Looking to the future: helping girls begin software careers

Arylee McSweaney, QA Manager, Etsy, discusses how we can help young girls chase a career in STEM.

I often feel conflicted when I’m asked to share my thoughts on encouraging young girls to go into STEM. While STEM career fields would definitely benefit from greater diversity, my concern is that careers in STEM don’t allow women to support themselves or their families without first requiring significant time and financial investment.

Perhaps a better question to ask is, “how do we support young girls to become financially self sufficient, so that they have the appropriate resources to effectively pursue a career in STEM?”

I was exposed to varying technologies during my childhood, but the moment I knew I wanted to work in tech, was when my father brought home a computer and I discovered Microsoft Office©. I found myself in awe at the creativity of Microsoft Access©, Publisher©, and how much they fed my imagination and entrepreneurial spirit. I created newspapers to sell at school, I wrote screenplays for school assemblies, and I loved the ability to record macros in each program just to see the Visual Basic© code they generated.

But the most significant factor in my decision to pursue a career in tech, was the role my mother played in our household. She never let anyone hold her back or deter her from her goals. She embodied self‑sufficiency. Until this moment, I have never realised how much of her spirit has rubbed off on me. The example she set, both at home and in her career, imparted onto me a powerful sense of personal capability. Having access to a strong female role model, and exposure to the tools/technologies through which my parents earned their livelihood, served to encourage me to become financially self‑sufficient.

Generally, and in the absence of social factors like these, thorough career coaching and advisement at the pre‑college stage can help women weigh their career interests more carefully, which can support long‑term planning.

When I was in high school, my interests were torn between music performance and computer science, and I benefited greatly from an adviser who helped me to research starting salaries and career trajectories in both fields. Ultimately, I chose to study computer science and graduated just in time to enter the job market during the financial crisis in 2008.

My first role as a QA Analyst was for a consultancy that customised software products for mid‑sized and large corporations. Having a dedicated, in‑house test role was new for the company, and there was little in the way of guidance on how to be successful there. Nevertheless, it was a great opportunity for me to develop my technical QA skills. Thinking of it now, women in similar roles and situations often abandon their ambitions to work in tech altogether. For instance, start‑ups and smaller firms find it efficient to hire just one QA Analyst. This decision may seem advantageous to the company in the short‑term, but can unintentionally leave QA Analysts with the impression that they are in a dead‑end job. Over time, and without opportunities to grow, the sole tester will eventually burn out and disengage from the role. They’ll also likely spend several years doing repetitive, uninspired work, and consequently find themselves unable to compete for jobs with professionals who have been given opportunities to grow and adapt their QA skills to different environments.

Since barriers to entry are relatively low for women in tech when they apply for entry‑level test roles, it’s also highly probable that once they’re in that role, they’ll remain the sole tester for an extended period of time. Therefore, tech companies with a sole tester should encourage the tester to participate in the testing community, network with peers, and take advantage of online QA resources.

And for tech companies that are reaping the benefits of an established QA practice, they should take care to increase the visibility of the positive contributions made by the QA team. Often, focus on the QA team comes as a result of bugs found in production. Simply thanking the QA team for the stellar work they do, including QA personnel in planning meetings and providing career development training would promote – as I have yet to encounter a QA team lacking representation from women – and encourage women in testing. With regard to career development, strong leadership and communication skills are necessary for career advancement, and without the cultivation of these talents women in testing will find it challenging to move forward.

The QA industry can also contribute to the effort of promoting women in testing by having more women participate as speakers and panellists at their conferences. Despite the breadth of women in this industry, QA conferences often lack diverse speakers, lecturers and panellists.

The QA industry can work to fill this gap by hosting breakout sessions focused on ‘Women In Testing’ at test conferences. Another avenue for the QA industry to promote women in testing, is by accommodating space for new testers on the program schedule. New testers can contribute insights and ideas that more seasoned professionals overlook. Although the QA industry offers certifications, it could further engage with women in testing by offering certification grants or scholarships to women in testing. The more visibility and support awarded to women in testing, the more likely tech companies will be successful at attracting and retaining diverse talent.

Etsy, where I work, has made significant strides in its efforts to achieve its vision for all identities and expressions to be welcomed, represented and rewarded in its workforce. In April of 2016, Etsy reported that roughly 54% of its staff identified as women, and that half of the leadership and management positions were held by people who identified as women. This is an impressive achievement compared to the tech industry’s overall record in gender equity. The company’s work to increase gender equity helps support people of all gender identities, through leadership, mentoring and coaching resources. Advances in gender equity are also visible within Etsy’s QA team (product quality), where our leadership and overall team is comprised primarily of women. Team members can attend QA conferences and participate in the testing community through knowledge exchanges, giving talks and writing for publications. Training resources for technical skill development is also available to members of the QA team who wish to build their technical skillsets. The exposure to these resources has greatly contributed to how we plan to test and align ourselves in the long term.

As technology continues to disrupt and streamline our daily lives – via mobile phones, IoT technologies and social platforms – tech companies will find it increasingly necessary to develop a clear, quality vision, early on.

As more countries gain access to the internet, increasingly varied user and client needs will surface, demanding the need for more diverse perspectives on the test team. Among other glitches, consumers have already been subjected to technologies that overheat, facial recognition tools that don’t work for all races and news feeds that also report false news. These are testaments to the speed at which tech companies feel pressure to release new products.

To match this speed, test teams will find it necessary to function additionally as quality advocates, program managers, and change agents. Test trends already suggest that more companies are increasing mobile testing efforts through the use of alpha and beta programs. These are very effective for providing testing coverage on mobile devices and a program manager will be needed to monitor the engagement of beta testers, verify bugs and communicate to stakeholders. Quality advocates and change agents will help companies to involve all employees in the quality effort. The risk of underestimating the benefits could result in a disconnect between tech companies and the consumers they target. I’m excited about the potential to forge even stronger partnerships between engineering and quality leadership, where both groups can collectively work toward the same vision rather than as groups with disparate goals.



This article was first published in the January 2017 issue of TEST Magazine. Edited for web by Cecilia Rehn.