women.code(be) Member Spotlight #4
Co-founder/organiser Antwerp Java User Group
Meet Silke, our newest spotlight member, She’s a Java/.NET developer and the co-founder/organiser of the newly-born Antwerp Java User Group. Besides being an all round geek, you can probably catch her playing Guild Wars 2 and reading fantasy novels.
You can find Silke on Twitter and LinkedIn, or go check out her personal website.
Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your background?
I first went to university, studying English and Theatre, Film, and Literature Sciences. After 5 years, I had to give up, due to a combination of depression, chronic migraines, and the degree just overall being too difficult for me to attain. After a year of working in retail (oh the stories I could tell), and working on myself to get better, I decided it was time to go back to school, even though I vowed never to again. I had always had a fascination for computers and gaming, and the last thing I did at my retail job was fix the connection between the pay terminals and the computers. It was kind of a lightbulb moment. Two months later I enrolled in college, and last year I graduated with a degree in Applied Computer Sciences.
This picture might need a little bit more explanation. This was made by @mirlu_exe (twitter). It’s me as an Alien Warrior Princess.
It started as a joke between my husband and I, because when I wear my Cefaly (a device to ease the pain from my migraines) I kind of look like an alien. This picture was used for my Joy Of Coding talk about invisible illnesses and why tech could be a great place for us.
I wanted something that would make me feel empowered, and would show people that even though we have an illness, we are not fragile, or worth less.
Yes my illness is painful and makes my life harder, but it has also taught me to value the good moments, and it has toughened me up and made me work harder for what I want to achieve and what I believe in. We also bring fresh perspectives. I truly believe that inclusion, of all types of minorities, is what will bring the tech industry to the next level.
What is your job and what does a typical day look like for you?
Sadly, due to COVID-19, I have lost my job and am on the lookout for new employment. My former job was as a junior .NET and Angular developer.
Before COVID-19 my day usually went like this:
- Wake up, get dressed and do my makeup.
- Walk or bike to the station, and then groggily ride the train. (Not a morning person)
- Bike to work. I always loved this, just biking along a river surrounded by greenery.
- Work, including lots of Googling and discussing challenging code with colleagues, and occasionally cuddling Sox, the office cat.
- Have lunch with everyone in the office, with the typical lunchtime banter.
- After work, the same trip home, and time to unwind. Usually gaming, or watching some tv and cuddling with my husband.
Nowadays I keep myself busy with job interviews, pet projects, and lots of tv and gaming.
Job hunting during a crisis sounds stressful and difficult (even more than usual). How are you currently experiencing this? Are there any upsides or positive impacts noticeable?
It is indeed very stressful. At the moment, the main problem is that lots of companies have stopped hiring altogether. Or if they are, they’re mainly looking for medior or senior positions. However, the most annoying thing right now is that some are still actively recruiting, but will only start hiring again after corona, which just comes across as a bit rude, especially if this is only stated after a couple of interviews.
One of the positive changes though, is that a first interview is now mostly done online, which saves travel time and money.
Trying to adjust to typical rules when dealing with an illness is never easy. Besides flexibility to do your work at whatever hour or day of the week, what other changes would you suggest to employers/tech companies, so they can make a positive impact on the quality of life for employees who are facing limitations due health or maybe family matters?
There are many things that can be done. Of course this is different for everyone, but here are a few things that might be beneficial.
Have a small separate room where people can sit, for instance while they wait for medication to kick in. Check whether office lights, radios, screens, and other equipment aren’t painful or triggering. Have a decaf option for coffee/tea/soda.
Most importantly, ask your employees whether there are small changes that can be made to help them be more comfortable. Just the act of asking can help by letting them know you care.
This last one is something I’ve thought about for quite some time, and I don’t even know whether this would legally be an option. As a job perk, offer service checks for household things like cleaning and ironing. Illnesses and childcare lower the amount of free time you have. By taking some of the household chores away from people, you create more time for them to relax, which will benefit both them and the company in the long run.
What is your ideal job? Would you consider an international company/employer?
Honestly, currently my ideal job would just be somewhere that gives me the chance to learn and grow, both as a developer and as a person. In the current job market there’s not much more I can hope for.
Ideally, I’d like to work somewhere that really commits to quality, both through code quality and testing. A place where you’re allowed to experiment every once in a while and are encouraged to come up with new ideas and initiatives. With a diverse group of people, both in regards to gender and race. Somewhere that I can feel at home in and am accepted for who I am.
How about when you’re not working? Any hobbies or interests you’d like to tell us about?
Video games are a large part of my life, if you’re ever in Guild Wars 2, hit me up! I also read a lot, mostly fantasy. During my university literature studies this genre was always frowned upon, which I always resented. My books have accompanied me through a lot of hardship, and I consider them among my most treasured possessions.
At the moment I’m also sewing a lot, making cloth masks for pharmacies, care workers, and schools who are in dire need of protection.
What or who got you initially interested in coding and / or pursuing a career in tech?
My dad, but in a very roundabout way. When something was wrong with my pc, he’d take over and just occupy the pc for hours. After a while, instead of waiting for him to fix it, I had watched what he was doing and was able to do little fixes myself, like check an ‘ipconfig’ and such.
I also used to play a lot of Sims, with a lot of mods to make it more interesting. Sometimes these mods would conflict with each other. I spent a lot of time figuring out what was wrong so I could continue playing.
Funny story, my first personal computer was a Compaq with a low amount of MB RAM memory. It had a sticker on it: “Never Obsolete”. That didn’t quite work out for them I guess 😊.
Are there any particular women in tech who have inspired you?
Angie Jones. She gave a great presentation at Joy of Coding (in Rotterdam) where she highlighted the importance of female role models in our industry. There just aren’t enough women showing young girls that coding is something they can do as well. I didn’t know it was an option for me when I picked my university degree.
After that talk, I joined CoderDojo, and the CoderDojo 4 Divas event in Antwerp.
Can you tell us a bit more about CoderDojo and what it means for you to be a CoderDojo coach?
CoderDojo is a global community that offers free programming workshops for kids ages 7 to 18. We teach things like Scratch, which works with blocks that can be dragged and dropped into place, but also HTML, to create websites, and other languages. It depends on the location. I personally usually work with Micro:bit, which can be programmed with drag and drop. It’s a tiny computer with programmable lights, buttons, and even movement sensors.
Now, do I enjoy being a coach?
I’ll start this off by saying: I hate mornings. Every time I have to wake up to go to CoderDojo, which starts in the morning, it’s always done somewhat grumpily. And every time I come back from it, I cannot stop talking about how much fun I had and how great it was. Being a coach and helping these kids see the fun in programming gives me so much energy. I literally cannot recommend it enough.
I started out knowing nothing about Scratch or Micro:bit or even about teaching. From day one I was warmly welcomed by my fellow coaches, and kind of thrown in the deep end. Kids would ask me questions if they were stuck, and we’d try our best to figure it out together. And so I learned how to work with everything at the same time the kids did.
It’s great to see really shy kids come out of their shell, especially at the show and tell we do at the end of every dojo. It’s just such a proud moment for everyone involved.
CoderDojo is also a way for me to show girls and boys, and their parents, that there are women in tech, and that we belong there. Just by being there, I normalize it. I think that is a great way to encourage more diversity. And who knows, maybe some of the girls I’ve coached actually do go into tech. I’ve also had the pleasure of joining the CoderDojo 4 Divas event last year. It’s an annual event packed to the brim with cool programming workshops, no boys allowed. It was amazing! I was surrounded by women and girls who were all just so badass. That evening I went home in awe and inspired, and with a bag full of leftover waffles.
Do you have any favourite resources or projects you like to follow? (f.e. certain podcasts, newsletters,…)
I listen to the Ladybug Podcast. Kelly, Emma, and Ali are amazing women, who talk mostly about coding, but also about learning how to learn, and they host a book club as well.
Next to that I’m keeping an eye on my Twitter feed, trying to follow some interesting people. There is a lot of content out there people are sharing.
What techniques do you use for more convincing speech? (question from Janique-ka)
Just go. Just do it. Whoever you are speaking to doesn’t know what you wanted to say or how you wanted to say it. Don’t cut yourself short due to imposter syndrome. Don’t think “who am I to do this”. If you have a hard time putting faith in yourself, at least know that your audience is choosing to be there and to listen to you. If you can’t believe yourself, believe them. (Note to self: follow own advice.)
What made you join the women.code(be) meetups?
To be honest, I joined the meetup because I was skeptical. I had joined many other tech meetups and I never felt unsafe or unwelcome. I didn’t feel 100% at ease at most of them, but I attributed that feeling to me being an awkward potato. Even then, I didn’t really understand the need for a women only meetup. So I wanted to find out why it existed firsthand.
When I joined the women.code meetup I felt the same awkwardness going in, slightly shuffling around because I didn’t know anyone. The major difference was that it took all of 10 seconds before someone pulled me into the group and actively included me in the conversation. It felt very open and welcoming.
In more male-dominated meetups, I often get the feeling people are speaking with authority on a sometimes nearly arrogant level, trying to outdo each other. None of that at the women.code(be) meetup. Nobody talked over me the entire evening, nobody was interrupting anyone else. Everyone got to speak and it was just a more relaxed and sociable meetup.
You and your husband are starting up the Antwerp Java User Group, what are your plans for this community? What kind of activities/events are you going to do?
Our first plan for the community, is to create one. We want to create a nurturing and inclusive environment where Java enthusiasts can share their ideas and learn from each other.
Diversity is something we both find very important, so we try and put as much effort as we can into it. For the moment we’ve done that by creating a clear code of conduct, which we will be enforcing. We really want everyone to feel welcome and safe. We will be doing small things that will hopefully make an impact in that regard, like picking up people coming by public transport who might not be familiar with the city, and hosting our events in a neutral space.
Our main events would be tech talks, by and for the community. The format we’d like that to take is one or two lightning talks followed by the main talk. This way we want to encourage and support new speakers, who might not feel ready for a longer talk, by giving them the chance to do a short one. Did you create a small app you’d like to show off, use a framework that failed epicly for some reason, or learned some cool new shortcuts in your IDE? Great! We’d love to hear about it! We want to welcome both new and veteran developers to give talks, as long as it’s somehow related to Java.
One thing my husband and I always do is… dream big. We’d love to add other activities to our repertoire, like workshops, where we’d tackle an interesting project together. We’d also like to do more informal meetups, for instance get a coffee together and chat, or a picnic in the MAS where you can bring your family. We’ll see where the community takes us!
What are the ups and downs of being married to a fellow developer? Did you ever receive negative criticism regarding your skills or knowledge because of this?
It does indeed have ups and downs.
On the plus side, we get to come home after work and talk about our day with someone who genuinely knows what we’re talking about. We can share our enthusiasm and ask for a second opinion on things and get a useful answer. It’s also great that we can vent a bit and have the other person groan and chime in with witty remarks.
However, I have literally had someone invalidate all of my hard work by saying that my husband must have helped me a lot. Which is infuriating to say the least. This person saw reason the moment I said something about it, and had the grace to profusely apologize, but it should never have happened in the first place. When I told my husband he was completely shocked. It really changed how he looks at the tech community. Luckily, this was the worst comment I’ve had so far, but it wasn’t the first, and it certainly won’t be the last.
How could the tech industry be more inclusive for women and minorities?
I find it hard to answer this question in a blanket statement, so I can only speak for myself. As someone with chronic migraines, I would really like “real” flexible working hours. Many companies say they have flexible working hours but it’s actually just shifting hours (enter between 7 and 9, leave between 4 and 6). I can work 40 hours a week but it is difficult for me to commit to 8 hours a day.
Outside of the tech industry, I think it is very important that there is a mentality shift in high school. Where I went to school, IT was seen as “lower rank” (TSO vs ASO). I would love to see more IT integrated into ASO, and there need to be big changes to how the IT that is taught is done. Learning how to turn on a pc and what the names of all the banners in Word are just doesn’t cut it in this day and age.
If you look back on when you first started out. What advice would you give yourself?
Don’t do that internship in machine learning. For me personally, as a college student, it didn’t help me in my career. To get a machine learning job, nearly all companies expect you to have a Master degree in Maths or something equivalent.
While it was interesting to actually do some machine learning, I feel that internship didn’t help me at all finding a job after graduation.