As graduation approaches for many U-M students, some are facing the short-term reality of embarking upon their long-awaited careers. For female computer science majors in the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science program at U-M, entering a field where women have historically been underrepresented may seem a little daunting.

GirlsEncoded and the Business Engagement Center brought together leading women in computer science positions at Duo Security, Google, IBM, Stryker and Toyota Research Institute to motivate and inspire current students about their upcoming careers. The five women serving on the panel shared their journey in the computer science field, and they represented a wide variety of industries and backgrounds. The common thread between them was acknowledging the great opportunity ahead for the 25 students – both male and female – gathered to learn more about roles for women in computing. The event was sponsored by financial support from Duo Security and Stryker.

Rada Mihalcea, Professor of Computer Science and organizer of the event, thanked the participants, sharing, “You made very good points about many issues that are central to being a woman in computing. The audience was very engaged – to the point that several students were still there well past the end of the event. You inspired our students, and we are grateful for that!”

Kate Tsui came to computing via robotics, thanks to the guidance of her dad. “When I was 10, my dad showed me how to build a circuit board. Then he told me to make twenty of them.” Her research has been focused on how robotics can help kids with disabilities. Now she undertakes user studies and data mining to find patterns and results for how pedestrians can trust autonomous vehicles at Toyota Research Institute. Kate shared, “I enjoy participating on these panels because I get to be an existence proof for those just beginning in computing careers. When I was an undergraduate, it was intimidating to be only one of a few women, and I had more support when I was a grad student. I want to be supportive for others, which is why I participate in so many outreach events. Also, it is also beneficial to hear what the other panelists had to say; their advice and my own too helps me continue in my computing career.” Jamie Tomasello, Manager for Trust and Compliance at Duo Security, was programming in Basic on a Tandy 64 when she was 5. She was frustrated as a child with the limitations, knowing since then that she wanted to do things that had an impact. That message resonated again in college when, as a voice major, she realized she wanted to have some greater impact – so she started building computers. “I want to be a resource for the women in the room who wanted to hit the ground running in their careers. Exposing the students to a diverse set of experiences helps them see the many viable paths to success. I am looking forward to seeing these women in computing excel throughout their career both at University of Michigan and beyond.”

Janet Thelen, Senior Staff Engineer at Stryker, began programming in high school and hasn’t stopped since, “because controls are so much fun. You always have the answers.” She worked in automotive early in her career before returning for her Master’s in Computer Science with the goal of being able to develop products that help people and solve problems. Janet discusses the varied career paths in computer science that the students face: “Starting as an engineer I remember working with a few other women in my early twenties, but the numbers started to dwindle down from there as the years went on.  12 years later, it feels like there is no one left on the technical side.  Even more, I don’t know a single CE/CS/EE female among technical leads with 20+ years of experience.  It could be for a variety of reasons; but, at some point, it becomes a choice.  I hope more of these talented programmers who already got started on the right track, with the right degree, choose to apply their passion for coding as developers, and make their individual contributions to the field of Computer Science or Computer Engineering.”

Annie Sullivan, Manager of the Performance Testing and Tooling team for Chrome at Google, became increasingly excited about computer science in an intro level class at U-M. She began her career in ai at a video game studio bringing characters to life before transitioning to Google, where she has been for the last 12 years. “The impact we can have there is incredible,” she comments.

Anne Fisher, Senior Director of Advanced Analytics at Truven Health Analytics, an IBM company, pointed out the themes all of them mentioned: problem solving, making a difference, and having fun. “If you find these things, you’ve found the right job. Just by being here, you are way ahead of a lot of women by getting a degree in computer science. It’s a great start to know that’s what you want. I’m just excited to see more women having the opportunity to enter STEM fields. I feel that my years of working in a technology field have given me insights that could be beneficial for women in STEM (or in any other traditionally male-dominated area),” Anne commented.

The panelists discussed the pitfalls of being a woman in a male-dominated industry, advising the students to be aware to subtle issues, watch and learn, role play conversations, gather data on your accomplishments, and build skills to move ahead. “If you’re not building skills and growing, you’re probably doing the wrong thing,” said Janet. When asked how to come across as assertive instead of pushy, all of the panelists shared the sentiment, “The more we all seem to be pushy, the more ‘pushy’ will be recognized as normal. As women, we need to take our place.”

Interviewing can be full of challenges, but the industry experts reminded the students that the interview goes both ways – and not to settle for a job or company that isn’t right for them.  Janet shared, “I chose Stryker because they are a very high integrity company and I love the mission of helping people. They represented that in how they interviewed me, and I knew it was the right fit.” Kate chose Toyota Research Institute because it is a newly formed company and she got the opportunity for input on how her job was created and what her projects would be. Still, the panelists advocated for taking risks. She shared, “If you know you’re going to gain something, it may not be the best job for you, but it can be work the growth experience. Keep in mind, that first job sets the tone. If you want technical, get a technical job. Most importantly, find a role that grows your current skills.”

Anne reminded the group, many of whom are graduating this semester, that “your network in college is one that you should rely on as you all get started in your careers. Stay connected and grow your network – they will always be one of your best resources.”

Laura Wendlandt, Ph.D. Student in Computer Science & Engineering shared, “It was inspiring to hear from successful women in computer science about the paths their careers have taken, as well as the lessons they’ve learned along the way. I am encouraged to know that this is a field where women can thrive!”