Women in code series: Pooja Mistry, IBM developer advocate

The Computer Weekly Developer Network 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 women are.

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.

Pooja Mistry, IBM developer advocate.

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

Pooja Mistry: My dad was a self-taught software developer during the dot-com era and my family moved to the U.S. when he had an opportunity to work for a start-up. As a young kid, I remember meeting his engineering colleagues and having lots of fun at his office holiday parties. He would always try to teach me how to build simple “Hello World” applications in Java but I was too young and rebellious to take it seriously. I think I first became interested in engineering through CD-ROMs of computer games and make-it-yourself kits, which always involved a lot of creativity, logic and critical thinking.

In college, I had a really hard time trying to figure out if I should follow in my dad’s footsteps and pursue computer science or get into medicine. I ultimately decided to pursue biomedical engineering at George Washington University, thinking it would be a combination of both. Throughout my time in school, I gravitated more towards project-driven classes vs. the theoretical science-based ones and I really loved courses such as robotics, computer science and electronics. For my senior design class, we were tasked with building something and getting it to work the way it’s supposed to.

My senior design professor would always say, “There’s no such thing as magic,” which came off a little harsh but was incredibly helpful when trying to troubleshoot and debug issues.

After graduating, I knew I wanted a career that would give me the satisfaction of finishing a project (and the rush of excitement that follows). I started as a software development intern with IBM and quickly realised that software development is where it’s at.

Robust automation frameworks

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

Pooja Mistry: During my internship as a junior QA engineer at IBM, I learned a lot about technology and realised that this was the industry I wanted to be in. I later joined IBM Watson as a full-time software automation engineer where I learned how to build robust automation frameworks, write efficient scripts and optimise deployments to test all the various parts of the application’s stack. I picked up software development on the job and invested my time in learning more by taking courses in Java, API automation and full-stack web development (with many more courses still in my queue). I loved the idea of being able to learn and grow on the job and I spent my time outside of work creating communities of like-minded individuals, going to various tech meetups, conferences and hackathons simply to absorb and learn. This was when I knew this was the right career for me – learning something tangible and then applying it in a practical way is what really drives me and keeps me in this field today.

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

Pooja Mistry: These days as a developer advocate, I have taken my passion for learning and converted it into teaching. As a self-taught developer in this industry, I approach teaching the way I would like to learn it: steadily and concisely. My mission is to give everyone the confidence in their ability to create and that’s why I have really gravitated towards Node-RED and all things node.js. Node-RED allows developers at all levels to run quickly and build really cool applications without having to dive too deeply into the crux of the code. It’s a flow-based programming model that is great for any IoT- based projects, such as working with Raspberry Pi and web applications. It gives you a feeling of building something awesome fairly quickly, without too much effort. I am currently teaching a series on prototyping with Node-RED at IBM Developer NYC meetups and am always excited to present all of its cool capabilities.

CWDN: How important do you think it is for us to have diversity (not just gender, but all forms) in software teams in terms of cultivating a collective mindset that is capable of solving diversified problems?

Pooja Mistry: It’s funny – when I worked in healthcare tech, I found an interesting bug that we fixed right away involving a test cis female profile and a prostate attribute. So yeah, I think it’s super important to have diversity and not just in gender. It’s important to empathise with many different viewpoints, especially if we are creating products for the masses. When people have different backgrounds and experiences, everyone brings something interesting to the table. The more diverse we are in our teams, the more chances we have to learn interesting and useful things from one another and build products that really stand the test of time. The one thing that is consistent in life is change and if our software teams were all the same in terms of race, gender, age and experience, the products and possibilities that we create in this world could not evolve – and everyone would have prostates!

Simplifying requirements

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

Pooja Mistry: Historically, my greatest software application development challenge has always been trying to simplify the requirements of what I am looking to create. As an overthinker, I sometimes get too caught up in the weeds of thinking about all edge cases of what needs to get done. In reality, the best approach is to step back, build the most basic version of the application first and grow from there. For example: Trying to parse one line of the data before wondering how to traverse through the entire data set and parse for the specific fields.

What has always helped me in these times of trouble is knowing:

  1. “There is no such thing as magic.” (i.e. there is always a logical reason for something, as quoted from my college senior design professor)
  2. “I can’t be the only one out there with this problem.”

The beautiful thing about technology today is not only does it evolve so quickly, but there are dedicated communities out there for almost anything you would want to learn and build. Almost every problem that arises in tech has been solved on the Internet by someone else who was kind enough to share their experience. That is also why I think it is important to give back your insights to the community as much as possible because surely there is someone else out there who is in the same boat. That is part of my motivation in my role as a developer advocate.

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

Pooja Mistry: As a female engineer and developer advocate, I am always searching for other female engineers and developer advocates. The fact that I am still on this search means that we are not there yet in terms of 50:50 gender balance. However, I do see more and more women building and creating amazing things every day and there are so many organisations and communities geared toward encouraging women to get into the field. As a female developer advocate, I will always do my part in encouraging my fellow sisters to feel confident in themselves and their relationships with technology and ultimately with their abilities to create. I’d like to see a future where there is no longer a conversation about female versus male software engineers: where we are all software engineers trying to solve challenging problems to make the world a better place.

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

Pooja Mistry: As women, we are often expected to organise and handle logistics. This can take away from our time to code, learn, challenge ourselves and solve the problems we want to solve. I think some ways that men can help promote women in this industry is by not always assigning administrative tasks to the women, simply because we’re women. Or if men are on a team, volunteer to take on some of the organizational tasks instead of waiting for women to take the lead.

CWDN: If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then what languages or methodologies separate the two (basic) sexes?

Pooja Mistry: Uh… we’re both from earth? Society at large makes it tougher for women to feel confident in failing, so I think women often have a perfectionist mentality which makes it harder to take risks. The more we recognise this and actively try to overcome bias, the more our society can grow.

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

Pooja Mistry: Don’t be afraid to try and fail and fail often. It’s essential to try as many things as possible because that is what helps you learn, grow, figure out what you want and most importantly, what you don’t want. You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start somewhere to be great!

IBM’s Mistry: You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start somewhere to be great!

 

 

 

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