Breaking the Code: Women Add New Perspective to Software Engineering

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It’s hard to imagine that when second-graders are learning to code and more and more young girls are choosing robotics as their favorite sport that there is still a gaping gender gap in the tech industry. But many women continue to shy away from the male-dominated tech sector for fear of geeky stereotyping and a “brogramming” culture that, amazingly, is still going strong.

Take it from one recent graduate of Seattle’s Code Fellows trade school who was interviewing for a job at an innovative tech company. Her expectations were dashed by two male interviewers who used sexual and crass imagery when asking just how passionate she got while coding.

Or the time a male coworker left an unsolicited, romantically charged gift on a local programmer’s desk, where everyone else could see it. She didn’t ask for it, was deeply embarrassed and hid it out of sight.

Or the female software engineer mentioning her love of Warcraft III in an office production meeting and the male presenter looking at her incredulously and asking in earnest: “You play games?”

Although women make up more than half of the professional workforce in the United States, they play a small role in inventing and facilitating the technology of tomorrow. Women earn 20 percent of all computer science degrees in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Incredibly, that figure is down from 35 percent in the 1980s. The imbalance presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the Puget Sound regional economy, whose continuing growth increasingly depends on access to a steady supply of new software engineers and coders.

Current estimates suggest the Seattle area has more than 20,000 unfilled tech jobs. A large proportion of the highest paying positions are for programmers. Although local tech companies like Amazon and Microsoft have tried to fill the gap by hiring from overseas, there aren’t enough visas available, meaning many of these positions could go unfilled for years.

So a growing number of companies, nonprofit organizations and educational institutions are recognizing that local girls and women present an important — and often unrecruited — source of talent and have developed new ways to train women in programming. But even as they persuade more women to join the profession, these organizations must fight other barriers to integrate this new generation of coders into the male-dominated bastion of technology.

“The lack of talent, combined with a lack of diversity, is problematic for Puget Sound companies and our local economy,” says Susannah Malarkey, executive director of the Technology Alliance and cofounder of Ada Developers Academy, a tuition-free software coding school for women in Seattle. “It’s time to make a change in our hiring pipeline.”

Malarkey believes tech companies are economic growth engines and crucial to innovation, but she points to dismal statistics that show only 26 percent of women in the United States workforce hold computing jobs. And this is happening at a time when nearly 60 percent of U.S. jobs are held by women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. In addition, women hold only 13 percent of engineering jobs at tech companies, and only 5 percent of tech startups are owned by women. About 8 percent of CIOs are women, down from 12 percent in 2010.

Such statistics are not surprising in an industry dominated by white males. But there’s a renewed sense of urgency today because technology encompasses almost every aspect of life. “Every business has a website, a mobile app, some systems that run things on the back end,” says Kristin Smith, CEO of Code Fellows, a Seattle programming trade school. “Technology is becoming omnipresent.”

This “big data revolution” is enabling computer scientists to put the “smarts” into everything, including homes, cars, health care, education and more, says Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington. “Software design is inherently a creative process and we all bring our own perspectives,” Lazowksa explains. “If we have a diverse workforce, we will have a better product in the end.”

Lazowska often refers to eminent computer scientist Bill Wulf, who illustrated the point nearly 20 years ago when he wrote: “Every time we approach an engineering problem with a pale, male design team, we may not find the best solution. We may not understand the design options or know how to evaluate the constraints.”

Companies and educational institutions nationwide haven taken note of the gender issue — and have made a semblance of headway — with Washington state in the mix.

• Many Puget Sound area businesses, Microsoft among them, are joining companies around the country in evaluating their hiring practices, diversity initiatives and employee training programs, as well as improving workplace environments. “You have to ask, ‘Is this a supportive environment or is this a fraternity house?’” Lazowska asserts. “It has to be a zero tolerance policy against misogyny.”

• An explosion in the number of programming boot camps — from two in 2010 to at least 60 today — has occurred nationwide. These include local efforts like Code Fellows, Ada Developers Academy and Coding Dojo. “We are helping to transform people’s lives,” says CEO Richard Wang of Bellevue-based Coding Dojo. “The world is moving at a faster speed right now.” He argues that even more pathways are needed to help women land tech jobs or start new careers as programmers.

• Dozens of networking organizations, including Women in Technology, Digital Eve and Women Who Code, have formed in Seattle, with tech “meetups” occurring nearly every day of the week. “We are all freelancers in this new global economy,”’ says Becky Anderson, a senior programmer at the local office of Google.

• Secondary schools, community colleges and universities are reviewing and improving computer science curricula to attract more women. Nationwide, women earn only 20 percent of undergraduate and graduate computer science degrees. The University of Washington is better, at 25 percent.

Yet for every step forward, it seems girls and women are still

“Belief is a powerful tool, and I think that we don’t need to believe we are brilliant; we need to believe we are capable, especially under new challenges.” -Blake Johnson, software engineer, Estately Inc.

out of the loop. “We are doing a lot of things to move the ball forward, but we recognize we are not where we want to be,” Smith admits. Many women find the tech industry intimidating or out of reach because of cost and inexperience. And many who do brave the industry feel isolated, not worthy of a “seat at the table” or perceived as “weird introverts.” 

Blake Johnson, a former English teacher and a graduate of Ada Developers Academy, says computer science was never on her radar, even though she always performed better in math and science. “I fell into the trap that I thought I was terrible in math,” Johnson relates. “I thought for sure computer science was beyond me. I didn’t consider it long enough to dismiss it, even though the majority of my male friends were computer science majors. I felt destined for a liberal arts degree — something expressive.” 

Another perceived perpetuator of the gender gap is the pervasive “brogrammer” culture in which women feel misunderstood and mistreated by male coworkers. It’s what underlies the experience of the recent Code Fellows graduate who had the unpleasant interview. After being insulted by the two male interviewers, the woman swore off the technology and software industry, likening it to a “misogynistic nightmare” that left little room for hard-working, creative women.

“We talked her off the ledge,” Smith recalls, “but it took her several rounds to get comfortable enough to stay in the industry. The most egregious thing about the interview was that the men didn’t even realize they were being inappropriate. They were treating her like she was part of the team, interacting with her as they probably do with everyone else they work with.”

Smith says their actions underscore the need to educate men to be more inclusive and sensitive to their female counterparts. 

Johnson, now a software engineer at Estately Inc., a Seattle-based online real estate company, recalls a software executive telling her he would think twice before hiring a woman. “He said it would be weird for just one woman to work in his office,” Johnson notes, “because the men get pretty raunchy.’’

Regardless of the prevailing culture, attracting more women to high-tech jobs is a business imperative, Malarkey says. Computer occupations will be responsible for 71 percent of job growth in the so-called STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics between 2012 and 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The bureau predicts 1.4 million computer science jobs will become available in the next five years alone, yet traditional universities will graduate fewer than 60,000 computer science majors a year in that period.

“Women need to build competency early on so they are confident in this field,” Smith asserts. “And the workforce has to be ready to attract and train them.” 

Preparing that workforce is the focus of ongoing debate in Congress. Lawmakers are considering raising the current quota of visas that can be granted annually to foreign workers — from 65,000 to between 115,000 and 180,000. Local companies like Microsoft argue that the demand for computer science graduates is outpacing the number of graduates traditional universities can produce.

The 65,000 visa quota, along with 20,000 reserved for individuals with advanced U.S. degrees, has been reached every year for the past decade. The past two years, it was reached within the first week they were available, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

The shortage of talent creates pressure for new ways to train coders. The University of Washington is seeking money from the state Legislature to build a new computer science building so it can double the number of software developers it graduates. Trade schools that offer short-term courses are flourishing. Smith’s Code Fellows program has expanded to offer its $5,000 four-week coding boot camps in Chicago and Portland as well as Seattle. Graduates are virtually guaranteed jobs.

As these efforts multiply, Smith says the work environment for women is slowly improving. Companies, universities and trade schools realize that the strength of a high-tech workforce depends upon the talent, diversity and creativity people bring to those jobs. Google, for example, publicly admitted its lack of diversity last year when it reported that women constitute only 17 percent of its global technical workforce. It vowed to do better and its action has forced other companies to take a hard look at their own diversity programs.

Google’s Anderson told a recent Women Who Code gathering at Seattle’s Impact Hub that she’s proud of her company for “doing the right thing.” She says she didn’t know what engineering was until she got to college. After taking a random computer course, she loved it and developed a passion “for building things out of math.”

Smith says even though women have misgivings about the tech industry, they should be willing to “embrace the ambiguity and unknown.” 

To that point, Johnson says that even though she’s the only female programmer at Estately, she has had positive experiences. In a blog post offering advice to women who want to transition into programming, she wrote: “Belief is a powerful tool, and I think that we don’t need to believe we are brilliant; we need to believe we are capable, especially under new challenges.” 

Who is Ada?

Augusta Ada King, the countess of Lovelace, commonly known as Ada Lovelace, was a 19th century British mathematician and writer considered by many to be the first computer programmer. She is the inspiration for Ada Developers Academy, a Seattle school for female coders. 
Born Augusta Ada Byron in 1815, she was the only child of George Gordon Byron, the Romantic poet. Lord Byron separated from his wife, Anne, a month after Ada’s birth. Father and daughter never saw each other again. Byron died when Ada was 8.

Ada’s gift for math led her to a working relationship with British mathematician Charles Babbage. Her notes on his Analytical Engine, a mechanical general-purpose computer, include what is thought to be the first algorithmic program to be carried out by machine.

10 Leading Females in Seattle’s Programming Community

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Laura Butler
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Bridget Frey
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Renée Hendricksen
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Kate Matsudaira
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Rutu Mulkar-Mehta
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Rebecca Norlander
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Joanna Power
Software Architect, Cozi Inc.

Nadia Shouraboura
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Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack
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Welcome to the Drone Economy

Welcome to the Drone Economy

A new industrial sector is arriving — and nobody’s at the wheel.
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Jim Tracy runs a company that maintains and repairs wireless communications towers, many of them in some of the most rugged and remote country across eight Western states.  Just getting to the towers sometimes requires off-road vehicles and snowcats, says Tracy, the CEO of Legacy Towers in the Kitsap County community of Burley. Then there’s the climb up the towers, which can range in height from 100 feet to 1,700 feet. Aside from the risk posed by the height, there are other hazards presented by things like the weather or nesting wasps. And if inspection of the relay antennas at the top reveals the need for a part or a tool the technician didn’t bring up on the first trip, there’s another climb down and back up to be made. If only there were a way to inspect towers for hazards and to diagnose the problem from the ground, reducing risks and time spent on the job.  But there is, one already known to amateurs and hobbyists and one increasingly being used in scores of businesses — the drone, or, more properly, the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
 
Legacy Towers got its first UAV in late 2013 and has found them useful in making climbers safer and their tasks more efficient. “If you can throw a drone in there,” Tracy explains, “you can cover more ground with less fuel use.” A camera-equipped drone can be dispatched to the top of a tower to read the bar code on an antenna, look for damage or check to see if it has been knocked out of alignment.
 
“The first one you get, it’s kind of cool,” Tracy acknowledges. “[But] at the end of the day, it’s just another tool.”
 
The power and potential in that tool are such that people are finding applications faster than technology developers or regulators can keep up. They’re also finding more places to deploy these devices.  Most of the attention has gone to things that fly — think Amazon’s experiments with drone deliveries — or operate on the highway, with Google, Tesla and every major auto manufacturer pursuing hands-free operation of cars. But driverless/pilotless/autonomous vehicles are also finding their way to, and doing work now, on rail networks, on farms and on the seas.
 
In the process, the people who write the software; make the antennas, sensors and other pieces that make the technology possible; build the trucks, cars, planes and boats that employ it, and apply it to problem solving in virtually every industry, as well as to those who collect and analyze data from drones, are building what might be called, for lack of a better term, the Drone Economy.
 
This drone economy isn’t a “maybe someday” promise of a flourishing economic sector. It’s already here. Much like the developing local space-business cluster (Seattle Business, January 2016), Washington is becoming one of the nation’s centers of research, development and commercialization of drone tech, with dozens of companies actively involved in it.
 
Creation of a new job-generating tech sector won’t be the only way the Drone Economy’s influence will be felt, either in this region or globally. Entire industries, and not just those dealing directly in transportation, stand to be reshaped by the products and services they already are bringing to market.
 
The activity and potential of the Drone Economy has caught the eye of state government, which in October convened the first meeting of the Unmanned Systems Industry Council. John Thornquist, who heads the state’s Office of Aerospace, says the council’s purpose is to get people in the industry talking to one another and to officials at all levels of government, to hash out issues that may limit the sector’s potential and “to help that ecosystem thrive.”
 
The idea of cars, boats, trains and planes that pilot themselves has been the stuff of science fiction and futuristic museum displays for decades. Some pieces of the technology have been around for years as well, as any kid with a remote-control car, boat or plane can attest. Real-world, full-size applications aren’t rare, either. Sea-Tac Airport’s subway system between terminals operates without on-board drivers. So does the SkyTrain system in Vancouver, British Columbia. Remote-controlled locomotives have long been used in switching yards.
 
But those applications are in closed spaces or networks, and the rail industry has had much less success applying the technology to long-distance freight networks. The Drone Economy is being built on the idea of getting autonomous vehicles, aircraft and vessels onto roads, into the skies and on the water.
 
A convergence of factors allows this transition to happen. Paul Kostek, a past president of the IEEE Aerospace and Electronics Systems Society and a Seattle-based contractor and consultant to tech companies, says the technologies that make autonomous vehicles and aircraft possible started out as solutions to other problems. In aviation, for example, where “weight and space are always critical,” the continuous drive for lighter and stronger materials made drones possible by dramatically shrinking the size, weight and power requirements. In automobiles, technologies developed to make driving safer, such as parking assistance and collision warning and avoidance systems, can easily be extended to help remove a human driver from the process.
 
 
Jim Tracy of Legacy Towers sees drones as another handy item in the toolbox.
 
Drone development has also borrowed from technology developed for use in fields outside transportation. WiBotic, a University of Washington-based business developing wireless recharging systems for aerial, marine and land drones, started with a charging platform for implantable medical devices like artificial heart pumps. “Drones need a way to scale in a way that power is not going to be a limiting factor,” says Ben Waters, WiBotic’s cofounder and CEO.
 
Technology has improved not just the vehicles themselves but also the images onboard cameras produce (thanks to stabilization) and the flight controls for operating UAVs. Adoption of the technology in the commercial sector has been accelerated, Thornquist says, by the low cost to buy and try one, and the often quick return on investment.
 
Kostek cites one other important factor propelling the Drone Economy: “Very rich people are interested in this.” With people like Tesla’s Elon Musk and companies like Google putting money into drone development, Kostek says the sector, much like commercial space, is being driven by “outsiders with capital to spend.”
 
Consumers also deserve credit for taking what were dismissed as toys and demonstrating their commercial potential, particularly for aerial photography, Waters notes. “They provided a unique perspective on how to do things.”
The result: An explosion of R&D and commercialization, much of it driven by a passel of regional companies and institutions:
 
■ Boeing-subsidiary Insitu, based in the Columbia Gorge town of Bingen, has been regularly winning multimillion-dollar contracts from the military for its surveillance drones. The company has expanded its commercial products and services, set up a business unit specifically for that purpose and participated in a project with BNSF Railway to use drones to inspect rights of way in remote areas.
 
Aerovel, based in White Salmon and founded by Insitu alumni, has been developing drones small enough to be launched from a fishing vessel, to look for schools of fish. An Aerovel Flexrotor was used to provide aerial scouting of routes through the ice of the Beaufort and Chukchi seas for a workboat fleet retrieving mooring anchors.
 
■ Thanks to Insitu, the Columbia Gorge has developed a mini-cluster of drone-related companies like White Salmon-based 
Sagetech Corporation, which makes small transponders to identify and control military and civilian drones.
 
■ Bellevue-based Paccar was playing with remote-control technology at its Mount Vernon research center as far back as the 1990s. More recently, it showed at an annual meeting a video of a demonstration of maneuvering and parking a truck at a Walmart distribution facility. Its European subsidiary DAF was one of a half-dozen truck manufacturers participating in an on-highway test of platooning — a tightly spaced convoy of trucks in which the trailing vehicles are driverless.
 
■ Few industries have leapt into drone technology with the enthusiasm of agriculture. Washington State University’s Center for Precision and Automated Agricultural Systems in Prosser has multiple research projects underway, including using an eight-rotor octo-copter to monitor irrigation in vineyards.
 
■ If you’re going to have a drone industry, you might want to have people trained in their operation and maintenance. Green River Community College offers an associate’s degree in unmanned aerial systems and a certificate for UAV operators; Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake has launched programs in mechatronics, sensor analysis and flight operations.
 
■ The University of Washington’s College of Engineering, meanwhile, has its Autonomous Flight Systems Laboratory to “support advances in guidance, navigation and control technology” for UAVs, and to integrate the technology into flight mechanics and controls courses in the university’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
 
■ Tech-sector senior statesman Tom Alberg, cofounder and managing director of Madrona Venture Group, co-authored a widely discussed think piece proposing the devotion of part of Interstate 5 between Seattle and Portland to autonomous vehicles. “We cannot predict the specific adoption rate for autonomous vehicles, but we believe that widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles is inevitable and will be here sooner than most observers expect,” the essay says.
 
■ Alberg adds Madrona has been backing its belief in the coming of the drone/autonomous age with a significant investment in Bellevue-based Echodyne Corporation, which is developing small, lightweight radars that could be used in UAVs and autonomous vehicles.
 
Clockwise from left: Aerovel's Flexrotor is designed to operate over oceans and remote areas; WSU Professor Lav Khot
prepares to fly an octo-copter over a vineyard; an Autel Robotics drone equipped with WiBotic wireless power solutions.
 
A drone economy could well reshape businesses directly involved in the production or use of UAVs. Commercial real estate services firm CBRE recently issued a report on the impact of technologies including autonomous vehicles on its industry. Driverless trucks, for example, will increase the distance and hours those vehicles can operate, reducing costs. Supply chains will be able to operate with fewer but larger distribution centers, but those warehouses will have to be built to receive and deploy the new generation of autonomous delivery trucks.
 
The speed with which technologies are being readied for market is also one of the barriers to their adoption, as lawmakers and regulators scramble to keep up and deal with thorny practical issues like safety, liability and traffic management on the ground and in the air (e.g., how do vehicles and aircraft operate in the same space at the same time?), not to mention broader societal issues such as privacy and job gains and losses.
 
“The technology is going to be ready before the world is ready,” says Paccar President and CEO Ron Armstrong.
 
Mike Dozier, general manager of Kenworth, a Paccar subsidiary, says many of the technologies that make autonomous trucks possible have been showing up on trucks for years — lane-departure warning systems, drowsy-driver monitoring, even adaptive cruise controls that use GPS data to tell the engine to apply more power when the vehicle is approaching an uphill grade.
 
The truck is packed with data-generating sensors and equipment, for which costs have been steadily declining, adds Paccar SVP Kyle Quinn. The issue, Quinn points out, has been “how do you manage all the information coming off the sensors and interpret it?” 
 
Answer: creating breakthroughs in image processing and artificial intelligence. In other words, software is starting to catch up with the capabilities of hardware.
 
It may be some time before drivers are banished from the truck cab, the Paccar brass cautions. Drivers have duties beyond steering, accelerating and braking, such as securing the load and making sure it stays in place. They’re also needed to handle unexpected situations that autonomous systems aren’t sure how to manage.
 
Still, none of those barriers seem as daunting as what the commercial space business faces, and it’s been able to grow in spite of the challenges. Further, if regulators aren’t moving as fast as many advocates of drones and driver-free vehicles would like, they also aren’t saying, “No way.” 
 
For example, the Federal Aviation Administration issued its Part 107 compendium of rules in mid-2016 to govern use of commercial drones according to weight, speed, height, operator certification and other criteria. While it’s a long list, it does give those interested in the technology’s use some certainty. The FAA has also authorized research projects on flying UAVs beyond the operator’s line of sight, such as the Insitu-BNSF experiment.
 
The industry itself can do a lot to allay some of the safety fears of regulators and the public, Waters says, by “moving reliability from pretty high with top-of-the-line consumer devices” to commercial units with virtually no potential points of failure, and which have safety devices in place in cases of power loss or collision.
 
The technology also has the potential to mitigate problems it creates and solve others. Driverless trucks, for example, threaten the jobs of drivers. But the trucking industry has long been dealing with a chronic shortage of drivers; the American Trucking Associations reported the turnover rate at large fleets was 83 percent in the second quarter of 2016. And even as they eliminate jobs in some sectors, drones and other autonomous vehicles could create more in others. The FAA news release on approval of Part 107 says the new rules could help generate more than 100,000 new jobs in the next 10 years. 
 
Regulators and legislators will be under pressure to keep up with the explosion of applications. Forest fires can be monitored closely but safely. Insurance companies can inspect storm damage on homes — and transmit images to the home office — without sending an inspector onto a potentially precarious roof. Kostek, a resident of Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood, came up with the idea of using drones to monitor the lake’s health. Farmers are already working with autonomous trackers guided by GPS. Underwater drones can inspect boat hulls. A local police department has used aerial drones to document auto accident scenes, allowing officers to reopen roads sooner.
 
Waters expects the boom to be even bigger in a few years, when companies now seeking  funding bring their products to market.
 
Kostek agrees. “We’re still early, early on as to how these technologies will be applied,” he predicts. “Somewhere, there’s a smart kid playing around with an idea none of us has thought of.”