“Teach girls bravery, not perfection” is the name of Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani’s viral TED talk about her journey to founding Girls Who Code. The first time I saw it was at my very first tech internship before I started college, and it couldn’t have been a more perfect time. Most women in tech are no strangers to imposter syndrome; doubting your skills or presence in the tech industry or classroom because of your identity and background. One study reports that imposter syndrome regularly affects about 50% of women and 34% of men in the workplace. Beyond the numbers, imposter syndrome can make students less likely to seek out resources and participate in the classroom, reducing the diversity and richness of the computer science experience for everyone.
Although I was conscious of imposter syndrome and its disproportionate effects on women in STEM, I wasn’t sure how to effectively combat it. When I first got to college, I felt the full weight of self-doubt start to stifle my education. Moving to the Bay Area to study computer science seemed like playing in the big leagues, and I felt like I was somehow drafted by accident. Comparing myself to others only made it worse, as there were skills, languages, companies, and concepts I’d never even heard of that were commonplace among my peers. I felt lightyears behind on important aspects of career development, like recruiting skills, side projects, and technical interview prep. Even though I felt I had a good idea of how to write clean code to accomplish small tasks, I lacked the skills required to package that into a website, app, or business idea. I honestly didn’t know where to start in “catching up”, until I changed my mindset. Instead of already viewing myself as behind the curve, or imperfect, I looked at every new skill as an opportunity to grow.
Learning New Skills
Embracing my insecurities helped me overcome my difficulties first semester. For me, it’s difficult to learn a subject through teaching myself alone. Lots of student groups and departments offered group workshops like “Python for Data Science”, or “Web Development for beginners”. I started signing up for different workshops and opportunities on campus, especially if they were on a subject or technical topic I knew nothing about. It was hard at first to ask questions and participate, especially if I was the only woman in the room. Women are socialized to strive for “perfection, or bust,” as Saujani puts it in her TED talk. It became easier for me to participate in new experiences when I embraced the fact that I would not be an expert on the first try, and that my work would not be perfect at the first attempt. But I had to start somewhere, so that the next workshop, interview, class, or project could be better.
Once I had a working knowledge of a language or application, I could pursue a project in it. Side projects intimidated me because I didn’t know how to start, how to get myself unstuck, or how to use the best practices right away. If I attempted one alone, I often never finished it or didn’t know where to turn for help. I decided to start with a hackathon and went to CalHacks for the first time last semester. CalHacks is UC Berkeley’s largest hackathon, and the some of the biggest lessons I learned that weekend were what not to do when making an app in 36 hours. Hackathons are incredible experiences, and for each one I’ve been to since then has increased my project management skills, technical abilities, and troubleshooting and debugging expertise. It’s really exciting and rewarding to be able to sit down with your friends and create a project that you feel passionate about, using newly minted skills that only get sharper as you use them. Side projects are difficult to start, but by identifying your minimum viable product and using mentors and community resources, they can get more and more approachable.
Realizing that I wasn’t alone in feeling underprepared or intimidated at college was a big step in overcoming my fears. Talking to other women in my computer science classes through study groups and networking sessions helped me find like-minded peers who supported me in my growth. Joining clubs on campus or national organizations like Rewriting the Code that are geared towards helping women start their career in tech is a great way to find resources, mentors, and opportunities at this critical period in your career. Often, these groups are the first resource I turn to when I’m stuck on a technical project or need career advice.
Some of the best experiences I’ve had in college so far have come from trying something new that intimidated me. For this semester, it’s been project management, UI development, and UX design. Being secure in my “weaknesses” as a computer scientist and student helped me identify what I wanted to learn. Being brave while learning helped me grow my skillset and open doors to opportunities I never thought possible in my first year of college. So, be brave. Go to that workshop, class, networking event, or hackathon you’ve been eyeing. It may lead to your next project, major, interview, internship, or career.
-Chirasree Mandal, RTC Fellow + UC Berkeley Freshman studying Computer Science and Data Science
Rewriting the Code- Empowering College Women in Technology