A Woman at Google I/O
Written by Kimberly Spillman   
Friday, 06 July 2012

Android developer, Kimberly Spillman went to this year's Google I/O and reports on the experience of being a woman in a male-dominated event for a male-dominated profession and shares some of her ideas for much needed  change.

Being a daddy's girl to a physicist, the world of computer science was opened to me early and it was a natural progression that I would go to UCSD to study computer science and make it my career.
Fast-forward to my first Google I/O. I had a friend who had gone last year and it got me thinking about going. I was used to the idea of being sent by my employer to conferences and, although it was a little bizarre to spend so much money and vacation time sending myself to a conference, I have to say it was worth every penny.
Before the event an e-mail invited me to the Women's Google Tech event and this offered the prospect of discussing issues relevant to me. The panel talked about some of the issues with being a female engineer and talked about the desire to hire more women engineers. One woman in the audience made a comment about the t-shirts at Google I/O: they didn't have women's t-shirts and that made her feel unwelcome.  Although this seems like a small issue, it is one dear to my heart. For at least 10 years I've been telling employers that I won't wear a men's shirt and have asked to get women's shirts.  They have always complied, but they often hadn't thought about it at all. 
Her question spurred me to ask a question: I had interviewed at Google and I was interviewed by all men. I said that I thought it would be advantageous for both sides to be interviewed by at least one woman. Turns out that they do try to do that, but it didn't happen in my particular case. This is not something that I normally would even think about, but I had had some surprising feedback from some recent interviews- one of which was they were looking for someone with more experience - and having almost 4 years of Android experience, working in depth with Android months before the first phone was released, left me wondering what else they could possibly have looked for. I reviewed in my head the interviews I had done better in and those I had done worse in and I realized that I did better when I was: given a paper test, given a computer to code on and when interviewed by at least one woman. I then realized that I had three interviews in Silicon Valley, interviewed by at least 15 people - all men.  And yet I know these companies had women engineers.  I thought it was very curious that they hadn't thought to include a woman on the interview panel.
There was another chance to consider women-in-programming issues the last day at Google I/O at a Girls in Tech event. The panel included women from Facebook, Microsoft and the Anita Borg Institute.  The panel was very interesting with great advice and encouragement and I'm so glad I attended.  But one thing really struck me - one of the developers in the panel looked and sounded to me like a woman in a beauty pageant; almost like a real-life barbie doll.  I have not yet met a developer like her.  She told a story about a time in her life when she had attended a similar event and what was going on in her professional life.  She had been working with a man who had told her that he had 30 years of programming experience and that she had basically better get out of his way/do as he said and completely dismissed her.  She told us that she was happy to report he was no longer at Microsoft and she had taken over his job. 
Her statement really struck a chord with me because it was only a few months ago I had been dismissed by a man, being told “I've been programming for 40 years...”  (all the while thinking in my head, “I've been programming 30 years even though I don't look it because I've been programming since I was a child.”)  I realized that I, too, had been judgmental - she didn't look like what I expect software engineers to look like. People don't always come in the packages that we expect and we all have some prejudices in our heads that we need to be vigilant to identify and squash.
There have been times in my life that I have felt obvious sexism or prejudice or I have felt out of place.  This has really varied based on where I was - in some cases feeling like that constantly, in some cases feeling like that almost not at all.  There was only one moment at Google I/O that I felt a little like that. It was in one of the Code Labs, where we sat and coded, being led through a project by a Google employee with help available from Google TAs (technical assistants). For the most part they were extremely helpful and patient.  One guy, however, got very frustrated with my questions and would tell me that I hadn't followed the instructions properly and that I should go back and follow the instructions and call him back after that.  And he told me that more than once. 
This was a familiar feeling of being dismissed. I went back through the instructions a couple of times, varying it a little and ending up messing up my project for a while.  I eventually came back to the same spot and got someone else to help me.  I had done it all correctly the first time!  What I had taken offense to, and had felt dismissed over, had actually been a flaw in the TA who just didn't know enough about what he was doing. I haven't often gotten to that point where I could see the whole picture- instead just feeling dismissed and wondering why I've been treated that way.  Is it because I'm female?  Sometimes it feels like that is the case, but it is hard to be certain.

One of the main points from the panels is that women need to be more confident in our abilities. I have heard that again and again and that that confidence is needed in job interviews and women need that to get ahead. I think, however, that the world could really benefit by becoming a bit more like women.  I can't tell you the amount of time I've wasted in my life by following what an over-confident man proclaimed. I’ve heard 100% confident, assured comments, even when I’ve questioned the guy about whether he was really sure, and it has still turned out that the guy I was talking to had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. 

In contrast, when I have talked with women software engineers I feel I have gotten a very accurate picture and I have then known whether I should spend a little bit of time verifying or whether to be confident in what they were saying. I think women really have something to offer the world that would really help with productivity; I think that men should learn to admit when they don't know things and to actually be impressed when someone’s understanding of their own knowledge is accurate. 

One specific example of overconfidence was in Google I/O code lab when the TA kept telling me I hadn’t followed the instructions correctly and I ended up missing half the code lab because I listened to his advice.

How do we make this change? 

Well- part of it would be to get more women on job interview panels to offer their unique perspective and their ability to see beyond confidence to the true ability.

Confidence without ability and knowledge is truly overrated.

Author note:

Kimberly Spillman received her B.S. and M.S. in Computer Science from UCSD. She is a C++ and Java programmer with almost 4 years experience developing for Native Android. She's recently become involved in application competitions and her team won the San Diego Apps Challenge Popular Choice Award - Grand Prize, announced while she was at Google I/O.

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Last Updated ( Friday, 06 July 2012 )