Programming – a perfect career choice for women

 

Why are there so many women who don’t even try to become computer engineeers, even if they would like to? Is the lack of female role models on this market a true problem? What features of the modern computing discourage women to consider it as a profession? We talk to Joanne Hannaford, head of the Technology Division for EMEA and global head of Quality Assurance Engineering at Goldman Sachs. She is a strong supporter of increasing the number of women in the tech industry and a global co-sponsor of the Women in Technology Network.  

Girls Gone Tech: You are responsible for the tech department in Goldman Sachs who likes to think of itself as a tech company. Does it mean that you come up with innovative solutions yourselves or just try to keep in track with whatever is happening on the innovation market?

Jo Hannaford: The company employs 38 thousand people worldwide and within this group we have 11 thousand engineers. This means that tech is not our core business, but everything we do is underpinned by technology. Today it is hard to imagine trading without using the most up-to-date technology, but this doesn’t apply solely to banking and finance – every firm nowadays has to be up to date with tech if it doesn’t want to fall behind.

Goldman Sachs is famous for providing its own software solutions which means you don’t outsource these kind of tasks. Why?

We do have agreements with outside vendors and we use their software, but when it comes to a core functionality that is crucial for our business, we rely on our engineers. We have a strong sense of our supervisory obligations and a strong sense of ownership over the implementation of software, regardless of whether it’s provided by vendors or created by our engineers.

We do buy some software that doesn’t need to be tailored to the needs of Goldman Sachs for example in Human Capital Management (HCM).

So it is not only a matter of data security, but also a willingness to keep important activities within the company?

The main point is that vendors are unlikely to be able to provide core systems that are highly specific to an organisation of this size – it only makes sense to use a vendor when they can meet your needs with ease.

Why did Goldman Sachs choose Warsaw when it established the tech department for Middle and Eastern Europe?

I was very supportive of Warsaw, for many reasons. The computer scientists that we hired there are amazing: highly skilled and highly educated. That is why we give almost no low-end jobs to the engineers in Poland. What they work on is predominantly development. We are very careful to build a brand of technical excellence in Warsaw.

What makes an excellent developer? Education, talent, work ethic?

When you talk to the engineers from Poland, you also see a lot of commitment. They are full of passion. It’s really impressive.

However, I think this is also related to education. Do you think Poland is doing enough to emphasize computer science as a career choice?

To be honest, I don’t think so. The stats concerning the subjects that the students chose for their maturity exam after high school this year show that only 9 per cent went for computer studies. That’s not very impressive when you realize that the market needs developers and offers them excellent working conditions. We definitely could do more to teach STEM in a fun way. The predominant approach seems to be the old-fashioned one: that it is difficult and boring and you need to be superbrain to understand it. I think it’s changing as more and more people see money and opportunities in IT, but still we are in the middle of this process.

I find it really interesting, especially regarding the statistics of 1st degree education in Poland. You guys are one of the most educated populations in Europe! The number of people who go to universities and colleges is really high in comparison to other countries. But I agree with what you said. We could probably have even more excellent engineers in Poland, or anywhere else, if not for this “superbrain” bias.

Of course, it requires skills to become an engineer, but they are not that exceptional. Many people actually realize that when they choose this path later on, after their 1st degree education. There are many ways in which you can do that.

It’s actually a common thing to do in Poland: you have some job and then one day you discover that coding can be fun. So you do it first for yourself and then you retrain to become an IT person.

Well, it’s not that easy to choose computer science as your 1st degree studies when you have no one to talk to about it! Parents today are still more focused on traditional professions that they perceive as “safe”, like a doctor or a lawyer.

I had an interesting debate earlier today with a woman who said to me: “Well, but there are not enough role models”. I asked her: “Ok, but did you even consider tech as a career? Say, you thought of it but you ditched it because you couldn’t find a role model?”. “I wasn’t even considering it”, she admitted.

So, the problem is deeper rooted, it’s not just a question of having an engineer in a family or not. No one is even talking to children about careers in tech until they grow up, start working or go to university and see the opportunities that it gives them. When’s the first time that someone talks to an average woman about becoming an IT person? I would say, not until she gets to the university. So now we are talking about the commitment it takes to retrain. Kind of too late, isn’t it?

When was the first time you thought about programming?

I was lucky because I had a great math teacher when I was 14. She was quite elderly but it was her who introduced programming to our curriculum. So it never occurred to me that women couldn’t program because she did.

When did this passion become a profession?

Well, I have never been one of those people who think about the opportunities which this or that career may create. The most important thing for me is to enjoy my life. When I was at school, I really liked programming. Moreover, it was mid 80’s – the beginning of the computer games era. That, along with sci-fi films and TV series’, fascinated me.

I ended up going to a technical university and basically programmed for two years straight. My colleagues were trying to hack this or that computer, whereas I just completed my assignments and went home, completely carried away. It didn’t really bother me that I was the only girl around, both on this course and later on, during my computer studies at the university. I have been programming ever since and I still love it!

Why?

Programming is incredibly creative and it’s a skill-based job. That makes it a perfect career choice for women. So I’m always surprised when girls say: “Wow, you’re a programmer, how did you do that?” Well, is it any more difficult than being a doctor? You don’t even need an academic background to become a programmer! Yet is seems less accessible for women today than it was 50 years ago.

Women were instrumental in early office automation. I recently talked to Dame Stephanie Shirley who started one of the first programming companies in UK in the 60’s and she only hired women. They were using much more lower level languages that were arguably far more complex than Java. Where did all that heritage go?

You are involved in many programs aiming at encouraging women to code.

I sponsor Bletchley Park’s Ultra Outreach Programme, whose mission is to encourage underprivileged children to see the value in STEM subjects and careers, by taking the Enigma machine into the classroom. Bletchley Park is the home of British codebreaking and played a major role in World War Two. So far, the initiative has reached nearly 9,000 of the country’s most disadvantageous students.

Maybe the number of women in the tech industry is low also due to their own lack of confidence? Many of them actually say: “I thought I would need a special skill set and that working in a men-dominated environment would be tough, but in the end it all turned out to be easy”.

Once you start as a programmer, you realize that these preconceptions were wrong. Why did they arise at all? Well, I have a couple of theories, some of them a bit unusual…

(laughs) Such as?   

One theory is that some of the recent programming languages don’t actually make sense to women. That’s because these languages are not particularly logical.

In my spare time I teach Python and I actually hear from women: “Look, Jo, there are elements of the language that don’t seem complete”. We can see this in the way data implications are collected in Python. One of the features is that when you want to create a list, you have to actually make a list of a list in order to manage your list! A lot of women ask: “Why do I have to do all that?”, and they have a point.

We have to realize that very few recent programming languages are created by women. That is what makes them more and more abstract and illogical. Arguably one of the purest programming languages was Smalltalk. Women played a very important part in its creation.

The second point is the vocabulary. It’s necessary to think about the language we use if we care about diversity. And some of the programming vocabulary is almost alien to women! The example from cybersecurity: “penetration testing”. Really? Is that what a woman would call it?

Being a woman, what command would you use to stop a programming language? Would you ever come up with the word “abort”?

These examples show that the vocabulary of computer science is inheritably masculine. No wonder women may feel like guests in the computing world. Words do count!

Talking about Women in Technology at Goldman Sachs, does it serve more as a recruitment tool aiming at attracting more women to the company, or is it also a “helping hand” for the women who encounter any kind of difficulties at work?

Of course it’s about recruitment in the sense that we are trying to create more of a pipeline for women in technology. We know that women are underrepresented within programming. They form above 50 per cent of the population of Europe and not even 30 per cent of programmers. So, if half of the intelligent people on the continent don’t even consider a career in the industry and we deal with a short supply of programmers, we need to change the perception of that group.

More importantly however, it’s about giving back and uplifting women in technology, in every stage of their career.

When you become a partner at Goldman Sachs, you have to choose the charities you will be involved in, and I have chosen the ones focusing on STEM education.

That is one of the reasons I actually came to Goldman Sachs and have been working here for 23 years: the inclusive environment and the focus placed on investing in and training employees.

But I wonder if the women who encounter any kind of problems with discrimination within the company can ask Women in Technology for help?

We have extremely strict and efficient policies around how to handle those situations; however I have never even had to use these.

Are there any Women in Technology actions concerning girls? There are not many women on the IT market and, as we said before, it starts with establishing a certain bias at school.

The summer intern program that we run is one of the most successful ones! We aim to invite 50 per cent of women and 50 per cent of men for an internship. They may have completed some kind of STEM studies, like physics or chemistry, and they may not have considered a career in tech. But what they do consider is coming here for 10 weeks. During our internship, the bias that they have in their heads is often reset. They get rid of the preconceptions they had about working in tech or working in financial services. They are often surprised that we are so team-based and collaborative.

Of course, it is essential to target the girls even earlier, at school. However, one meeting with an IT engineer doesn’t solve the problem. I think we need to fight with the bias that is actively set in the girls’ heads. In many cases they are told that they are not fit for STEM subjects or shouldn’t be interested in them. Then they meet an adult woman programmer like me and they say: “Oh, you have to be really clever” because no one really told them each one of them may at least try.

When they look at you, they may feel that the difficulty is even doubled, as you are not only an IT person, but also an IT person from the banking industry.

I have to fight both stereotypes, that’s true. The funny thing is that I went to financial services because before Internet it was the only branch that offered interesting jobs in computing. That was the time when e-mail had limited capacity so only the senior employees had access to it (laughs). Anyway, I went to banking because they had the biggest IT budget and most IT jobs.

Just one last question. You play an important role in Goldman Sachs and do a lot of additional things, including charity or teaching. Is your day longer than the average day of an average person? (laughs)

People ask me that question a lot! (laughs) I am the kind of person who works a lot. I like working!

Therefore I use my time very wisely. If you plan a lot, you get a lot done.

My family is a priority for me and charities also hold a place in my calendar. Like, every Thursday night I work for a charity and there are no exceptions to that.

I prioritise a lot! It’s something you actually learn in your forties. Earlier I didn’t think so much about it and now I’m quite strict about my list of duties.

Every Sunday I update my list of what’s important. That’s the first thing to know before you start managing your time.

Joanne Hannaford is head of the Technology Division for EMEA and global head of Quality Assurance Engineering. She serves on the Technology Executive Leadership Group and Firmwide Technology Risk Committee. Also, she is global co-sponsor of the Women in Technology Network.

She joined Goldman Sachs in 1997 in the Investment Research Division in London. Since 2001, she has held roles across Technology in London and New York, predominantly focusing on the build out of the firm’s global Compliance Technology and Conflicts Technology architectures.  Jo was named managing director in 2008 and partner in 2014.

Prior to joining the firm, Jo was responsible for Global Volume Trading Technology at NatWest Markets.

Jo is an advisor to the UK Government Digital Service Advisory Board and is a board member of Women in Science and Engineering.

She has a first class degree and PhD in Computer Science.

 

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Karolina Wasielewska

Pracuję w radiu i od czasu do czasu w prasie. Lubię: jesień, książki Lema, sporty przeróżne, koty, niespieszne pichcenie w wolne dni, czerwone wino, wesołe miasteczka, historie o superbohaterach, czasami Beastie Boys, a czasami Dianę Krall. Nie lubię: upałów, agresji, gotowania w pośpiechu i wielu innych rzeczy, których nie lubię, więc nie chcę nawet o nich pisać.