These days there are far more women working in engineering and to celebrate International Women in Engineering Day – which is today the 23rd June – we’re going to talk to two women who’ve undertaken a software engineering course at the Holberton School in Melbourne Australia.
For many women initially – a career as a software engineer can seem too challenging but this didn’t deter Gem Pham and Cienna Nguyen. Even though software engineering is an area where there’s traditionally far more men than women, Gem and Cienna chose to take up software engineering as a career path at the Holberton School. In Australia, we are currently experiencing a tech skills shortage so more women are being encouraged to consider software engineering as a career.
Here at Women Love Tech, we asked Gem and Cienna first how they’re going to celebrate International Women in Engineering day tomorrow?
Cienna says: “Good question. I think I’m going to celebrate this day by doing the thing that makes me part of women in engineering – which is to work on my Holberton projects – because I actually really love to code. Later in the day, I’m going to catch up with my classmates and other women in the cohort to hangout and talk about this whole journey because, yes, we’ve been through a lot. It’s good to reflect on our journey and talk about we how we can achieve our goals going forward. So, hopefully by the next International Women in Engineering day, we will have some stories to tell!”
Gem adds: “Well, for me, I think I’m going to try and recommend pursuing a career in tech with Holberton to more of my friends, even classmates from previous programs. I really believe in the program and would love to help more women looking to get into tech.”
Then we asked them why they thought working in software engineering was a good choice for them.
Gem – who is 27 years old – said that before she started studying at Holberton, she studied arts and marketing at Monash University. Cienna is 24 years old and she’d been working full-time as a nurse for over two years. She told us: “I never thought I would switch my career to software engineering, but I had a chance and then I just took the leap – took the opportunity. And here I am doing whole buttons and I love it.”
Helping each other through by supporting each other
Gem and Cienna say they’re a bit like sisters – or best friends. They went to school together and as Gem says: “Well, to me Cienna is my motivation and also my support. She’s the one who has encouraged me every time I’ve felt stuck and not sure if this is the right career path for me.”
Cienna adds: “We do everything together because when you try to do something new, for example, like switching to tech… it’s really hard.”
When we asked why Gem decided to pursue a career as a software engineer, she tells us it was because she didn’t find any “sort of passion or anything interesting” about her previous jobs in marketing and tourism.
“So what is it about software engineering?” Gem asks. “It’s because back when I was starting high school, I was really interested in maths. I found it really fun and I was good at it. I enjoy seeing the logics and the patterns in mathematics and I found something similar in software engineering. So this is the reason why I was – and I am – interested in solving engineering.
Do you have to be good at maths to go into software engineering?
We asked Gem if she feels people have to be good at maths to pursue software engineering and she says: “I don’t think so. Because I’ve talked to so many people in this field and they all say you don’t need to speak with maths, you just need to understand the logic behind it.”
We asked Cienna why she decided to pursue a career as a software engineer?
“The reason I chose nursing is that I love to absorb new knowledge – I want to learn and branch out and have a lot more than just my own knowledge,” answers Cienna. “But then after a few years of being in nursing, I just felt like there was a limit to what you can do with your knowledge. And I just felt stuck because my every day was not what I wanted it to be. I want every day to be different. I want to learn something new.”
“So one of my friends who is also now my mentor, got me thinking that, you know, maybe I could try software engineering. So that’s where I started off with like small free projects online, to see if I liked it – and I love it. I think it’s the ability you have to create. Like you can make anything you want pretty much and you can always do more with it. Like, there’s no limit in your career and this is something that I can see myself doing for many, many more years to come,” she adds.
Gem adds: “Yes, to me, it was scary as if you have to be really smart and be really good at math. But in reality, like anything, it’s just a lot of work. There’s a lot work and a lot of late nights, but there’s also a lot of support from the school and the people around that always want to see you do better and improve yourself. It’s really a positive experience to always encourage each other and help each other out at whatever time.”
“I thought software engineering wasn’t for women but now I see that’s not the case”
Cienna told us that from the outside, at first she thought software engineering was for a different type of person and not for women but now she can see that’s not the case: “After starting Holberton, I realised that it is a mindset. I think having the right mindset to get into software engineering is what you need. It’s just like every other job – you need to take the time to learn, and you will get there.”
“What we have been learning most recently is Python. Python is a pretty common programming language at the moment and it is easier to use compared to other languages that we were learning before. Because we learn everything at Holberton from scratch, everything just makes sense,” Cienna adds.
What is the Holberton way of learning?
“I think to me, the way how Holberton teachers learn is literally simulate the reality because in reality, you’re not going to have a teacher or anyone following you to giving you answers,” says Cienna. “Like, you have to rely on yourself. So how Holberton does this is to pretty much just like give you a project, give you a problem – just how you would at a company. I think this is a really smart way of teaching. It’s not like traditional teaching where you read the books and then you find the answer at the end of the book. It’s all about the skills that you learn throughout all of this.”
Gem agrees saying: “Yes, I agree. Jonathan (Holberton Software Engineer in Residence) always reminds us that we, even though we have to check whether our scripts are correct – when you’re actually working in a company, you won’t get checked like that. So you have to really make sure that your code has no errors on your own system before pushing it.”
We asked Gem and Cienna how they heard about Holberton school?
Cienna says: “I originally applied for REA’s Springboard in Tech program for women, and heard about Holberton through that. I realised that Holberton have other schools all around the world. And I finished part of my application, which led me to complete the admission process, which gave me a great idea of the course design – and after that I decided I would like to pursue software engineering with Holberton. It’s one of the best decisions that I’ve made for my career and my life!”
Gem adds: “Cienna recommended that I apply for Holberton whilst I was studying at Coder Academy. I did the first term there, but I realised that I want to do something a bit more advanced and in depth. Eventually, I listened to Cienna’s rave reviews about Holberton during my studies at Coder Academy. So, when the next cohort came up, I just decided to apply for it. And I was very fortunate to receive a full scholarship from PEXA.”
Are you enjoying your studies at Holberton and why? Even though it’s pretty hard.
Gem says: “Yes, definitely. Because even though it’s super challenging, I find it very enjoyable. I’m in a cohort with people who are pretty much starting on the same level as me. We really support each other and we’re ready to help each other and we are always encouraging each other.”
Cienna adds: “Yes. I’ve really enjoyed studying at Holberton because it has introduced me to the tech world. But then I realised that people in the tech world are different from what you think. There are all types of people and everyone is really supportive. Also, I’ve enjoyed the challenge – I feel like I could tackle anything after finishing Holberton.”
Do you think you’ll be ‘job-ready’ once you’ve finished?
Cienna says: “Definitely. I’ve been offered a job by RACV after four months of study – so they think I’m good enough. They’re pretty much saying that everything you learn at Holberton right now is a smaller scale of how things are going to workout when I start with the company. They’ve looked at the curriculum and said not to stress too much because you’ll be ready for sure. If they are confident, so am I.”
Gem adds: “Yes, I think so. I’ve spoken to some of Holberton’s partners and they said we’ll be eligible to apply for junior positions – not just grad positions. They said this is because the skills we learn from collaboration, whiteboarding and live coding, are the skills required to work in a junior role. I was surprised when I heard this, because studying a bachelor degree takes three years and then they do the grad program. Whereas, we study for 9 months at Holberton and are eligible for a junior position.”
What are you most looking forward to about a career as a software engineer?
Gem says: “The money is a factor to me because my family is not exactly well off. But I guess the main reason would also be, would be that I get to surround myself with intelligent people. I get to learn like new things and get to receive allthis knowledge and wisdom from smart people. So that to me is more important. Another reason is that I love to travel – and I would love I to be able to work anywhere.”
Cienna adds: “I think there’s a lot of things to look forward to. But one of the things is that I’m going to look at my work/life balance because working as a nurse – sometimes you start work at 9:00pm and you have to work all night. I think when I start working in tech, I’ll be able to have a life on the weekend because I’ll be working during the week. This will allow me to look after myself and improve my quality of life. I’m also looking forward to working in a team environment to solve problems.
“I think one of the challenges I find is ‘imposter syndrome’ because you always feel like you’re not good enough and you always compare yourself to more experienced people, despite just starting. I feel like getting past that is a challenge, but it will come with time and experience.”
What would you say to a young woman who is considering her career options and is interested in software engineering?
Gem says: “Just do it. There’s a lot of resources that you can have access online for free. I would totally recommend the Odin project, which Cienna and I did because it really gives you a taste of the skills and knowledge required in tech. I would also reccomend trying the Holberton admissions process – it teaches you how to build a website.”
Cienna adds: “Don’t think that software engineering is something different. It’s just another career that you can pursue if you work at it. There is a view that it is just a male field and that you need to be really good at maths, but it’s not the case. You just need to put your foot in and learn about it – because you might fall in love with it.”
What would you say to someone who is considering taking up something like software engineering?
Gem says: “I strongly recommend it and I’m happy to talk more about what we’re doing – if anyone interested in getting in contact with me via LinkedIn they can here – https://www.linkedin.com/in/chau-bao-nguyen-phan/
Cienna adds: “Just do it. It will be hard, but it’s a great opportunity for you to develop yourself, to be stronger, to learn more about yourself. We’re all happy to be here and be part of this.”
About the Holberton School: Originally, the Holberton School started in Silicon Valley about six years ago and a branch was opened here in Australia this year. The school is dedicated to computer science and it takes a new approach to software engineering, making it possible to become a fully-fledged software engineer in around nine months.
For more information on the Holberton School, visit here.
For more from Women Love Tech about Holberton School, visit here.