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Microsoft Corporation

A magnet for change: engineering training for women, by women

After many of her mentees quickly landed tech jobs, Microsoft engineer Kal Viswanathan scaled her impact to reach hundreds

Below is an article originally written by Candace Whitney-Morris, of PowerToFly Partner Microsoft. Go Microsoft's Page on PowerToFly to see their open positions and learn more.

"Everyone dreads the whiteboard interview," said Kristen Thayer.

Thayer, a former educator turned Xbox software engineer, is referring to a common part of technology company interviews: candidates are given a coding or troubleshooting task, a whiteboard, and a marker and then asked to solve the problem in real time, in front of the interviewer.

Though she was anxious about the whiteboard, Thayer was prepared for it. She'd just graduated from Kal Academy, a nonprofit coding academy for women and minorities and the brainchild of Microsoft employee Kal Viswanathan— who started as a HoloLens engineer and now works in Dynamics 365 for Talent.

"Kal doesn't just teach you to code," said Thayer. "She wants women to actually be in the field with jobs, so she also has this interviewing class. Her advice: 'First, don't stress. Second, solve the problem. Be confident.'"

Thayer passed the test. She went from being a teacher to working at Microsoft in just under a year, and she attributes much of her success to Kal Academy.

Kristen Thayer holding her Microsoft employee IDKristen Thayer, a former teacher, learned to code at Kal Academy, a nonprofit started by Microsoft employee Kal Viswanathan. Thayer got a job at Microsoft in under a year after starting at Kal Academy.

The academy's students include mothers struggling to support their families, administrative assistants who dream of becoming engineers, and women who find themselves in jobs where they can't advance.

Viswanathan has story after story of graduates who were empowered to succeed by her training. One of her favorites is about a woman who wanted to take classes but couldn't afford the expense, so the academy granted her a scholarship. This woman went on to study data science and land a data analyst role at a major retailer. Now, she also tutors other data science students.

In this way, Viswanathan's students are learning that the outcome of education isn't just knowledge but an awareness of how an education gives a unique opportunity to directly help others advance in life. Viswanathan learned this foundational lesson from her parents early on.

Filling in the gaps

Growing up in India, Viswanathan dreamed of becoming a doctor. But she knew that neither she nor her parents, two middle-income teachers, would be able to afford medical school.

"My parents bred teaching into my DNA, along with the lesson that I needed to give back to my community," said Viswanathan.

She eventually turned her aspirations toward computers and decided she would find a way to educate herself. So the resourceful Viswanathan brokered a trade: she found students around her who needed tutoring in subjects that she was good at and, in return, asked them to help fill in her computer skills gaps.

"I taught math and science to kids in my neighborhood and asked them to teach me computer science," Viswanathan recalled.

It worked. Her early penchant for sharing knowledge continued through college and in her work at Microsoft.

Over the course of her time teaching and working in computer science, Viswanathan noticed that something was off: the field of computer science suffered from a glaring lack of women and minorities. The few women she came across working in her field seemed to stay quiet, speaking up only when working in small groups of mostly women. Viswanathan refused to accept this as just the way it is.

While working at Microsoft, Viswanathan was also teaching at University of Washington. A few students approached her, asking her to teach them privately. She started mentoring and tutoring women in small groups on nights and weekends in her garage.

Viswanathan had a hunch that women just needed a good, efficient education, a place where it felt safe to speak up and build their confidence, and someone to show them the way. She was right; emerging evidence supports the theory that women mentors could make all the difference in other women staying in STEM studies and fields despite the "implicit tendency to see engineering as a male discipline."

"[Women mentors] act as a 'social vaccine' that protects female students against negative stereotypes and gives them a sense of belonging," according to an Atlantic article.As Viswanathan's mentees were getting good jobs at good technology companies, Viswanathan saw the chance to help even more women. Word got out, and more people began to gravitate toward her warm and welcoming teaching style. In 2014, while working at Microsoft, Viswanathan started her own nonprofit organization, officially launching Kal Academy.

"Microsoft encourages me to do these things, to make a difference in the world," she said.

Viswanathan moved Kal Academy out of her cramped garage and into a small facility in Redmond, Washington, where she continues to teach not only the nuts and bolts of coding, but also—and perhaps most importantly—how to get a job in tech. This includes how to be confident in interviews and strategies for acing that dreaded whiteboarding session Thayer was worried about.

"Women get to know how to face work every day, and they get to know how to learn new things if they're just thrown at them, because ambiguity is one thing that we all have to get used to," Viswanathan said in a recent podcast about women in business and technology.

"It's not magic," Thayer said, referring to coding. "You study it. It's completely achievable. Kal empowers students to believe in themselves."

Since the academy's inception, 200 of its students have landed roles at Microsoft, Amazon, T-Mobile, LinkedIn, and other companies.

They include Walaa Ibrahim, who was studying computer science at the local community college when she heard about Kal Academy. "I told myself, let's give it a shot. And only three months later, I got my internship at Microsoft," said Ibrahim. "Then, four months later, I got my first full-time job in the United States."

Kal Viswanathan (left) and Walaa Ibrahim (right)Kal Viswanathan (left) helped FastTrack Walaa Ibrahim (right) into a career in technology. Now, Ibrahim works at Microsoft.


"I was so excited, screaming. I called Kal and told her; she was so happy for me," she said. "I never imagined I would get a job at Microsoft."

Viswanathan said that the energy she needs to keep up with the rigors of working full time during the day, solo teaching from 8 AM to 8 PM on weekends, and running a nonprofit is sustained by women such as Thayer and Ibrahim.

Because she is a woman and a person of color, Viswanathan feels uniquely suited to motivate other women like her.

"I tell them, 'I've been in the place you've been, and this is what it took to get out of it and find success,'" she said. "And that's exactly what I am going to teach you here."

popular

7 Women in Software Engineering Share Their Experiences

A Look At The Challenges They've Faced & How Their Companies Support Them

We know that the ratio of women to men in software engineering is overwhelmingly low. Scroll through just about any company's roster on Linkedin and see for yourself. It's depressing.

If you're not in the mood to engage in that little experiment, just check out this PwC study that found that only 15% of employees in STEM roles in the U.K. are women, and that women hold a mere 5% of leadership roles in the tech sector.

However, we also know that diversity is the top priority for 78% of talent leaders. This is good news for us, because our goal at PowerToFly is to close these gender gaps as quickly as possible - and the more companies that get on board, the faster we can do that.

We partner with companies that are not only committed to diversity and inclusion, but to fostering a sense of belonging for underrepresented candidates once they accept job offers.

In the meantime, we know that the struggle for many women and other minorities in tech is still real, and that being a woman in this male-dominated industry is no cake walk. That's why we invited women engineers at some of our partner companies to share their experiences in their own words.

They shared some of the biggest challenges they've faced as women in tech and how they overcame them, as well as why they feel supported and enjoy working at their current companies.

We hope reading about these experiences will make other women in software engineering realize they're not alone in the challenges they're facing, and that there are lots of companies making strides to better support women in tech. We also hope that reading this will inspire more companies to follow suit, especially given that women leave the tech industry at twice the rate of men.

Hats off to these 7 women and to the companies that support their work:

What's the coolest thing Promptworks does to support women engineers?

"One of my favorite things about Promptworks is how all the female engineers support each other. Having an amazing group of colleagues to lean on, vent to, and seek advice from has been vital to me. As soon as I joined the engineering team, I felt immediately part of this amazing family of women who also have my back."

—M.K., Software Engineer at Promptworks

Want to join Promptworks' team of Women Engineers?
They're hiring!

More about PromptWorks:
Promptworks builds custom software for companies by creating amazing technologies that help achieve their vision.

Benefits include:
Monthly work-from-home flexibility, Collegial atmosphere with family-style lunch twice a week on us, ergonomic work stations including seated & standing pair programming stations, 100% company-paid medical, dental, and vision insurance, 401(k) plan with company matching and more!

Why did you choose to work at Yelp?

"The best thing about Yelp is the culture. I had an amazing interview process which reflected how much Yelp values their employees. Once I got through, I received a welcome card from my team and AWE group and I still feel very loved at Yelp. Also, I love the people! They are very smart and innovative and Yelp gives us all the freedom to vent out our creativity."

—Supriya, Backend Engineer at Yelp.

Want to join Yelp's team of Women Engineers?
They're hiring!

More about Yelp:
Yelp engineering culture is driven by our values: we're a cooperative team that values individual authenticity and encourages "unboring" solutions to problems.

Benefits include:
Medical, dental, and vision insurance - 100% covered for Yelp employees, 401k program with company match, parental program: Bright Horizons, mother's rooms, paid baby bonding leave, well being and stress management resources, and more!

What's the biggest challenge you've faced at Ubiquity6 and how did you overcome it?

"One of the personal challenges I've dealt with at Ubiquity6 is imposter syndrome, which was definitely amplified by working with so many incredible engineers. Thankfully, my team is really supportive and I have been able to take ownership over some important projects. The combination of getting great constructive feedback while framing my mindset towards improvement has really helped build my confidence as an engineer."

—Robyn, Software Engineer at Ubiquity6

Want to join Ubiquity6's team of Women Engineers?
They're hiring!

More about Ubiquity6:
We work with the design, infrastructure, and game engine teams to help guide the user through complex workflows involving spatial mapping, dynamic code loading, and game engine orchestration. Our challenge is to tie together all the different pieces of technology in a way that feels seamless to the end user.

Benefits include:
Generous PTO, flexible work hours, work-from-home, remote positions, medical and dental benefits including family coverage, and more!

What's the coolest thing Verisign does to support women engineers?

"Verisign has been extremely warm and welcoming. Your opinions and ideas are heard irrespective your gender and position in the company. Verisign has a Women in Technology group which organizes monthly workshops and seminars, encouraging women to participate and demonstrate their skills. It is attended by the entire company and not just women. The company is full of empowering women who constantly motivate you to break the stereotypes and fulfill your passion."

—Shreyashi, Software Engineer at Verisign

Want to join Verisign's team of Women Engineers?
They're hiring!

More about Verisign:
Verisign, a leader in domain names and internet infrastructure, enables internet navigation for many of the world's most recognized domain names.

Benefits include:
Medical, dental, vision and prescription plans, traditional and Roth 401(k) with company match, basic life insurance, optional life insurance for employee, spouse or child(ren), home and auto insurance and more!

What’s one of the most impactful things One Medical does for women engineers?

"I recently attended a fireside chat with Sheryl Sandberg who pointed out that while there are increasing programs aimed at bringing women into technical roles, there aren't as many women being promoted. One of the most impactful things I see that One Medical does is actually hire and promote female engineers into both senior engineering roles and engineering management roles. Not only are they being promoted, but there is noticeable support before, during, and after the promotion. Growth and learning is a big part of the culture here, and I am excited to take part in such a fulfilling company."

—Vanessa, Data Engineer at One Medical

Want to join One Medical's team of Women Engineers?
They're hiring!

More about One Medical:
One Medical builds amazing end-to-end solutions to connect patients and our care team in new and innovative ways.highly collaborative environment, not only will you be partnering with designers and product managers, you'll also be sitting shoulder to shoulder with the doctors and nurses who deliver care daily to One Medical patients.

Benefits include:
Top-notch dental, vision, and health insurance, paid parental leave, PTO, paid holidays, and sabbatical at 5 and 10 years
401K Match, One Medical membership for you and your family and more!

What's the coolest thing Fair does to support women engineers?

"Gender equity is a big thing at Fair. I once received a Fair-branded jacket that didn't quite fit right in the sleeves and waist. I tried to return it, but my boss wouldn't hear of it, citing Susan Fowler's leather jacket incident. Fair immediately offered to cover the jacket alteration costs for myself and other women in the company. I'm grateful to work at a place that values and includes its female employees as much as Fair does."

—Michelle, Lead Software Engineer at Fair.

Want to join Fair's team of Women Engineers?
They're hiring!

More about Fair:
We are looking for highly motivated engineers interested in delivering the next level of innovation to product search and discovery at Fair. You'll be designing and implementing new search features and the systems behind them, including the integration of natural language processing, heuristics, and machine learning systems used to generate and rank search results. You'll work with microservices on AWS, multiple languages, and a great engineering team with a fun culture.

Benefits include:
Equity incentives, 100% coverage of medical, vision and dental premiums for employees and their families, 100% paid parental leave for 4 months, 401(k) retirement plans and free lunch 5 days a week for every employee and more!

In moments of self-doubt or adversity, how do you build yourself back up?

"Coming from coding school, my background was not in computer science nor did I graduate from college with a degree in engineering, so it has always been a bit of a struggle to build myself up. I remind myself that everyone is going through a learning process. I have spoken to my mentor about having imposter syndrome when I first started working at Yelp. He let me know that even he has moments of imposter syndrome. It is easier to relate to somebody when you hear that they are going through the same struggles as you and it's a good reminder that nobody is here to judge you. I think it's great that even when you mess up you don't have to be worried about getting fired. Yelp has a very supportive environment. In times of adversity I try to calm myself down and realize that everyone makes mistakes and tries to learn from them to be better."

—Julie, Full Stack Engineer at Yelp.

Scroll up or click here to learn more about Yelp & how to join their team.

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Want to see more great roles at companies committed to recruiting more women in software engineering? Check out our job board!

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How Can the Financial Services Industry Retain More Women?

A Look at Fidelity's Approach to Women's Career Growth and Engagement

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A Message To Women in the Gaming Industry: Don't Learn to Code

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"The floggings will continue until morale improves." We've all heard the saying, a tongue-in-cheek way of criticizing workplaces that are neither healthy nor productive — and no employer or employee wants to be that workplace. Create a healthier, more productive work environment with these tips.

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