Julia Edwards is a senior computer science major and economics minor at Smith College. Passionate about promoting gender equality in tech, and encouraged by ABI’s Systers community, Julia established Smithies in Computer Science in 2013. The organization is Smith College’s first club devoted to recruiting and retaining women in computer science.
In March 2015, the club organized a hackathon to combat Hollywood’s narrow image of computer hackers, and connect current students with alumnae who are experienced programmers. Julia envisions this as an annual event to draw attention to the gender gap.
What inspired you to start Smithies in Computer Science?
In the summer of 2013, I was an Engineering Practicum intern at Google when the company sponsored its first ever Women Engineers conference. It was an eye-opening experience. Not only was it really cool to meet all of these amazing women at Google (including several VPs) and explore the Googleplex, but the conference introduced me to the idea of program management, which is now my technical passion. That conference made me feel very excited about my future in the tech industry.
I also realized that I was the only Smith student to have such an amazing experience at Google. It’s not that another Smith student couldn’t have gotten the job—my peers were qualified, creative and ambitious, and we are all acutely aware of the gender gap in tech. As CS students at a women’s college you’d think we would lead the way in closing that gap. But we weren’t. I began to brainstorm ways to convince the college to invest in CS, which resulted in Smithies in Computer Science.
The idea came from the Anita Borg Institute’s Systers, who recommended starting a club. The idea resonated with me, so I created a Facebook group and invited about 30 of my classmates to join. I posted: “If there’s enough interest in this club, I will work to have it chartered as an official Smith College student organization.”
I’m proud to say that Smithies in CS is now over 120 members strong, and our members will be interning and starting full-time jobs at some amazing tech companies this summer.
What challenges did you face in establishing the club?
I think the best part is that there haven’t been any major challenges. On the whole, colleges are great about supporting clubs and other student initiatives, and Smith is no exception. I think this is great news for any student who is passionate about encouraging more women to pursue computer science, because it is relatively easy to begin a club like this on any campus.
When did you first realize you wanted to go into technology?
I first realized I would go into tech during my first semester in college. I took “Introduction to Programming,” which still ranks as the best class I’ve ever taken. I would often feel guilty doing my CS assignments because it felt like I was procrastinating on my “real” homework. I knew I had found my passion.
What is your favorite part of it so far?
My favorite part of tech so far is the atmosphere of the tech companies—both the work environment and the people. I interned at Box last summer and absolutely loved it. There was a slide to the first floor, a huge lunchroom where I would sit with all of my teammates and friends, Nerf guns and engineering toys everywhere, and people getting on scooters to go ask someone a question. I’m not the kind of person who produces good work in a cubicle with no windows and fluorescent lighting. This kind of fun and playful environment is inspiring.
If you could meet anyone in the tech industry, who would it be?
Hands down, I’d meet Debbie Sterling, founder of GoldieBlox. Her entrepreneurial spirit and what she is doing for girl engineers is inspiring. I would like to start my own tech company in a few years, and it would be amazing to meet Debbie and learn from her startup success story. I hope to work alongside her and the many other women to get more girls into CS and engineering. I have a sneaking suspicion that, in 15-20 years, the engineers who will be joining the tech industry will say that GoldieBlox was their favorite toy growing up.
Do you have any advice for other women interested in technology?
Follow your passion, whatever it may be. If you are waking up most days feeling uninspired—if you are dragging your feet as you get out of bed—then it is time to try something new.
Don’t be scared of making mistakes. CS is hard, and no one in their right mind would expect you to “get it” all right away. If anyone makes you feel like you are an inferior programmer because you made a mistake or don’t understand something, keep in mind that there are many other people out there (me included) who think you rock for trying. Sometimes people forget what it’s like to learn how to code and become insensitive. Don’t feel discouraged by them—just keep with it!
To my fellow CS evangelists, if you want to do more, make sure your school has a CS club, if not a women in CS club. It can host cool events (maybe even a hackathon, if you’re feeling up for it!) and share internship and job opportunities, tech events near you, and workshops or informal meetups to practice coding/interviewing skills. These kinds of services are invaluable to members, and will strengthen the educational environment at your school (and support women coders!).