Best of Systers

2015 Systers Confidence Challenge

by Zaza Soriano

A little more than a year ago, my supervisor asked if I was always this confident. I must admit, I was pleasantly surprised by the question. Deep down I had never thought of myself as a confident person, but the more I considered it—maybe I am… I frequently ask myself, why did person X not speak up? Or if someone points out a risk I took, I don’t think of it as a big deal… in fact I find it odd that they considered it a risk. Suddenly, I realized the confidence my supervisor saw in me that day, wasn’t there a few years ago, and I certainly wasn’t born with it. I used to be extremely shy. I wouldn’t speak up in meetings (or class), was a bit of a hermit, and I even wore unflattering and unappealing clothes to avoid attention. I was definitely not a risk taker.

In this post I am going to give you a glimpse into my life. I will talk to you about building your confidence, taking chances, and paying it forward. Finally, throughout the post, you will see some challenges to help you on your road to greater confidence (what I like to call the “2015 Systers Confidence Challenge”). In an ongoing effort to improve my own confidence, I will be taking the challenges with you!

My Path to Confidence

To understand how I am today, we need to go way back to my childhood. Growing up I was assaulted by three different people and neglected by my mother. For me, being a survivor of childhood abuse was the largest obstacle in the way to becoming a confident person. Friends, counseling, and some deep introspection helped me heal from this and really become comfortable with myself. This “obstacle” will be different for everyone, but the key thing is to identify what it is and start taking steps to tackle it.



Additionally in my senior year of undergrad, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and began treatment. Not only was I finally able to actually pay attention in class (totally weird feeling by the way) and study (oddly time consuming), but I also felt more at ease when talking to people. I was able to focus more on the conversation because I was no longer analyzing everything the other person was doing. Dealing with my assaults and treating my ADD were just the first steps. I still had a ways to go, and this is where the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) played a large role.

I remember my first couple years at GHC. I was an undergrad studying Computer and Electrical Engineering at the University of Central Florida (UCF). The first year I went, I received an email from WEECS (, a group for women in the EECS department, telling me that I was chosen to attend GHC. There was only one caveat… I had to apply to be a Hopper ( This was probably the best thing for me at the time. It forced me to interact with people and helped me not only come out of my shell, but also gave me the ever useful skill of NETWORKING. Really what it comes down to, is being comfortable with who you are, knowing that you might fail and that’s okay, having a support system, and knowing that these things take time.



Expanding My Confidence by Taking Chances

                       The Baltimore GHC led to my current career at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL []), as an embedded software engineer. Now, I could have just handed in my resume and talked to the recruiter at the career booth, but instead, when I saw the recruiter sitting alone at lunch, I took a chance, sat down next to her and struck up a conversation. This lead to her pushing my resume out across the lab and landing me interviews with four different groups! I ended up choosing the cyber security group, but I tend to work on various projects across the lab. I was extremely excited about APL, but the confidence boost didn’t really hit me until I moved to Maryland and started hearing, not infrequently, “Oh! You work at APL?! You must be smart!” Taking chances, even something as small as saying “Hi” to a stranger, can improve your confidence, preparing you for taking even bigger chances.

            Recently I had the opportunity to compete for internal funding for a project related to biomedical engineering (remember I am in a cyber-security group). I was definitely nervous about this; not only am I really interested in biomedical engineering, this would be the first funded project that I designed. Part of this process was a 5 minute pitch to get coworkers to vote; the top voted idea would get funded. I decided to take a chance with the presentation and not do the typical PowerPoint. Instead, I did a walkthrough showing the problem and solution.  Even though the 5 minute walkthrough didn’t receive enough votes to win, the exposure was important; my project was chosen later and fully funded. Now I am getting leadership experience (aka confidence) by managing it. Even if you are specifically told to do something a certain way, but you have an idea to make it better, GO FOR IT! Like Grace Hopper said… “The worst phrase in history is: We’ve always done it that way”.



The picture above is of a table topic at last year’s GHC: “Survivors in STEM: Is there a need for an ABI (Anita Borg Institute) community for survivors of assault in STEM?” Think of it this way… If you were assaulted (sexually/physically/mentally) by a man, would you avoid a male dominated field (like computing)? Would you still avoid a male dominated field if there was a support community specifically geared towards you? A great friend of mine, Charna Parkey (, and I put in an application to make Survivors in STEM an ABI Community last year. It was denied because of the sensitivity of the topic, and because there isn’t enough research to prove that it is needed. The next logical step would be to do the research… so far every road has led to an extremely steep cliff. I’m not stopping though (wait until you see Challenge #01)…


Risks don’t always pay off, so it’s important to not let them knock you down, but instead to learn from them. Turn those feelings of failure and insecurity into motivation for the next challenge put in your path.


We should be taking chances in every aspect of our lives. I recently took on the role of assistant director for the next play in the APL Drama Club (, Fools, by Neil Simon! I honestly have no idea what I’m doing, and that’s okay! The director agreed to teach me, and all I had to do was ask…


Paying it Forward

I remember the first time I truly felt like I was paying it forward. It was my last semester as an undergrad and the WEECS group needed a president (and some TLC). Running the group was a huge undertaking, and I couldn’t have done it without the support of the EECS department and fellow students. With their help, and a lot of hard work, I was able to get the club back on an upward slope towards success. By the time I graduated, my confidence in leadership had grown, and WEECS was ready for the next president to continue the journey. I am so proud of where the club is today and all the lives they are touching! Paying it forward can build your confidence, but that should not be your primary motivation.

Currently I am one of four teachers for a Girls Who Code chapter at APL. There is just something about watching the girls get excited over coding, or solve a hard problem, that is very comforting. I also mentor a Junior FIRST LEGO League team, Space Kids, whose task was to make something with Legos to teach people about Mars. The picture below was originally drawn by the kids; I then scanned into the computer and simplified it to be printed on a shirt. In both places, I have been privileged to see more than one girl come out of her shell and become more confident. Volunteering is just one way we can help build confidence in the younger generation.



My first year at APL, I attended GHC with four amazing coworkers I hadn’t met before. We all wanted to share with the Lab what we got out of the conference and to show how it benefits APL. To do this, four of us decided to do a brown bag (a.k.a. up to an hour long presentation over lunch): “GHC Lightning Talks: 2013 Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing”. Each of us did a quick 5 minute talk on what we felt was important to share with the Lab. Ultimately, we got the right person’s attention in our department, and the following year over 14 coworkers were able to attend.

I asked for the feedback that one of my coworkers collected from those 14 GHC attendees, in hopes to use it here. Little did I know that I would be getting over 15 pages of text! There was so much passion and so many great things that the women got from attending GHC! Below are three of the stories I feel show the most impact.

a)     Overcame her imposter syndrome and applied for (and got) a higher position in the Lab.

b)     Confronted her supervisor about a lingering issue, as well as reached out across the Lab to find different work.

c)     Admitted to her supervisor that she needed to work on her presentation skills, allowing her to take a class on presenting that same week.

All these women took the inspiration and what they learned from GHC and applied it towards their careers; in an extremely confidence building way. Paying it forward doesn’t always yield instant results, but the outcomes might surprise you.




The reason Rose asked me to write this blog post was because I was really excited about being nominated for recognition at the 10th Annual Diversity Recognition Luncheon with the APL Director. The supervisor I mentioned at the beginning of this post, who is now my mentor, informed me that this is a great honor. I don’t know who nominated me, but whoever it is, I want them to know that it means so much to me and THANK YOU!!



Everyone’s path to confidence will be unique in some way;

with one commonality… it’s never ending.

“Think Outside the Box”