Profile: Grace Jansen, Developer Advocate at IBM

Women in Tech: “We desperately need people who think differently in this industry”

Madeleine Domogalla
women in tech

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 Grace Jansen, Developer Advocate at IBM.

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 Grace Jansen, Developer Advocate at IBM.

Today’s woman in tech: Grace Jansen, developer advocate at IBM

Grace is a developer advocate at IBM, working with Open Liberty and Reactive Platform. She has now been with IBM for a year, after graduating from Exeter University with a Degree in Biology. Moving to software engineering has been a challenging step for Grace, but she enjoys bringing a varied perspective to her projects and using her knowledge of biological systems to simplify complex software patterns and architectures. As a Developer Advocate, Grace builds POCs, demos and sample applications, and writes guides and tutorials to help guide users through technologies and products. Grace also has a keen passion for encouraging more women into STEM and especially Technology careers.

What first got you interested in tech?

I remember the first computer my family ever had – it was a huge white box that was proudly presented by my father on Christmas day. Since that Christmas, I have always been fascinated by computers and technology. When I was young, I took every opportunity I could to use our new computer to complete all my assignments and projects and play the new computer games I’d acquired. I always wanted the newest piece of technology and saved up all my pocket money in order to afford the newest portable media device (the first ever iPod). I took IT classes at school and even started playing around with robotics and creating websites at the end of high school. So, I guess you could say that my interest in technology started that Christmas when I first got to use a computer and saw it’s almost infinite possibilities.

How did you end up in your career path?

Unfortunately, I was limited in my choice of subjects to study at school, and computing/coding wasn’t one of them. So, I followed my other passion, biology, to degree level. I thoroughly enjoyed studying biology but maintained my passion for computers and technology. Luckily, as part of my degree, I was able to undertake modules combining these interests – modelling biological simulations using Python and R. These projects helped me realise it was the technology aspect I enjoyed the most, and so after graduating it was a technology career I pursued. Fortunately, IBM looks to hire a diverse range of graduates into their programme and offered me a place in their Hursley development lab.

It was not easy though. There is always a steep learning curve when switching from one specialty to another. This was no different. Although I’d dabbled in coding through my research projects at university and projects I’d undertaken in my free time, switching to an object-orientated programming in a language I’d never used, whilst also trying to make it production standard, is hard for anyone. However, again, I was lucky that IBM accounted for this and gave me plenty of time to learn and develop under senior engineers. The mentors and teachers I acquired during my first few months at IBM were key to helping me cope with this steep learning and curve and overcome the obstacle of my lack of experience in the Java ecosystem.

Did someone support you and do you have a role model?

Yes, I received immense support from my family, friends, and colleagues. Without that support, I’m not sure I’d be in the role I am today. It was actually my mum who suggested a technology career path to me initially and encouraged me to undertake work experience at IBM when I was 13, that’s when my interest in tech and a career in this industry was sparked. The constant encouragement of my family, friends and especially colleagues helped me keep a positive outlook during the intense learning period at the start of my career as a graduate and continues to help me challenge myself constantly.

Dr. Mae Jemison, the first black female astronaut in space, is a role model I look up to and admire greatly. Her inspiring story shows how she overcame the stereotype of both her gender and her race to follow her dreams and travel to space! Mae has not only completed a successful space mission for NASA but has founded several foundations and non-profit organisations with the aim of advocating science education and getting minority students interested in science. I find it extremely humbling and inspirational to see how many lives Dr. Jemison is impacting positively through the many initiatives she is involved with.

Recently, her foundation, the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, won a DARPA bid for the 100 Year Starship project through which the foundation is now researching into interstellar travel for the next 100 years. Dr. Jemison has achieved a phenomenal amount throughout her career/life and inspires me to pursue my dreams and quite literally reach for the stars!

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

Luckily, I have never experienced someone deliberately trying to stunt my professional development and growth. I have found the tech community extremely welcoming and friendly and have never felt my gender disadvantaged me when learning or advancing my professional career.

What does your typical workday look like?

Currently, I’m a Developer Advocate for IBM, working in their UK development lab. My role often means that there’s no such thing as a “typical day” for me, which I love! It can range from presenting at an international conference, to writing up a blog post, to working on a demo application. As a developer advocate, our role is to help make it easier for developers to use the technologies and offerings we advocate. We do this by creating guides, tutorials, blogs and sample demo applications that help developers know the best practice for using a particular technology/offering and how to integrate it with other technologies/offerings. However, our role also includes going out and interacting with developers to collect feedback that we can share with our development teams to improve the user experience of these technologies and offerings.

I have found the tech community extremely welcoming and friendly and have never felt my gender disadvantaged me when learning or advancing my professional career.

What are you most proud of in your career?

Throughout my career in technology, I have pursued every opportunity I could to be a role model for younger female students and encourage more females to follow their passions in STEM and technology. Due to my work in this area, I was recently awarded a TechWomen100 award. To have won this award so early on in my career has been enormously encouraging and rewarding. I am extremely proud of this achievement and hope to utilise it to encourage more young females to pursue their passions in STEM.

Why aren’t there more women in tech?

This is a complicated question and I don’t think there’s a single answer. Yes, there have been women in tech throughout the decades such as our own Ruth Leach Amonette, who was appointed as the first female executive and vice president at IBM in 1943, at age 27. Women like Meg Whitman, Susan Wojcicki, or Ginni Rometty are holding leadership roles today. I have been fortunate enough to join a company (IBM) that has been on the forefront of addressing this since the early 20th century.

However, I do believe that our industry is still struggling with decades of ingrained stereotypes and unfair gender assumptions that have been slow to change. These assumptions and stereotyping have meant that whilst other “traditionally male-dominated” workforces in other industries have been able to increase their diversity, we, the tech industry, have fallen behind.

So, although this question is important, arguably the more pertinent question would be what can we do to improve the number of women in the tech industry?

There are many initiatives businesses can implement to improve diversity within their own organisations. Examples implemented by IBM include our Be Equal initiative to engage IBMers, customers, and society in promoting the advancement of gender equality in business leadership; and our own European Women’s Leadership Council (EWLC) which meets quarterly to discuss initiatives and share programmes and projects which benefit the advancement of women in IBM. The council is actively driving improvement of female representation in executive leadership and leadership development and working to attract, retain and promote women in IBM.

However, we still need to have more females entering technology careers for these initiatives to be successful. Unfortunately, we do not yet have enough young females entering this pipeline.

Studies have shown that girls tend to develop an interest in STEM subjects just before the age of 11 but that this interest drops sharply when they turn 16. Girls cite a lack of female role models in STEM as one of the main reasons behind their declining interest in STEM. This is understandable, as it can be difficult for the girls to see themselves in a career in technology when shown very few role models and positive examples of successful females to look up to. Another reason for this drop in interest is the lack of hands-on, practical STEM activities available to them which can often be due to a lack of funding and/or time in schools.

This presents a prime opportunity for those already in technology careers, especially females, to volunteer and take part in activities aimed at young female students to help encourage and nurture these interests in STEM and prevent this drop-off. There are many ways, both large and small, in which every individual can get involved, these could include: mentoring, visiting local schools and running STEM activities or presentations on careers in STEM, participating and helping run local code camps for children, or running STEM events for children at your own workplace (including hackathons, competitions, etc).

However, I do believe that our industry is still struggling with decades of ingrained stereotypes and unfair gender assumptions that have been slow to change.

Could you name a few challenges (or obstacles) women in tech face?

It has been widely discussed that the challenge most commonly faced by females in tech is overcoming the stereotypes that exist in our industry. It is regularly assumed by people outside of our immediate teams that we’re not technical and are instead assumed to be in other stereotypically “feminine” careers such as marketing, social media, etc. The fact that these assumptions and stereotypes are still supported by many individuals in our society can be the most frustrating aspect of a career in technology for females.

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

The simple and straight forward answer is, yes! Our world would certainly be different if our workforce were more diverse, and that includes (but is not limited to) encouraging more women in STEM. There have been many studies done on this particular topic, showing the positive effects of increasing the number of women in our workforce.

A 2019 report from the government’s Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) concluded there is a gap in critical digital skills needed to meet business demands. It is important that this gap be filled with a diverse set of skills. Increasing the number of women in STEM would help tackle this shortage of skilled digital workers of which the European Commission estimates us to have a shortage of 500,000 by 2020. The European Commission has also estimated that by closing this gender gap it could add €820 billion to the European economy by 2050. These sorts of economic impacts are also reflected by studies carried out by McKinsey Global Institute for the USA, where they estimate that gender parity could add up to $28 trillion to the annual global GDP by 2525.

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

This question is particularly hard to answer, because every individual will likely have different expectations of what “results” means or represents.

In my opinion, thanks to this discussion already gaining attention and momentum, I believe we’re already seeing results. The number of women in STEM-based careers continues to grow, there are many more female role models for others to follow, efforts are being made to address gender-bias, and, efforts are being made to tackle obstacles and challenges faced by women in the workplace. However, I still believe there is a lot of work still left to do. I hope the industry continues to push through the necessary changes and to address diversity challenges in STEM.

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

Don’t be alarmed if you find yourself in the minority of your team or company or even the workforce as a whole. If you do find yourself in this position, you may find there are times when you wish to try and hide your differences to fit in. Please don’t. We desperately need people who think differently in this industry to help us drive innovation and improve product development. Embrace your different perspectives, your colleagues and our industry as a whole will be grateful for the unique insights you bring.

The technology industry is an ever-changing and therefore extremely exciting environment. It’s full of exciting and interesting projects to work on. Building computers from birth is not a pre-requisite to join this industry! All that’s required is an inquisitive mind and a passion for continuous learning. If you think this may be you, then please don’t feel afraid to apply for a career in STEM or technology!

Don’t miss our Women in Tech profiles:

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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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