Cracking the code: How 4 Chicago women discovered their passion for engineering (Part 2)

by Michael Hines
February 28, 2019

It’s not hard to find a good story in the tech industry. The problem is that due to the industry’s staggering gender gap, most of these stories center on the struggles and accomplishments of men. Stories about starting a company after dropping out of college or while working out of a garage command attention, but they’re not the only ones capable of inspiring and exciting the technologists of tomorrow.

In this two-part series, we aim to provide a platform for female Chicago technologists to share the stories of how they got into engineering, the biggest challenges they’ve faced and their advice to the next generation of women in tech. In part two, you’ll meet a developer who discovered her passion for tech while working in customer success, learn how “The Sims” and MySpace kicked seeded another engineer’s career, and meet a developer who skipped law school to pursue work in trading tech.

Continue below to read part two of this series.

 

ServiceNow Chicago tech jobs

ServiceNow’s cloud-based platform is used by enterprise companies across a variety of industries to digitize workflows and make it easier for teams to collaborate on, and manage, complex projects. Software Engineer Brittany Vacchiano fell in love with tech at an early age, thanks in part to “The Sims” and MySpace. She’s since built a career in engineering, and her advice to women looking to do the same is to stay persistent and remember that creating something new and innovative is not impossible, but that it does takes persistence and hard work.

 

How did you get into engineering?

In middle school I loved playing “The Sims,” but I quickly got bored of my characters always being broke, sick, hungry and unhappy. Instead of using cheat codes, I decided to hack the game and make a permanent enhancement to my character’s well-being. Later, MySpace came out and I began to learn and understand how to edit HTML and create websites. In high school, I started learning about more advanced programming topics. I joined every class that had anything to do with computers and stayed after school to learn Python and MATLAB with my physics teacher. I went on to take a summer camp at Google, and that totally solidified my love for computing. It’s pretty safe to say I knew I wanted to be a programmer at a very young age.

Don’t give up when things aren’t going as planned. You will get through it with persistence and hard work.”

 

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career, and how have you worked to overcome it?

Technology is constantly changing, so staying up to date on the latest programming languages has proved to be difficult throughout my career. In order to stay relevant in tech, you have to stay up to date. I find myself picking up small projects on the weekends, reading blogs and listening to tech podcasts to familiarize myself with new technologies or tools. If you don’t step outside of your programming language comfort zone and learn something new, you’ll never broaden your technical horizon.

 

What advice or tips do you have for women pursuing careers in engineering?

Engineering projects are all about critical thinking and problem-solving. Sometimes, the first solution you come up with is not the best solution and you have to try again — and sometimes even again. The important thing to remember is that you are creating something new and innovative, something that somebody may have never done before. Don’t give up when things aren’t going as planned. You will get through it with persistence and hard work. Later, you’ll look back and say “that was a piece of cake!”

 

DRW Chicago tech jobs

DRW is a diversified principal trading firm that uses technology and risk management strategies to identify and capture trading opportunities around the world. Financial Application Engineer Kelley Fernandez didn’t have designs on working in trading or tech when she finished undergrad. However, her post-college plans quickly changed, and Fernandez has since built a 10-year career in the trading world.

 

How did you get into engineering?

After graduating from Indiana University with a degree in political science, I accepted my seat to law school. Prior to my first semester, my mentor suggested I apply for a position at his trading firm. After some debate, I deferred my law school acceptance and started my first job in trade operations. Six months later, I migrated into a more technology-focused position, helping to support the trading systems. I was learning everything on the job. After a few years, my mentor encouraged me to go back to school, and I completed a master’s in computer science. I have been working in the trading industry for the past decade, supporting complex distributed trading systems.

I would say not to be intimidated by the fact that there may not be a lot of women in your classes or workplace; in fact, I find it can be advantageous.”

 

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career, and how have you worked to overcome it?

Throughout my career, I have worked to overcome the fear of not always feeling confident about how to approach tasks or problems. There have been numerous situations where I’ve been presented with a technical problem, and I realize that I have no idea where I’m going to start. When you’re in this position, it’s best to step back from a problem and look at all the clues before trying anything. You’re going to learn a lot more from digging in and trying to figure out the problem than if you just immediately turn to the person next to you for an answer.

 

What advice or tips do you have for women pursuing careers in engineering?

I would say not to be intimidated by the fact that there may not be a lot of women in your classes or workplace; in fact, I find it can be advantageous. I would recommend you prioritize building the confidence and skill sets you need to step up and share ideas, advocate for yourself and ask the right questions.

 

UrbanBound Chicago tech jobs

UrbanBound’s software is used by employers and employees to make the process of managing, tracking and accessing relocation benefits easier. Associate Software Engineer Alex Origitano actually discovered her passion for coding while working on the company’s customer success team. She took the leap and joined a coding bootcamp, where she learned web development skills — and the value of being a patient learner.

 

How did you get into engineering?

I’ve worked at UrbanBound twice, the first time as a relocation consultant on the customer success team. While I loved working with the customer success team, I immediately clicked with some of the engineering team when I was asked to be a stakeholder in the company’s agile process. It wasn’t long before my coding coworkers encouraged me to become an engineer. I completed a Codecademy Ruby course that was recommended to me, and it was only a matter of time before I worked up the courage — and the savings — to apply to Dev Bootcamp.

I left UrbanBound to attend DBC, but I stayed in touch with my UrbanBound coworkers. A few of them even helped explain what in the world a “class” is. This support and a genuine appreciation for the people at UrbanBound is what brought me back less than two years later as an associate software engineer.

Anyone with grit, persistence and genuine curiosity for coding can become a software developer.”

 

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career, and how have you worked to overcome it?

The largest obstacle I have had to overcome is being patient with myself while learning. I can be hard on myself, which leads to me being self-defeating. I used to think if I didn’t understand a concept the first time around, it was because I was not smart enough. Now I realize that learning is a process. It takes time. I didn’t learn how to walk on the first try, so why would a complicated algorithm make sense the first time? It’s important to give yourself a break and move forward knowing that what you learn each day takes you a step further than you were the day before.

 

What advice or tips do you have for women pursuing careers in engineering?

Anyone with grit, persistence and genuine curiosity for coding can become a software developer. It doesn’t take a special mind or require exceptional math skills. What it does take is a lot of Googling, and much like everything else in life, support from friends and family. The tech community has a ways to go when it comes to being inclusive, which is why it’s so important to seek out teams and companies like UrbanBound that acknowledge these inclusivity shortcomings and make coding accessible to everyone — even people with a non-tech background. So, if you are considering a career in coding, start a dialogue with an engineer. I promise they would love to talk to you about what they do for a living and will give you advice and resources to help get you started. Maybe you’ll find out it’s the career you have been looking for and didn’t know existed.

 

PEAK6 Chicago tech jobs

 

PEAK6 is an investment firm that has used its proprietary technology to manage risk and uncover overlooked market opportunities for over 20 years. Roxy Rong is a trader at the company who said her background in programming gives her an edge when it comes to problem-solving and developing new strategies. Her advice to the next generation of female technologists is to not be afraid to speak up, seek mentorship and set high standards for yourself.

 

How did you get into engineering?

Growing up, I was interested in science and math. I decided to major in actuarial science at the University of Wisconsin. After an internship in my field, I decided to move to finance. I thought that I would give trading a try, but I didn’t know anything about trading. I met a PEAK6 campus recruiter and learned that the trading associate program accepted people without any trading experience. As a trading associate, we learned in two weeks everything I had learned at school in four years.

After two months in a class environment, we had a rotation with senior traders. I learned the most when we’d regroup at the end of each trading day and talk about the best and worst trades. I love problem-solving and it’s an exciting process to develop new trading strategies, specifically with automation. Being creative gives me an edge, and because I have strong programming skills and trading context, I am able to help our company. The market is fun to interact with: It’s like interacting with the whole world.

I love problem-solving and it’s an exciting process to develop new trading strategies, specifically with automation.”

 

What advice or tips do you have for women pursuing careers in engineering?

Seek out mentors and senior engineers within the firm and take any opportunity to learn from them. Have high standards for yourself and your work. Whenever you see things that can be improved, speak up and know your words can carry weight.

 

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