Profile: Karen Hoyos, backend software engineer in the Payment team at Babbel

Women in tech: “Diversity should be represented at every level”

Madeleine Domogalla

Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Two years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Karen Hoyos, a backend software engineer in the Payment team at Babbel.

research study by The National Center for Women & Information Technology showed that “gender diversity has specific benefits in technology settings,” which could explain why tech companies have started to invest in initiatives that aim to boost the number of female applicants, recruit them in a more effective way, retain them for longer, and give them the opportunity to advance. But is it enough?

Two years ago, we launched a diversity series aimed at bringing the most inspirational and powerful women in the tech scene to your attention. Today, we’d like you to meet Karen Hoyos, a backend software engineer in the Payment team at Babbel.

Today’s Woman in Tech: Karen Hoyos women in tech

Karen Hoyos is a backend software engineer in the Payment team at Babbel. Originally a social worker, Karen left Spain for France to work in the travel industry, which later brought her to Berlin where she has lived for the past 5 years. After completing a full stack developer bootcamp in 2018 she joined Babbel, but continues to wear her social worker hat, volunteering with various projects teaching women to code.

What first got you interested in tech?

A couple of years ago, I knew I wanted to change but I had no idea in which direction.

I thought about going back to University to study a master’s degree, but I gave up on the idea after finding most of the master’s I was interested in would take me at least 2 years to complete. I then opened the MeetUp page to see what was going on in Berlin and I stumbled across a free coding day. I decided to sign up and I went. After that day, I knew I wanted to become a developer. It amazed me what I achieved in just a few hours with no prior experience in the field. During the event I got to talk to different people who got into coding without having a computer science degree, proving that it is possible to learn to code.

I really liked the instant gratification you get when you see that your code is working. I also found that technology is such a broad and constantly changing field, I will be busy learning and improving myself, which is something that I was missing for a while.

After that coding day, I decided to quit my permanent job and enrolled in a 9-week coding bootcamp.

How did you end up in your career path? What obstacles did you have to overcome?

I studied social work, something completely unrelated to technology. Growing up I decided I wanted to work in a field that would allow me to make a difference to the people around me. Then it was patients; now I work to help users. Either way I work towards something where I can see the impact I have.

The thing that I liked the most about web development when I decided to switch careers was the huge amount of possibilities that field provides; I knew I would be constantly learning, I could change from one technology to the other and keep improving myself.

Learning to code wasn’t an easy, happy path. There were moments of frustration, but not once did I question my decision to get into coding. What kept me going (and still does), is knowing that I have a very interesting future of learning new technologies ahead of me.

A strong support system

Nobody in my family or my immediate group of friends work in tech, so during the bootcamp I didn’t have anybody except the teachers to talk to. I had regular conversations with them about the learning process. The good thing about the bootcamp is that the teachers and teaching assistants were all alumni, so they went through the exact same experience I did, making it very easy for me to talk to them.

Did anyone ever try to stop you from learning and advancing in your professional life?

My family, especially my parents were very concerned about me quitting my permanent job as that’s something that is unfortunately not common in Spain. They were concerned I wouldn’t find a job after the bootcamp. They never tried to stop me, per se, but they voiced their concerns. Their worry was understandable as this field is not well known to them.

My boyfriend, on the other hand, was very supportive, so coming back home after a long day of coding and having his support also helped a lot while studying.

A day in Karen’s life

I work at Babbel as a Backend Software Engineer. Babbel is a language learning company and I’m part of the Payment team. We take care of integration with the different payment providers we offer, incorporate new currencies and payment methods into the product, work closely with Marketing to launch campaigns, etc.

We work in 2-week sprints, where we decide the focus of the sprint and the tasks we are giving priority to. We work out the priorities by considering time constraints; accordingly, we either take on tasks individually, in pairs or groups. After the 2 weeks, we have what’s called a retrospective where we talk about the sprint, what worked well, what didn’t and things we think we need to discuss.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I’m still fairly new in the field, (nearly 2 years), but I’m proud of having become a mentor, and thinking that my experience can inspire other people to change their careers and show them that it is possible.

I believe diversity in general has been proven to have a positive impact in the work environment.

I’ve been a teacher at ReDI school for two semesters now. I’m part of the Women Program and we teach coding fundamentals with Python. I am amazed by the number of women interested in coding, we have such a diverse group of ages and backgrounds. Last semester we even had a mother and a daughter coming to class together. It makes me happy to see some of them continuing in the ReDI school with more advanced coding courses.

Why aren’t there more women in tech?

From the outside, the tech industry can seem like a highly competitive field only for high-performing people, which in my opinion is not true. There’s a misconception that programming is very maths heavy, which is also not true, so some people can feel intimidated and not see this as a career path for them.

What challenges do women in tech face?

Fortunately, I can say that I didn’t face any obstacles. My colleagues didn’t give me special treatment or sugar-coat their answers because I’m a woman. It is true that this field is still very male-dominated, so the language used is mainly directed to male colleagues and you can see the documentation has a very male bias, but I want to think that with more women working in the field, this idea of male-only programmers will slowly fade away.

Something I noticed when going to conferences is that some men are still surprised when they see you, during breaks you can see long lines for the men’s bathroom while the women’s toilets are empty. It’s unfortunately still rare to see women on the stage giving tech talks, but we are slowly getting there. The same effect has happened several times when meeting new people comparing our occupations. I had many surprised faces when talking about my job and people assumed that I would be a frontend developer just because I’m a woman, and, well, it seems that we are more creative than men.

Would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?

I believe diversity in general has been proven to have a positive impact in the work environment. It’s great to have colleagues that come from a completely different background and how you can use that previous knowledge and experience in this field.

I also believe that we are breaking the stereotype of the programmer by having more diverse teams where people from different backgrounds find their common passion for code.

The discussion about diversity is gaining momentum. How long will it take to see results from the current debate?

I think it is essential that companies see diversity as beneficial.

I think diversity should be within every part of the company, not only hiring women developers but also promoting these women to become tech leads, engineer directors and so on. If we only make our teams diverse, we are not making the company diverse, as diversity should be represented at every level. Talking about diversity is also talking about inclusion; you shouldn’t hire a woman just to improve your company’s data if you are not going to include them and let her develop within the company.

People with diverse backgrounds bring fresh ideas to the table, ideas we all can benefit from.

Learning to code wasn’t an easy, happy path. There were moments of frustration, but not once did I question my decision to get into coding.

I also see that the industry is slowly changing the requirements for their employees. You can see in job offers less and less companies looking for candidates with a computer science background. Tech companies don’t care where or how you got the skills needed for the job, so long as you have them! This is something that came as the field opened up to more diverse people.

It’s important that we know that there are many women entrepreneurs that decide to start their own businesses and they should have equal access to funding.

What advice would you give to women who want a tech career?

I would say anybody can learn to code; you can switch careers if you want to, but you have to make sure that that’s what you want. It is not just learning concepts or new syntax, but changing your mindset, the way you face challenges and break down problems. For me, that’s the most difficult part about coding, so to overcome this you must be absolutely sure you want to follow this path.

I would also say, use all the resources online, find a mentor, work on a project that matters to you and practice, practice, practice! People often talk about the community around coding; go to meet-ups, become part of study groups in your city or even create one! You’ll be surprised how many people are curious about coding.

What I like the most about programming, is that a lot of companies don’t look at your diploma but your skills and personality, they don’t focus on how you got your knowledge but more what you can actually do. The interviews are about your skills without the need to sell yourself to your future employer; something that I find extremely difficult to do.

Madeleine Domogalla

Madeleine Domogalla

All Posts by Madeleine Domogalla

Madeleine Domogalla has been an editor at S&S-Media since 2018. Previously she studied German Language and Literature at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn.

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