Women of Tech Meets: Melanie, a Senior Programmer
Updated: Apr 19, 2019
A Programmer of more than 20 years, Melanie has some really great insight into the tech industry and what its like to be a woman working in it.
This week I met with Melanie.
Melanie is an experienced Senior Programmer who is based just outside of Boston, USA. Melanie predominantly works on developing the back end (and some front end) of systems using .NET and SQL to build integrations, automations and extensions to ERP and Monitoring systems.
Melanie has been programming for about 20 years and had so much passion when speaking about her career.
As a child growing up, her life was very different to now. Her mother was born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden where she had met and subsequently married an American tourist and later moved to America to be with him. Unfortunately, around a decade later her parents separated and her mother was left to raise her and her elder two siblings on her own, all of mixed race in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1970’s.
Difficult circumstances at that time meant that Melanie’s family were relying on food stamps and thrift stores to get by, and a lack of financial support or input from her father also added to the difficulties they had to manage with often meaning they had to move apartments every couple of years.
Melanie described her school years as a mixed bag; excelling in math and science but struggling with memorization and writing, and described how by the age of 10 it was clear that she had some sort of learning disability, which led to a diagnosis of Dyslexia. (later at the age of 25 Melanie was also diagnosed with ADHD.)
Melanie spoke about how that pattern followed her through high school, receiving honours level work in math and science but barely passing the grades in English and History, which ultimately would affected her ability to be awarded a scholarship for college, let alone having the chance to go to any of her preferred schools.
As her mother had already supported her elder siblings through college, it sadly wasn’t an option for Melanie, stating “we were just too broke”. At the age of 18 Melanie needed to take a job in order to support herself, and commenced working for Polaroid in a call centre.
After a couple of years working in the call centre, Melanie convinced Polaroid to let her transfer to an Administrative Assistant role in the Engineering Division, which was paying about $18,000 a year but she described how it quickly became clear that it was essentially a dead end track, so when in 1992 Polaroid announced that they would start offering tuition reimbursement as a benefit she quickly enrolled in the Harvard University Extension School and began studying two night a week and on Saturday in addition to her employment workload at Polaroid.
Melanie immersed herself into the math and science classes, most of which were being taught by the same professors that taught the day students - “This may have been ‘night school’ but it was still Harvard”.
Melanie felt that just being enrolled on the classes meant she was more noticed at work which in turn led her to being assigned projects with a higher profile or greater complexity, such as managing the budget for the entire Engineering Division, which is what led her to learning to code.
Managing the division budget for Melanie was a laborious task that involved a lot of mind-numbing use of Excel. Describing it as something that “sucked beyond reason”,it came to be the project that was directly responsible for her learning how to code.
Microsoft had updated Excel with a new feature called VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) which Melanie described as a game changing moment. In her own words: “It occurred to me that, if I could get all of those corporate printouts sent to me digitally, I could automate 90% of the job, and eliminate the bulk of the data entry errors. And so I, who’d never had much interest in what went on INSIDE a computer before, just what I could do with it, began to learn to code. Purely out of spite for a spreadsheet that I hated beyond passion. Every morning, I rode the subway to work with my nose buried in a manual, went to bookstores for even more resources to learn how to do it, and I taught myself VBA.
I convinced the VP to back me up, convinced central data services to give me the CSV files I wanted, and… somehow made it happen...without ever dropping my course load. I became the Admin who Automated Stuff, and suddenly became a very in-demand person at the office. I next undertook programming in Filemaker, which lead to my learning to understand database structures, and that opened up a whole other world to me.”
Melanie moved on from Polaroid after 11 years of dedicated service, (spending the latter 5 of her years there automating everything that was thrown at her, and serving on two advisory teams) moving to an Executive Assistant position at a software company named PegaSystems, and proudly her salary doubled overnight. Melanie humbly acknowledged that it was her experience with programming and databases that had won her that role.
After a about a year of being Executive Assistant working for “the single greatest boss I’ve ever had”, Melanie described how he sat her down one day and bluntly told her that she was wasting her talents working as his assistant, and therefore he was promoting her effective immediately to the position of Business Analyst – a role she held for the next 3 years.
“One strange thing happened in the midst of all this personal growth and advancement: the more I learned to program, the more work I did in it, the more in love with it I fell. Just seeing something you wrote come to life, to fix problems for your co-workers who were wasting hour after painful hour pulling their hair out as they pull together data for a report by hand, or trying to understand the implications within that data and getting lost in the weeds, satisfied something in me that I hadn’t realized was there. The more in love with coding I fell, the less interested I was in perusing my studies at college.”
After 4 years, Melanie knew with certainty that she didn’t want to spend her career as a BA, and so dropped out of college and enrolled in a 12-month programming certificate course and started contracting out as a freelance programmer until she landed her first full time programming job, and has never looked back since.
What do you love the most about working in tech?
“its really fun, there is always something to learn and you never know what is going to happen one day to the next. To be able to be in a position where I can help people is rewarding and it gives a good feeling.”
And what about your long-term goals, what are your plans?
“My ambitions are mainly to keep on learning and to continue to improve in myself. Im happy at the level I am working at and the things that I am doing right now. I think its important that we move away from the idea that a successful career means you have end up being a senior manager of something, you can still be successful, and happy doing something you enjoy (and often without the stress that comes with a fancy senior job title.”
What is the biggest deterrent in your opinion to women succeeding in the workplace?
“Learning enough to start a career in tech can suck up all of your time, which of course is precious, and can seem very daunting - I think that women are given this impression that you should be starting as a junior and working your way up as that’s the only way you’ll learn, but that’s not the case. As I learned, you can entirely carve your own path!
Other people I think can also be a deterrent, some men just don’t seem to want women working in what they think is their space and though that’s their problem I do think it puts some women off. I think women should also try and understand that you can have good working relationships with men, some of the male mentors I have had over the years have been incredible. Don’t let the idea of working with men deter you.”
What advice do you wish that somebody had given you at the start of your career?
“Take all of the chances that you can get! We can lose so many opportunities by thinking ‘im not ready for that yet’ – just go for it. There will never really be a time that you feel ready, take the plunge. I have also learnt that you can’t achieve perfection, that’s not to say you can’t give everything your all but there will always be small technical problems to solve. I think it would be wise also not to expect 100% acceptance. There are always going to be some people you may not see eye to eye with or have disagreements with, that’s normal. Don’t waste your energy on being hung up about it, instead try prepare yourself for those moments of discourse and don’t let them knock you.”
What do you love the most about working in tech?
“When everything is going well, it goes really well. I love how supportive the tech community is and the willingness that people have to support each other, its incredible. There isn’t really anything else like it out there.”
Is there anything that you’re less of a fan of about working in tech?
“When something goes bad, it goes really bad” Melanie says, laughing “It would be nice if the tech side and the client side had more of an understanding of each other, I can get frustrated when a client wants something doing but expects it to be done in an instant, where for example they don’t understand that fixing a script so its bug free isn’t going to be done in 10 minutes, it could take me hours and then some depending on what I find. I feel like businesses using this technology should maybe learn more of an understanding of what they’re actually asking us to do and the time we need to do that.”
What do you think companies should be doing to encourage women to want to work for them?
“Providing the right environment is a big one, it needs to be supportive of everyone working there. I think sometimes companies try and create a public image of them being inclusive and supportive of women and ethnic minorities when sometimes they’re actually not. The number of interviews I have had where the interview panel is all male – if you have women working for you, put them on the interview panel even if they’re just a secretary or assistant to have their perspective.
Whenever I’ve gone to an interview, I try and make a point of asking to have a look around the office and meet some of the team, and you can get a pretty good feel for a company by looking at the people currently working there. I could have an incredible interview and really feel wowed by a company based on what they have said to me, to then walk around their office and see they don’t employ a single woman and employ only a few people who aren’t white, and that speaks volumes. They’re not the companies I want to work for.”
What about any tips that you would give to women who are seeking out new opportunities or trying to work on advancing their career?
“For me what worked was switching between contract and perm roles. It gave me a great exposure to different environments and enabled me to learn a wider scope of methods and ways of working. It also helped me to figure out what I did, and didn’t want to be doing. A lot of my contracting roles led to permanent roles being offered, so it was a bit like ‘try before you buy’. Using this method also helped to accelerate my paygrade.
Definitely at the start of my career contracting was the way into a lot of opportunities, the recruitment process is often quicker and there tends to be less scrutiny on aspects like personality and team fit and more based on your technical ability and track record.
It’s a good thing to have good relations with recruiters, some have really great roles that aren’t open to the general market. I would also recommend attending tech meet ups, to immerse yourself in the local tech community. You can find out about exciting roles through their members before they even put it out to post.
Sometimes there are also gaps in your knowledge when you’re self-taught as you can tend to only learn what you need to, I would say do some certified courses where you feel you need to as they can really fill those gaps and more qualifications aren’t a bad thing."
It was an absolute pleasure to speak with Melanie to understand the journey that she has been on, I personally found it very inspiring and I hope you did too.