website and never return if the page doesn’t load in under 3 seconds.

Raluca: I agree with my colleagues’ statements. As the systems became more complex and the number of users increased over the years, a higher focus is given from the start to scalability and reliability. Digital products become differentiators even for industries like finance, and as competition started to grow in the digital space, adding new features fast without disruption became key, so using Agile methodologies and having a DevOps culture is the new norm. UX and being able to pivot fast are also core to the way we develop software.

4. WHAT ENCOURAGED YOU TO GET INTO THE INDUSTRY? HOW DO WE ENCOURAGE MORE WOMEN TO WORK AND GROW IN STEM? WHAT IS THE MOST CHALLENGING BARRIER?

Irina: In my high school, the primary focus was on maths and informatics, and computer science had the immediate feedback that I enjoyed. So, I think it was a natural next step for me to study computer science. I think it is really important be visible and empower other women. Over the years, I had my fair share of situations where I had to prove myself more than my male counterparts and challenge the status quo, but I’ve learned a lot along the way. Everything in tech can also be done by women; it is not like we are moving rocks all day and the physical strength is not comparable. It’s important to have the right mindset to succeed.

Luisa: I have to confess that software engineering was not my first option in life, but thanks to destiny, I luckily studied something systems-related but not system engineering. During my whole education I ran away from programming; however, once I finished university I had to work as a developer, and I loved it. I had a lot of misconceptions about developers like the ones we talked about, such as having to be an expert in maths or physics or not having a life if you work as a developer, and, of course, that this is a profession for men. Nonetheless, today I’m very grateful that destiny led me to work in this industry.

As Chris mentioned before, I think women need to understand that this is not only for men, but that we have a lot of qualities and skills that are beneficial for a team, a client, and the software development process in general. Besides having the technical skills, we bring other things to the table like attention to detail, appropriate decision-making, raising risks in time, and making software with excellent quality. All of this makes us unique and competent, and we should fully release our fears and join this profession.

Raluca: Luckily, in my case entering the software industry was something natural like it was for Irina. In school I had a natural attraction to maths and physics with teachers I am grateful for, so computer science was just the next step to apply those skills in the real world. It also helped that both my parents were engineers and that in my childhood bubble there were many women in STEM.

From my perspective, the most challenging barrier is caused by our conformity bias, local cultural norms, and peer pressure to conform to traditional roles. So, I believe that role models who show that STEM is an option for anybody is one of the most important elements, just like showing that non-STEM domains are an option for men, too.

Chris: I went to an all-girls school and there were mostly women teachers in all subjects including STEM, and because there were no boys, we didn’t have any competition in this area. When I applied to join the civil service, I selected the computing option because it paid more, and it was new and seemed exiting.

The idea that women’s brains are somehow less capable of tasks like programming has been debunked quite a while ago, but the message hasn’t reached everywhere yet. I have been told to my face that women can’t code, which is obviously wrong. So, as Raluca said, it is still about breaking down the barriers.


For more stories on Ada Lovelace Day and women in STEM, listen to our special edition podcast and visit findingada.com.

Raluca Macovei

Group Head of Development

Raluca is passionate about technology and creating environments that foster collaboration, continuous learning and innovation. She has a wide area of interests, from technical topics like Java, DevOps and Artificial Intelligence to psychology and coaching. Loving change, she blended all that in supporting companies in the series of changes generated and required by the fast pace of technological innovation. When she’s not reading about AI or things that make us human, she loves travelling and spending time outdoors, hiking, skiing, doing yoga or learning to surf. In 2020 that translated to enjoying walks in the park with her new golden puppy.

 

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