It’s amazing who you meet when you ask, “Who are the most awesome women in tech you know?” I was lucky enough to be introduced to Trisha Gee (thanks Gareth!), a lifelong programmer and currently a developer advocate for JetBrains and leader of the Sevilla Java User Group. Trisha is an avid blogger and conference speaker who uses her deep technical expertise to help others become better developers. If you’d like to hear her speak in person, you can catch her at Craft in March and Agile Manchester in May.
How did you get started in technology?
My parents are teachers and they thought computers were The Future. We weren’t well off enough to have a home computer in the early 80s, but one of my parents would borrow a computer (a BBC Micro) from school for the holidays. My sister and I would obviously play games on it, but my parents also showed us a tiny bit of programming, then showed us the programming books and left us alone.
Eventually they bought a secondhand BBC Micro for us. Much later, we switched to a PC (486SX 33MHz, if I recall correctly). This was loads better for word processing and so on, but you couldn’t just write BASIC from the command line. I didn’t get back into programming until I studied Computer Science “A” Level (in the UK you tend to take 3-4 subjects between 16 and 18, before you go to university, and you get an “A” Level qualification in those subjects). I enjoyed many diverse subjects, including Art, Physical Education, Geography, English, and STEM subjects, so it was a struggle to choose just three subjects to focus on.
In the end, I picked Pure Maths, Physics and Computer Science because with that grounding I could still go into pretty much any other subject I wanted. I wanted to leave my options open. At this time, I also sort of wanted to be an Astrophysicist because I liked Science Fiction. But it turned out that both the Maths and the Physics were just lots of number crunching, which was nowhere near as interesting as actually landing on Mars. So when it came to picking a single subject for university, I opted for Computer Science. I really loved the programming, I got it, and I could see concrete results. Plus, there were plenty of job options.
How did that lead you to what you do now?
Although that was nearly 20 years ago, I guess my choice of university degree set me on this current path. We were the first year to learn this new programming language, Java. I was also fortunate (thanks to my dad, a Careers teacher, who set me on the right path) in that I chose to do a year in industry while I was at university. I worked for Ford Motor Company for 15 months where I saw them actually using programming, and Java specifically, in the real world. It was a big deal for me to see how my studies applied to jobs. Sadly, it seemed that other than programming (which I loved) it was the boring subjects like “Software Engineering” and “Database Design” that turned out to be the most useful, whereas Computer Vision and Graphics were not utilised at all in an enterprise environment!
After I graduated, I wanted to be a programmer, so I meandered through various jobs in various different types of companies (just take a look at my LinkedIn profile), almost always sticking to Java, often combined with web technologies. I worked for nonprofits, startups, massive companies (I went back to Ford for a couple of years), and even did some time as a consultant. I moved to New York for a year with one company. I learnt loads during this time and eventually ended up at an awesome organisation called LMAX Exchange. Here, all the stuff I’d read, all the stuff I’d heard you should be doing, they were doing. Most importantly, they were trying a new thing called Continuous Delivery.
After working with such an amazing team (and having my mind blown every day learning stuff while pair programming) it was impossible to just do any old coding job. I’d had a chance while I was there to do some advocacy. LMAX had open sourced some of their code, a library for very high speed message passing called the Disruptor, and I had blogged about it a bit and presented on it at a couple of conferences (I had a lot of help, encouragement and support from my bosses Martin Thompson and Dave Farley which gave me the confidence to do this). When I was looking to move on from LMAX, I knew technical advocacy was what I wanted to do more of. I wanted to still write code daily, but I knew I was good at taking technical topics and making them approachable to normal developers like myself. Working with really smart people sometimes makes you feel like you’ll never be that smart. Then you realise, almost no one will be, so at least you can help people get to where you’re at.
I spent a couple of years working for MongoDB where I juggled advocacy and evangelism with engineering. Now I work at JetBrains doing pure technical advocacy. Unfortunately, that means I have less time for coding (although I do still code, and I take pride in my live coding demos), but I get to work on something which is arguably more difficult — breaking hard topics down into digestible pieces, and figuring out a way to distribute this to as many developers as possible.
What advice and resources do you have for other women working in technology?
This is a hard question to answer! There are so many different types of working environments even in just this one sector that my experiences might not reflect everyone else’s. I have, however, written a bunch of varied stuff around the topic of women in technology.
In my experience, I have found that the guys are on your side. In most cases, you’re not a lone woman struggling to make it against all odds. You’re part of a team that wants to succeed. I got to where I am thanks to many mentors, most of whom were men. Let them give you a push when you need it. If you think you’re not ready for something but someone else says you are, do it. If you’re scared, but you think it’s worthwhile, do it. If you think you don’t have anything to say or share, you’re wrong. People love to hear even about a junior’s experience, as this can give newbies a place to start, and show experienced people what’s wrong with the current learning process.
Try to remember that many people stop seeing you as a woman pretty quickly and just see you as another techy. Try to remember that sometimes you’re the person in the room who’s most concerned with your gender. But most importantly, if you’re in a toxic environment, regardless of whether it’s gender related or not, get out. It’s not like that everywhere.
How do we get more women involved in technology?
I always hate this question. I’m a woman who thought programming would be an awesome job, so I’m never really sure what might put others off. I did write an article about things not to do.
Those of us who are in technology need to be role models. Yes, it’s not fair — the white guys don’t have to take extra time to be The Face Of Java (or whatever). But it will do wonders for your own career anyway, so if you’re not feeling altruistic, do it for selfish reasons. You can be a role model in whichever way suits you — have a blog, a github profile, a professional Twitter account. Get active on StackOverflow. Present at user groups or conferences. It’s scary, and it takes time and effort, but it’s nowhere near as hard or terrifying as you think.
Some organisations are having success with women’s networks inside the organisation. There are also women’s user groups where you can find a mentor or be a mentor. I’m fine with women’s groups if they provide support for people, but I also think we need to gain exposure outside of these smaller groups if we’re to have any impact on the larger ecosystem. For example, it might feel like a safe space to give a presentation, but once you’ve done this and got feedback, then you should present it at another tech user group, and then consider submitting it to conferences.
I got into presenting at conferences because I was bemoaning the fact that only white guys were presenting at some conference. Martin Fowler, who has been very supportive of diversity in technology, suggested I submit to speak there. It had never occurred to me until that moment, that as a woman in technology, I actually had the greatest power to improve the representation of women in our industry. Later, I was presenting at JavaOne, thanks to another male mentor of mine who made me co-present with him. It was terrifying, and exhilarating, and set me on my current career path
I also think events aimed at kids of all ages to get them into technology are awesome, particularly if you get to girls before they go off techy things. We also need to do something to stop women leaving the industry, too. Here, I can’t offer anything. The longer I’ve stayed in this industry, the more confident I’ve become and the pickier I am about the teams I work in. I haven’t worked anywhere for years that made me think I’d picked the wrong career. I love my job.
On a final note, I just had my first child. This job (at the moment!) feels perfect for me. I can work from home (in Spain, where I can actually see the sun!), my hours are flexible, I have control over my travel schedule. I’m pretty certain those things are going to make my life easier than if I were doing a 9-5 in an office in some other industry. This is not a coincidence, by the way. I was fairly certain I wanted kids, I knew I’d want to work from home, and I steered my career towards companies that were accepting of this. This is possible in this industry. This is why I think I’m here to stay.