Women in Tech: “The spectrum of career opportunities in the tech industry is very diverse”
Women are underrepresented in the tech sector —myth or reality? Three 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 Katrin Strasser, Technology Lead Natural Language Processing at Cloudflight.
A 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?
Three 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 Katrin Strasser, Technology Lead Natural Language Processing at Cloudflight.
Today’s Woman in Tech: Katrin Strasser, Technology Lead Natural Language Processing at Cloudflight.
During her studies of computer science, Katrin Strasse has been working on game development and Augmented Reality. For her master’s degree, she specialized in bioinformatics and artificial intelligence and now works as Technology Lead Natural Language Processing at Cloudflight.
When did you first become interested in technology?
I have always been interested in technology, in the beginning, it was in areas like photography and film. I was never really interested in the hardware behind it. For example, I never had the idea to disassemble and reassemble a computer or other devices just out of curiosity. What I was more interested in was the big picture. The logic behind it. I have always enjoyed solving tricky problems or puzzles.
At school, I had the opportunity to choose computer science as a major subject. The reason why I decided against it was that I would have been the only girl in the class. I didn’t want that at the time. Shortly before the school exams, I took a vocational aptitude test. The result showed a clear talent in areas that are essential for programming. After an open day at the FH Salzburg and a few very encouraging conversations with computer science students, I finally dared to take up studies in a field that was completely new and unknown to me.
How has your career been so far? Have you had any female role models?
At the beginning of my studies, my plan was to choose web development as my major subject. However, during the first year of study, it turned out that I was more interested in game development. Therefore I specialized in games and augmented reality from the second year on. I then completed my master’s degree in bioinformatics with a focus on artificial intelligence. During this time I worked part-time at Cloudflight while I was still a student. My main focus was on Natural Language Processing (NLP). The interface between bioinformatics and language processing lies in the methodology: proteins and DNA are coded as letter sequences just like words and sentences, and later translated into numerical sequences by programs.
I don’t really have a particular female role model.
The basis for AI is historical data, unfortunately often not sufficiently adjusted. Unfortunately, too little attention is usually paid to the effects of systematic discrimination against women – or minorities.
I’ve always tried to go my own way. During college, we women mostly supported each other. At work and in our team, everyone is equally valued, whether man or woman. As a role model, I see my team leaders in particular, but also my teammates. When working together, I was able to learn a lot of new things.
Have obstacles been deliberately put in the way of your career?
No, no obstacle was deliberately put in the way of my career. However, my studies were a real challenge for me. I started from scratch. Many of my fellow students already had previous knowledge. For me, it took about two years until I reached the same level. That was really difficult for me. It was as if you were attending a language course and the others were already able to talk, while all you could say was ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’. When looking for a job I also had to experience that you are not welcomed with open arms everywhere. Although there is always a demand for specialists in the IT sector, I have received a few rejections. I’m glad to now work for a company that has always supported me and in which I feel comfortable.
A day in Katrin’s life
I work as Technology Lead Natural Language Processing at Cloudflight. My job is to keep track of the latest methods and technologies in NLP and to lead customer projects based on these. Often I am also directly on-site with the customer. In addition, I prepare customer data and improve their database so that it can be used for AI applications. But I am also very active in the field of new business. For example, I take care of answering bidding.
However, I have also developed some things myself. At the moment I’m working on a big project for Austrian social insurance companies. To optimize the cost reimbursement process, we are developing an AI-based tool. The goal is a model that automatically extracts certain data from scanned or photographed documents, validates this data in inventory systems, and then – if necessary – adds manual data.
Why are there so few women in the tech industry? What hurdles do women still have to overcome today?
Many women do not even see IT as a possible option. Although there are many who are interested in the subject, in the end, they still choose a different path. For this reason, I founded the association “Female Coders” together with some female colleagues from the tech industry. Our goal is to make it easier for women to get started in IT through free workshops every two weeks. It is important to us that the hurdles are removed or at least partially removed by targeted actions.
The issue that women are under-represented in technical professions and STEM courses of study is widely known. Nevertheless, too little is being done officially to change this. However, the responsibility for this lies not only with the women themselves. Everyone must pull together – including men.
Which stereotypes have you already encountered with regard to “Women in Tech” and what problems do they cause?
“You don’t look like you can program” was probably the most extreme thing I had to listen to. Unfortunately, I have not only encountered these stereotypes sporadically. The view that women are not suitable for technical professions is unfortunately still widespread socially. During a TV interview in which several male colleagues and I were interviewed, I was asked how we deal with the issue of parental leave in our company. My male colleagues were asked about work processes and ongoing projects. That says a lot about how deeply rooted these prejudices still are in society. I don’t blame anyone for doing this on purpose, but it’s frustrating that it happens again and again.
Unfortunately, women are often not given the benefit of the trust placed in men. I would also like to stress here that there are also many positive examples. On the one hand, very appreciative customers, on the other hand, my colleagues who have always supported and encouraged me. I am very grateful for this.
How would our world be different if more women worked in STEM?
Overall, it has been proven that various teams have increased productivity. This is also logical: when different opinions and ideas are accumulated, you get a broader picture of a problem or topic. However, diversity is not exclusively limited to gender. Characteristics such as origin and professional background also play a role. This is especially important when programming software.
Until now, software design has often ignored the needs of women or ethnic minorities. Tim Bernes Lee, one of the pioneers of the World Wide Web, recently demonstrated that the Internet is a male domain. He is therefore committed to establishing etiquette on the Web so that people, whether men or women, have equal opportunities all over the world.
The basis for AI is historical data, unfortunately often not sufficiently adjusted. Unfortunately, too little attention is usually paid to the effects of systematic discrimination against women – or minorities. In fact, all data should be cleansed of all information that could lead to discrimination against certain cohorts. It must be kept in mind that women make up over 50 percent of the world’s population. The requirements for software can only be met if all user groups are involved in the design.
What does the future look like – will the diversity debate soon be history?
No, unfortunately not. We are still at the beginning. Centuries-old habits cannot be dropped from one generation to the next. For example, it is still a widespread opinion that when a family grows, it is primarily the woman who looks after the children. As long as such assumptions remain hidden in software or AI, we have not achieved equality.
You must not give up immediately if something doesn’t work. The feeling of success is all the greater when you have found the fault.
What advice (and tips) would you give to women who want a tech career?
The spectrum of career opportunities in the tech industry is very diverse. From classic programming, data science or artificial intelligence to project management, requirements engineering, user experience (UX) design or product responsibility, many things are possible. I would strongly advise young women to at least try programming and not to exclude it from the outset. There are many good online tutorials that provide a good introduction to the topic. It’s a great experience to be involved in the development of software that goes live. At that moment you have created something that makes life or work easier for other people.
You must not give up immediately if something doesn’t work. The feeling of success is all the greater when you have found the fault. You can’t learn programming from one day to the next either. It is a long process. So always keep at it and look for an appreciative environment – that creates a good starting point.
More Women in Tech:
- Women in Tech: “Join meetups and other women tech groups”
- Women in Tech: “Degrees can matter but they aren’t required”
- Women in Tech: “The IT sector requires a lot of energy and will”
- Women in Tech: “I got to be a self-taught, self-managed, problem solver”
- Women in Tech: “Don’t let irrational advice keep you from tech!”