Women in code series: Allison Wilbur, Sauce Labs

The Computer Weekly Developer Network (CWDN) and Open Source Insider team want to talk code and coding. 

But more than that, we want to talk coding across the diversity spectrum… so let’s get the tough part out of the way and talk about the problem.

If all were fair and good in the world, it wouldn’t be an issue of needing to promote the interests of women who code — instead, it should and would be a question of promoting the interests of people who code, some of whom are women. 

However, as we stand two decades after the millennium, there is still a gender imbalance in terms of people already working as software engineers and in terms of those going into the profession. So then, we’re going to talk about it and interview a selection of women who are driving forward in the industry.

Allison Wilbur, Sauce Labs

Allison Wilbur is a software engineer at Sauce Labs, where she has spent the last four years helping develop the company’s continuous testing cloud platform and regularly works with leading development technologies and programming languages including Python, Jenkins, Docker and Kubernetes.

CWDN: What inspired you to get into software development in the first place?

Wilbur: I’ve been using computers for as long as I can remember. As far back as middle school, I was building websites for fun using HTML. I just always loved coding by hand. I saw early on that you could do some pretty amazing things with a computer and I just wanted to be a part of that and have control of it. Something about building things using computers was always really enjoyable and empowering to me.

CWDN: When did you realise that this was going to be a full-blown career choice for you?

Wilbur: I was lucky enough to take a course on C++ way back in high school and I felt like I knew right then. Most people when they’re in high school are just starting to scratch the surface of knowing what they want to do, but I already knew. Computer science just made so much sense to me. I was going to high school in north Austin, Texas, but I knew right then and there that I eventually wanted to be in Silicon Valley.

CWDN: What languages, platforms and tools have you gravitated towards and why?

Wilbur: I prefer Python. It’s easy to use and really powerful. I like the syntax and everything you’re capable of doing with it. Productivity is such a big part of a developer’s world and I feel like it’s the language that enables me to be the most productive. Before I discovered Python, I was primarily using Java. It was an effective tool, but I just found Python to be much easier and more pleasant to work with. I’ve also been working a lot lately with Docker and Kubernetes. They’re two really powerful technologies; real workhorses in terms of getting things done.

CWDN: What has been your greatest software application development challenge and how have you overcome it?

Wilbur: It’s funny, but most of the major challenges that you encounter as a dev team are not technology or skills challenges, they’re people and process challenges. As an example, at Sauce Labs, the dev team recently migrated from working on an internal system to a cloud-based system, which has given us a lot more velocity and enabled us to be considerably more productive.

Though it was a huge undertaking from a technology standpoint, the real challenge was getting buy-in from other teams and communicating across the organisation what this change in process meant and how it would impact them and their work. Contrary to popular belief, developers aren’t off in the corner isolated from the rest of the company. Everything we do impacts other teams and vice versa. So, sure, you can’t become a great developer without the technical skills and know-how, but you also can’t do it without the ability and willingness to communicate and collaborate.

CWDN: Are we on the road to a 50:50 gender balance in software engineering, or will there always be a mismatch?

Wilbur: A couple of weeks into college, I was sitting in my first computer science course and realised that out of 40 or 50 people in the room, I was the only female. It was hard not to look at that and wonder what’s going here. Now, that was a long time ago… and I think things are gradually getting more balanced and will continue to do so as long as we continue to expose girls to computers and technology at a young age.

As soon as we could read, my dad taught my sister and me to get on the computer and had us navigating DOS and launching math programs. My sister is a developer now too (for Home Depot). We used to fight over who got to use the computer. We were both exposed to computers at an early age and I really believe that’s the key.

I don’t know if or when we’ll ever see a 50/50 balance, but I do think the more we expose girls to technology early on and the more we can empower them to go through life without ever thinking that they can’t do this because science and technology are for boys, the more that will translate into a balanced workplace.

CWDN: What role can men take in terms of helping to promote women’s interests in the industry?

Wilbur: One big thing is to empathise. Empathise with the fact that it’s not (yet!) the same experience for a woman working as a dev as it is a man. Make sure the women on your team know they’re not alone and they have allies who want to see them succeed.

The other big thing men can do is just always be aware. Awareness is the first step to eliminating whatever bias still exists. While there’s definitely been great progress, there are still a lot of biases out there that we’re not even really conscious of on a day-to-day basis. Just being more aware of what you’re witnessing and calling out bias when you see it, that goes an incredibly long way.

CWDN: If you could give your 21-year old self one piece of advice for success, what would it be?

Wilbur: I would say don’t worry if it takes some time for your career to get off the ground. I graduated from college at the end of 2008, which as it happens was just about the worst time in the last century to be looking for a job in the U.S. It takes time and it won’t be perfect right away. Don’t worry about all that. And don’t worry if the first job isn’t “the one”. I worked first in QA, then as an implementation engineer and then in support before I became a dev. All of those experiences helped me find where I eventually wanted to be.

If things feel overwhelming at first, know that’s normal… and remember to stop every now and again and reflect on everything you’ve accomplished. When you’re in the day-to-day, it can feel like you haven’t accomplished much. But when you step back, you’ll realise how far you’ve come and how much impact you’ve had.


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