How to Build a Pipeline of Technical Talent

Guest: Jessica McKellar, Engineering Manager at Dropbox

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There has been a lot of conversation in the tech community about how to build a pipeline of computer scientists for the next generation, bring awareness to groups that aren’t current represented, and improve diversity numbers.

While there’s been a lot of work and initiatives that have cropped up over the years, there’s still a lot to be done.

Whether you believe in diversity or are skeptical about it, at some point your organization is going to want to scale its recruiting efforts.

In today’s episode, Jessica McKellar and I are going to skip past the usual complaints, and get down and dirty into what is and isn’t working and why.

Jessica is currently an engineering manager at Dropbox and was previously the Director of the Python Software Foundation. Jessica has also co-authored two books about computer programming (Twisted Network Programming Essentials and Introduction to Python), was previously an early engineer at Ksplice, and founded Zulip, which was eventually acquired by Dropbox.

Given how challenging the recruiting environment is in tech, you’ll want to watch this episode. Here’s what you’ll learn from Jessica:

  • Why interviews are a terrible proxy for determining if a technical candidate will be successful in your organization;
  • How to perform an audit to measure who you’re attracting, how effective you are at retaining them, and how to scale your efforts as your organization grows; and
  • The steps people often overlook that prevent them from building sustainable engineering organizations.

This was our final episode for Season 2 of FemgineerTV. You can watch previous episodes from this season on our YouTube channel, and be sure to subscribe to our channel to get Season 3 episodes starting in January 2017.

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How to Build a Pipeline of Technical Talent: Transcript

Poornima Vijayashanker: Welcome to the 22nd episode of FemgineerTV, brought to you by Pivotal Tracker. I’m your host, Poornima Vijayashanker, the founder of Femgineer. In this show, I invite engineers in tech and together we debunk myths and misconceptions related to building tech products and companies.

Now there’s been a lot of talk about what it’s going to take to build the next generation of computer scientists. You’re probably aware of the pipeline problem and a number of approaches that people are trying to take to fix it, as well as improve diversity numbers. And while there’s all this talk and a lot of initiatives, we’re really not sure which ones are working and which ones aren’t and whether it’s worth investing in.

And to help us out, I’ve invited Jessica McKellar. Jessica’s done a lot of great work, especially at the high school level and is going to be talking about the importance of a number of these initiatives. She is currently an engineering director at Dropbox and was formerly a director at the Python Software foundation. Jessica began her career at Ksplice, where she was an early employee and went on to found Zulip, which was eventually acquired by Dropbox.

Thanks so much for joining us today, Jessica.

Jessica McKellar: Thank you so much for having me.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, I think it’s gonna be fun.

So I recently came across your work, which is fantastic and I was just curious to know what actually got you introduced to computer science and into engineering?

Jessica McKellar: Yeah, definitely. I’m not one of those folks who had been programming since birth. I had a computer in the house. My dad’s actually a musician, so his motivation for having computers in the house was to do sequencing for his music projects. But my first degree in university was actually chemistry. So I have a chemistry degree. While I was pursuing that degree, I had a lot friends also pursuing computer science degrees. I would sort of look at them out of the corner of my eye and observe what they were learning and it seemed from the outside like this really powerful toolkit full of tools for solving arbitrary problems in the world. That was really attractive to me.

So I was doing my chemistry stuff and that was really cool. But I decided to take a couple of CS classes just to see what it was like, pretty immediately got hooked on it, ended up getting a CS degree, got a CS master’s, and the rest is history. I’ve sort of been in computers ever since.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice. So was it the element of problem solving or what was it that kind of drew you in?

Jessica McKellar: Yeah. It’s computers being a part of solving a very broad range of problems in the modern world that’s attractive to me. It’s the problem-solving aspect of it, too.

Computers really change the way that your brain works or learning how to program really changes the way your brain works in an important way I think. It’s like you have this experience of mastering a system and realizing you can change the world around you. You can gather information, you can build something that solves a problem. I think it changes your relationship with the world to know that you can solve a broad range of problems by writing a code to solve it. It’s a very empowering mindset.

So that mindset was really attractive to me also.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice.

Jessica McKellar: The other thing I would say is very important to me about the fact that I didn’t really start programming until I was in college is that meant that I was sort of coming from behind against a lot of my friends. So I really felt an acute pressure to catch up while I was in school and I think it instilled in me an empathy for beginners. That has influenced a lot of the working average that I’ve done in open-source communities.

Poornima Vijayashanker: You probably came across a number of stereotypes as you were majoring, right? How did you kind of overcome that and decide, nope this is what I want to do?

Jessica McKellar: Yeah, that’s a good question. So I was at MIT, where actually the percentage of CS majors who are women is reasonably high for the United States. And I think I was actually fairly oblivious to a lot of this while I was going through it. After I had graduated or maybe when I was in the master’s program, I read a book, which now a classic book in the field called Unlocking the Clubhouse, which is a set of longitudinal studies focused on university in the United States that tries to understand the gender dynamics in computer science programs. And I learned a lot about what these stereotypes were from reading the book and it was actually a really powerful book for me to read because it introduced to me a bunch of terms that ended up being really important. Like that book is where I learned about the concept of imposter syndrome. Which is a thing that, once there was a name that I could associate with it, I realized is a thing that I had experienced before and was powerful to recognize that this happens in other people, too.

But while I was in school, I feel like I surrounded myself with peers who were really supportive and in my work, you know joining Ksplice as an early kernel engineering hire, founding Zulip, I surrounded myself with people who were friends who I trusted a great deal. My first really negative experiences with being a woman in computer science as a founder, as a technical part of a startup, was really sort of the broader internet.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah, of course.

Jessica McKellar: So Ksplice had a really popular technical blog that I would write posts for and that’s where I really got to experience people having commentary about me and the way that I look as part of being an author of these posts.

So that part’s a bummer. I think I developed…

Poornima Vijayashanker: But you kept doing it?

Jessica McKellar: I kept doing it and it caused me to develop something of a thicker skin about this. I’m glad that I was able to develop a thicker skin around it. I think it is unfortunate that that seems to be necessary in some contexts. I don’t think you should have to do that.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right, yeah.

Now you were at MIT and you decided to move out to Silicon Valley, so what was kind of the decision making? Why not stay in lovely Boston? Why come out all the way?

Jessica McKellar: Yeah and I love Boston. I love Cambridge.

So Ksplice was entirely…we started Ksplice in Boston, built the company, and it was acquired and we stayed in Boston post-acquisition by Oracle and we start Zulip in Boston as well. We came out west for the Dropbox acquisition.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, OK. Great.

Jessica McKellar: And it’s actually a little bit of a coming home for me. I was technically born in Fremont, California.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, OK.

Jessica McKellar: So I lived in Fremont as a kid. My family currently lives in Nashville, which is where I went to high school. I moved up to Boston for university and I’m now back on the west coast. It’s a little bit of a journey home for me. It’s kinda nice actually.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice, yeah.

Myself, I started as an early engineer very young, two years out of college and I think for a lot of our viewers out there who are early in their career, they might have a sneeze of fear or not feel like they’re ready to. I know I certainly felt that way. You also began your career pretty early on with Ksplice and Zulip. What made you feel like maybe you were ready or maybe you weren’t ready, but decided to take the plunge anyways and be that early engineer, early employee?

Jessica McKellar: Yeah. So I’m fortunate that Ksplice…so Ksplice was a startup that came out of the master’s thesis of a good friend of mine from MIT and so it was an opportunity to work with friends on a really interesting technical problem. So in some sense, Ksplice was a no-brainer for me. But a big part of it also was that I really view joining the Ksplice team as a big sort of validating milestone for me in my evolution as a computer scientist. Because as we talked about it a couple of minutes ago, getting started later than a lot of my friends, working very hard at MIT to sort of catch up, the fact that I of all people in the world would be one of the they want, to be part of the early team was a validation of all the work that I had done. So that felt really good.

And what’s kind of nice about the Ksplice team is we’ve actually stayed together through a series of startups and acquisitions at this point. So I’ve had the opportunity to work with and to grow with a bunch of really good friends of mine.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Uh-huh.

Jessica McKellar: We were together through Ksplice, through the acquisition by Oracle, starting Zulip and the acquisition by Dropbox which has been really fun.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Nice.

So talk me through what the acquisition was like from Dropbox and what your role has been since you joined.

Jessica McKellar: Yeah. So we were building out Zulip. Zulip is a real-time collaboration service for businesses and some ways like Slack before Slack was Slack.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Jessica McKellar: And we were iterating on the product. We were pre-launched. We were out west thinking about fundraising. We have a lot of ties with Dropbox. The founders were our contemporaries at MIT.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Jessica McKellar: And it just made a lot of sense to have a conversation about where Dropbox was going and how Zulip might fit into it. We had that conversation. We realized that there was a lot of alignment about our missions and we ended up joining the Dropbox family as a consequence and we all moved out west and didn’t lose anybody in the move.

Yeah. It’s funny having been through two acquisitions now…so, the acquisition by Dropbox was very different from the acquisition by Oracle. Oracle has necessarily had to construct an acquisition process that can scale to support tiny startups like ours, but also multibillion-dollar companies. And so, like a joke from the Oracle acquisition was there were more team leads from Oracle supporting the acquisition that there were employees at Ksplice.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, nice.

Jessica McKellar: Which is like an enormous, enormous endeavor because that’s just like the Oracle structure for doing acquisitions.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure.

Jessica McKellar: It’s a lot easier with Dropbox.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Now, since you’ve been at Dropbox, what have you been up to?

Jessica McKellar: Yeah, it’s been an evolution.

So I came in continuing to manage the Zulip engineering team and we worked on a bunch of really high-impact projects, which was great. A couple more teams sort of came under my wing, as there was a management need for it. This ended up growing into a reasonably large organization, about 120 people who were building all of our platform software. So our desktop client, our iOS and Android apps, shepherding web as a platform and shepherding our internal and external APIs. That was a really fun, educational experience. There was a lot of important foundational work that we accomplished that I’m really proud of.

And then now I’m in a sort of an interesting, somewhat atypical role for a company of our size. So my formal title is that I’m the chief of staff to our vice president of product engineering, and I have an operations team that reports to me. And what I do in this role is really shepherd the life cycle of an engineer and really drive forward a lot of the org people and process parts of running an engineering org of our size.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. So can you walk me through what an example of that looks like?

Jessica McKellar: Yeah. So example programs that sort of fall in this domain include our partnership with recruiting on our hiring process, our evaluation process, onboarding and mentorship, career growth, the way that we communicate within and outside the organization, community building within engineering and more broadly with engineering product and design. So all of these things sort of fit together. Setting up the right sort of operating cadence for engineering. Things like that.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it.

Jessica McKellar: Yeah. Which I really like. I don’t think I would have predicted it before I got to Dropbox.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure.

Jessica McKellar: So I really like building from scratch. I really enjoy my time with these startups. It’s possible that what I love even more is building sustainable engineering organizations. Which you can only really do once you’re out of scale. That’s important and so having the opportunity to do it at a Dropbox has been really gratifying.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Now that’s your day job and then you also had a lot of other things going on, right? You were formerly a director at the Python foundation. Talk me through what attracted you to that foundation and what the work was you were doing there.

Jessica McKellar: Yeah, absolutely. So I’ve been very involved with the Python community over the past couple of years. This is included back when I was in Boston. I was one of the organizers for the Boston Python user group during a really big period of growth. We actually grew to become the largest Python user group in the world while I was there and we had a bunch of diversity initiatives that were really successful that ended up being emulated by a lot of other user groups around the world which is cool.

Poornima Vijayashanker: What are some of them so that people watching—

Jessica McKellar: Oh sure. Yeah. Well actually we’ll get into this in just a second ‘cause it plays into…a lot of this is about pipeline which we’ll talk about in a couple of contexts, yeah.

I’ve also been the diversity chair for PyCon, which is a large annual Python conference every year, and I was a director for the Python Software foundation. And so a lot of this work has been about promoting an inclusive community and a diverse community within Python. And so examples of initiatives in Boston with user group, really treating this as a… Well actually, stepping back, one of the most satisfying things about the work that I do at work and the work that I do outside of work is that there’s actually a lot of similarities and overlap. So when I’m paying attention to recruiting and diversity and inclusive culture at Dropbox, the way that you think about this, the pipeline, the metrics, the accountability model, they end up looking very similar to what it takes to increase the diversity of speakership at an open source conference, for example. So I’ve really been able to reuse my learnings and talents across these domains.

So, yeah in Boston we sort of developed a pipeline model where we would attract new, great, diverse folks with the user group through mostly introductory workshops focusing on creating a welcoming environment for people of diverse backgrounds and often folks who didn’t have formal CS backgrounds. And then we’d follow up on that pipeline with project nights where folks could get additional support where they continue to learn and practice the language through practical projects. And that would sort of bring them into the more general user group content and we’d have an effort to have a robust set of content that would be interesting to diverse backgrounds and experienced levels month over month.

Similarly, as the diversity chair for PyCon, a couple of years ago the statistic was that 1% of speakers at PyCon were women. And we decided…I, and bunch of other folks in the community decided that we wanted to change this. How do you change it? You set a target, you pay attention to your top of the funnel, you make sure you have an equitable evaluation process and you then should see results downstream. And so over the last couple of years we’ve boosted that representation from 1% to, I think it was 10%, and then 15%. This past year, so 2016 PyCon, 40% of speakers were women.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Great.

Jessica McKellar: And what’s really exciting and important to me about this is, this isn’t a hack on the system. I could get hit by a bus and this would still work.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Jessica McKellar: We’ve demonstrated through the repeatability of this year over year, that it’s robust to the process by which we evaluate candidates. It doesn’t have single points of failure in terms of who’s doing the outreach, so it’s been a real model for sustainable outreach that has a sustained impact that’s been emulated by a bunch of other conferences. That’s been really cool as well.

And then it all gets back to the same thing. So like, sustainable systems…it’s exactly what I do at work and it’s exactly what I do in the open source community too.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it.

Jessica McKellar: Yeah, it’s cool.

Poornima Vijayashanker: One interesting thing that you just mentioned about the pipeline problem was it sounded like you were cultivating talent. You weren’t just expecting there to be groups of people lining up at the door, like knocking on your door, right? You were actually there in the community saying, “Hey, it’s OK if you don’t have a CS degree. It’s OK if you don’t know XYZ framework. We will come, we will train you. And then once we’ve invested that time, hopefully you will have the ability to then go out and speak,” right? Is that kind of…

Jessica McKellar: Exactly.

Poornima Vijayashanker: And walk me through what that sort of timeline and process looked like.

Jessica McKellar: Yeah and to clarify this is for getting someone from sort of new person in the community to active speaker in the community?

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. Unless … so do they have the Python background or are they starting from scratch?

Jessica McKellar: Yeah, we’ve seen everything.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Oh, OK. So even people that were brand new to coding?

Jessica McKellar: Yeah. So here’s my idealized pipeline in an open source community. So let’s say…what’s an ideal pipeline for getting someone who’s totally new to the community sort of all the way through to being an active leader in the community? And this could look like speaking, it could look like helping at a conference, it could look like helping at a user group. What is an ideal pipeline for that?

And what we’ve seen—and we have a bunch of good examples of, from Boston—is you need some sort of initial hook. So first off your community actually has to be one that is attractive and welcoming to people of of diverse backgrounds. Check that first and make sure that it’s true. And if it is, have some compelling content that is advertised thoughtfully, that is proactive in its outreach to diverse communities, that brings them in from an initial touchpoint with the community. For us in Boston, this was often short, weekend-long, Intro to Python workshops. Follow that up with a couple of additional touchpoints to continue building the relationship and to have opportunities for retention in the user group.

So this is things like the monthly project nights that we had, additional, maybe intermediate workshops. And then from there if someone’s enjoying themselves with these events, they’re likely to want to just attend general user group events, which is great. And then you could also start trying to hook them for additional engagements.

So the speaker pipeline that has worked the best for me is, first hook them with something really short and low-stress like a lightening talk.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Jessica McKellar: Like a five-minute lightning talk or maybe a low-key poster presentation of something’s that existent. The posters are a thing that exists at PyCon, for example. And from there, you can get a little more ambitious with them. So a long-form talk or a tutorial is the largest investment that one can make. And this model totally works and people will swear up and down that they’re never gonna speak at a conference. You hook them for a lightning talk and then before you know it—

Poornima Vijayashanker: They love it and the love the audience response—

Jessica McKellar: —they’re giving a keynote at some international conference, yeah. So I’ve seen it time and again and that’s the trick.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. And so that similar behavior or that similar system works for a company as well, right?

Jessica McKellar: Oh yeah. A lot of this…again, sub-zero you have to prove to yourself that you have an inclusive workplace that people actually want to join, that has equitable retention rates, equitable promotion rates, equitable comp, etc. So I check that the environment and the culture are actually gonna support these hires first. Make sure you have an equitable evaluation process and then be really intentional about and have goals and accountability around a diverse top of the funnel. Run great events, do great outreach, and then if everything is equitable, top of the funnel equals results at the bottom of the funnel.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Jessica McKellar: Yeah.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So for some of the folks watching this, maybe they aren’t in organizations yet that have that equitable footing, how can you audit yourself or what are some initial steps? What do you need to be looking for?

Jessica McKellar: What you want to measure is probably a little bit different between a company where an employer has obligations to the employee versus an open-source community. But things that you can check in both places include…well number one, actually measure…you can’t know if you’re doing a good job or not if you don’t measure it. So in Boston, we would count if the thing that we’re trying to work on is engagement and retention of women in a user group. You can’t know if you’re doing them unless you count.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Right.

Jessica McKellar: So counting…like the basic math on who’s showing up to your events and who is being retained, who’s showing up over time. So in both places you need to do that. And certainly on the corporate side the things that we talked about earlier, you can’t know that you’re doing a good job or not if you don’t measure pay equity, retention equity, promotion equity, things like that.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Got it.

Jessica McKellar: Yeah.

Poornima Vijayashanker: What about quotas?

Jessica McKellar: Yeah and I’m not a lawyer so I don’t want to say anything that’s gonna get me in trouble.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure.

Jessica McKellar: But…

Poornima Vijayashanker: Well let me ask you this. So one stat is by 2020 there are gonna be 1.4 million computer science jobs available in the US alone and about a million of them are not going to go fulfilled by traditional creating practices. So given that, even if we said quotas aren’t a good idea, it’s a bad thing, right? There’s still this one million opening and how would you go about filling that if 50% of the population isn’t participating?

Jessica McKellar: So there are a couple of ways to think about it. So one is, a lot of this is about top of the funnel.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Sure.

Jessica McKellar: We’re not saying don’t evaluate, don’t hire great candidates of broad backgrounds. It’s like if you want to focus on increasing the diversity…and diversity by the by, it’s like many, many axes. It’s an intersectional issue. But if you want to increase diversity at a company, in an organization number one: You need to ensure that the evaluation pipeline is equitable. And then it’s just a math problem if that’s true. It’s top of the funnel equals bottom of the funnel. So being smart about reaching populations that you weren’t reaching previously to get great people into the top of the funnel and the evaluation process takes care of itself.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Jessica McKellar: Now part of this though, is that we should be…so if we’re talking about hiring for software engineers in a tech company, interviews are a pretty shitty proxy for success inside the company. So be really attentive to and thoughtful about the way that we’re evaluating people and what we’re actually evaluating what signal it gets you.

So what Dropbox has seen and this is a common evolution, it’s a pretty natural evolution…as you get bigger, you realize that some specialization has happened, there’s an opportunity to broaden the set of profiles that would be successful at the company. When you’re not dealing with a one or two people any more, you have great web developers, you have great infrastructure engineers, you have great UI engineers. You develop a greater sense of the range of expertise that contribute in a really productive way and that allows you to broaden the way that you evaluate someone, which can broaden the applicant pool in a way that’s really healthy for diversity.

So it’s never about…I don’t want to hear about lowering the bar.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Jessica McKellar: It’s about broadening the set of profiles that really do drive the business forward. So that’s a big thing.

I also think one of the great…some set of people are gonna become extremely wealthy eventually off of solving the problem of folks who are very talented, very smart in other domains who want to pivot to a career in software. I don’t think we’ve cracked the nut on that yet.

The truth is, at least from my experience at Dropbox, coming out of a three-month boot camp, totally cold going into a three-month boot camp, that’s just not enough time to develop a lot of intuition. There’s a speed of light factor to developing an intuition around software engineering. But figuring out how to tap into this really great pool of smart people who will be successful with the right support or enough time, that’s a great opportunity for our people to be solving that we haven’t solved yet.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

There’s a lot of skeptics out there who question the effectiveness of these initiatives and whether or not they’re worthwhile. I think some of it is prompted by a conservative attitude. Another thing could just be the essence of time like we have to grow quickly, we have to take the people that are in our pipeline, we don’t have quite the bandwidth or the education level to manage a lot of this stuff. So how do you respond or how do you kind of deal with that?

Jessica McKellar: Yeah, definitely. So first, I don’t really have time for skeptics. I’m so over that and there’s so much research supporting the benefit of a diverse workplace and I’m sort of over rehashing that with people.

The thing that does happen that you’ve alluded to is we’ve gotta hire so many people, often diversity falls by the wayside when you’re just trying to get people in the door. I think what’s going on when that’s happening is sort of not properly integrating the impact of some of these decisions across all time.

So if people are making a prioritization decision and the prioritization puts meeting an overall set of hiring targets above the diversity of the team…and for some companies that’s the right call, maybe. I might not want to work at those companies, so it’s up to them if it’s OK with them to weed me out of the applicant pool. But the question is how are you making those prioritization decisions? And what we’ve seen at Dropbox, what we’ve seen at other companies is, great people don’t want to work in environments that aren’t’ diverse and you lose out on a set of perspectives that causes you to make worse product decisions. And it’s hard to correctly integrate that impact across all time. It’s less of a direct set of numbers then just, “Did we meet our hiring targets for the quarter or not?”

But my suspicion or my belief, and I think Dropbox’s conviction at this point is, if you do that full integration the diversity part is important and it’s worth dedicating the resources at the expense of other types of hiring targets, potentially.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah.

Jessica McKellar: Depends on the company, depends on where you are, depends on what’s going on, but I think people often undervalue…they incorrectly prioritize the diversity piece because they’re not doing the full integration on the outcomes.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah or there’s a time crunch and they’re being met with some pressure either externally or internally, right?

Jessica McKellar: Yeah and then it’s up to the leadership team, the executive team to do the correct integration and enforce that conclusion.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So I know you said you’re over skeptics and I’m sure there’s a lot of people out there who are also over it, but let’s assume for argument’s sake that yes, diversity isn’t a great idea. Let’s stop worrying about it, there’s still going to be people who are underrepresented, right? So I think the question then becomes people who are, for lack of a better word, missing out on opportunities. Is there importance in being proactive? And I think what you’ve mentioned with your work at Python foundation and PyCon is there is talent out there who, unbeknownst to them, may not be aware that computer science and problem solving in this space can be really enriching and fulfilling as a career. And if you start to cultivate that talent, you see these greater gains. But it’s kind of taking that first step and being proactive about it, right?

Jessica McKellar: Yeah, absolutely. We don’t have time to touch on this fully, I don’t think, but there’s been a big evolution actually in primary schooling in the US around getting more opportunities for computer science education and having it count in a more rigorous way as part of the curriculum. So a lot of this has been getting CS classes to count for math or science credit. AP computer science is the most gender-skewed AP exam that exists. And what’s gonna change, eventually this is gonna become a required class. I’m confident in high schools in the United States and boom then you’ll have 50/50. Then you’ll have gender equity on who’s taking these classes. That is going to open up a beautiful set of doors for who sees themselves as potentially being computer scientists in the future.

Why is this important? Well, the world has a lot of problems. We need as many people as possible solving these problems in creative ways and this is in tech companies, but it’s also in the sciences, it’s in government. I mean, programming but really computing and computational thinking are going to be a part of solving most problems that exist in the world.

So yeah, it’s really important that as broad a set of people on the planet have access to these opportunities as possible, because we just don’t have enough people who are thinking about these problems. You know for every laundry cleaning startup that’s existing in Silicon Valley, we need 5,000 people who are bringing computational thinking mindset to the US government and making it better. So we need a diverse set of people who have the opportunity and then with opportunity, have the belief that they can change the world and for them to then go do it.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK. Now you and I both have CS backgrounds so, it’s kind of assumed that we understand the challenges that are out there and the mindset of what it means to think from a programming standpoint. But for some of our viewers who either are thinking about it as a career or as a career transition, right? What is it about computer science and the fundamental way of thinking in that realm that helps us deal with a lot of these more human-centric problems?

Jessica McKellar: Yeah, exactly. Everything comes back to systems for me, at least.

So learning how to program changes the way that you think about the world in particular, it gives you this opportunity to become fluent in a system in an environment where you now that you can change things.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Mm-hmm.

Jessica McKellar: There’s a programming environment, but you know that you can build software, you can build libraries, you can change the libraries to make them do what you need them to do. It’s this very empowering experience of realizing you can master a system and then change the system. It also forces you to learn how to become a systematic debugger and to break down problems and solve them and debug them in systematic ways.

So if your brain adopts this mindset where…like, even very complex problems and there are very complex systems and there are software systems but there are also hardware systems and there are also people systems. If you develop the belief and the conviction that one can break it down into a set of tractable, you can debug it systematically and you believe that you can change the system because you have this experience of doing it in programming. Then I think you naturally become an activist in this world when you have that mindset.

Poornima Vijayashanker: So for our viewers who are either in school right now or maybe they’re thinking of doing a career transition into tech or into being a computer scientist, they might look at this and say, “Well, that’s great Jessica and Poornima. You guys have a lot of resources. You’ve got companies that are backing you with their man and woman power, but what can we do as individuals who are just kind of getting started? How can we want to empower ourselves and then later on empower our community?”

Jessica McKellar: So for empowering ourselves, and one great thing that continues to get greater is I think the barrier to entry continues to get lower and lower for learning how to program and developing software engineering skills. The single greatest—and my answer would really be customized to an individual—but as a blanket statement, the greatest thing that I ever did for myself as a software engineer was to get involved with contributing to open-source software.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Jessica McKellar: I learned more doing that, about software engineering, than I ever did in school. I mean, my education was great but in terms of the practicalities of distributed software developments, where I really cut my teeth was in open-source communities. And I encourage folks to take the plunge and do that when they’re ready. Just so many of my great friends have come out of those communities. It’s been a really enriching experience for me overall.

Poornima Vijayashanker: What do you think it is about the open-source community that helps?

Jessica McKellar: Part of it is being a largely distributed development environment.

Poornima Vijayashanker: OK.

Jessica McKellar: So that really forces you to develop the discipline around communication, code reviews, clean, structured diffs, etc. That’s really, really positive. Just like working on a team in a distributed fashion, I guess that’s as real as it gets.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. So you’re both dealing with a system level, but you’re also dealing with people.

Jessica McKellar: Yeah it’s the code and the people and as it turns out, which is no surprise to people who are software engineers, the people are maybe even the dominant component of what you’re doing in your work day to day.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Great. All right. So everyone has their action item to contribute in some way, shape or form to an open-source project.

Jessica McKellar: Absolutely.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Jessica. This has been great.

Jessica McKellar: Absolutely, thank you.

Poornima Vijayashanker: Yeah. And thanks to all you viewers today for tuning in and special thanks to our sponsor, Pivotal Tracker, for their help in producing this episode of Femgineer TV. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, then please share with your teammates, your friends, and your boss and be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel to receive the next episode. I’ll catch you next time!

This episode of Femgineer TV is brought to you by: Pivotal Tracker—Build better software faster.

This was our final episode for Season Two of Femgineer TV. You can watch previous episodes from this season on our YouTube channel and be sure to subscribe to our channel to receive episodes for Season Three, starting in January 2017.


FemgineerTV is produced as a partnership between Femgineer and Pivotal Tracker. San Francisco video production by StartMotionMEDIA.