There are fewer young women choosing to go into the technology industry, which is a worrying trend. Could it be because there's not enough talk of the awesome options around under the banner 'technology'? From journalist *cough* to programmer to researcher, whether you want to surround yourself with people or motherboards, there's a job in the industry to satisfy. To prove it, I'll be quizzing various people of the female persuasion to find out what they're up to and why. First up is April Mitchell, who works in the HP Lab, where they come up with The Next Big Things (when I spoke to her, she was working on an application which remotely matched your skin tone with a particular make-up shade!).
Could you explain your role at HP, as well as the structure of the team you work with?
I am a research engineer in HP Labs, and I’m part of a team that is focused on research into how people create and use media. As a user experience designer, I focus on bridging the gap between the technology and the experience. While I am the only woman on my small team (six members), on a daily basis I work with both men and women throughout all of HP Labs.
Did you find it difficult to break into what has traditionally been a male-dominated industry?
When I was in graduate school and looking for internships at research labs in the Bay Area of California, I found that there was ample opportunity for interesting positions in my field. It was not a question of gender; it was more a question of what degree you had and your area of interest for research.
Have you always had an interest in gadgets? Where do you think it stemmed from?
My interest in technology comes from my close relationship with my father. When I was about six years old, my dad wrote a program for me on his computer which helped me practice my math skills. If I answered a question correctly, it would draw a smiley face on the screen and say, “Good Job April!” I thought the fact that my dad could make this machine write my name was the coolest thing ever, and my love for all things computer-related began. In high school, I took several programming courses to learn more about the field and once I entered college, it was an easy decision for me to major in computer science.
Do you think that there are certain roles within the industry that particularly suit women?
I think any role in technology can be appealing to a woman as much as it is to a man. It all depends on the interests of the person. Some people prefer development jobs where they have clearly defined tasks and milestones for delivery of a specific product or service. Others prefer research job where the questions and processes for achieving results are more open-ended. Some people love to program (write code) while others prefer application or user interface design. Before I tell people what I do, they assume that I work on my computer all day long, which is not the case. As an engineer, I do write code and build prototypes, but I also work as part of a team and engage users in conversations about technology they like, don’t like, or need. An engineering position can be much more social than some people assume. This job, like any other, is what you make of it!
Is there a crisis in the industry, with less women entering it? Why do you think that is? What can be done to fix it?
Yes, if less women enter the fields of computer science and engineering then the future of technology is definitely at risk. Progress in any field without the input of both genders will put that field at a huge disadvantage. There are two main reasons that young women choose professions in computing. The first is exposure to technology at a young age. The second is having a mentor, such as a parent or teacher that influences them. In my case, this mentor was my father. He taught me that computers aren’t scary, they are tools that we can use to make our world a better place.
What’s your advice for someone at school considering entering the tech world?
Start early! Take as many computer classes as you can and don’t be afraid to ask questions and get involved – even if you are one of the only girls. Also, while you are taking those engineering and math classes, focus on your writing and oral presentation skills as well. The ability to communicate clearly with others through both spoken and written word can only benefit your career.
What gadgets can’t you live without? Why?
I can’t live without my cell phone. I use it to keep in touch with my friends and family who do not live near me. I also use it to stay in touch with my coworkers via email. I take pictures and videos with my cell phone that I then immediately share on my blog. Computing power is getting stronger and memory size is getting smaller. It’s amazing how much processing power can fit in a unit that’s smaller than my hand. And, that’s very stylish!