Computer science is an intimidating field to get into, especially for students who have little or no exposure in high school. This week I sat down with Caley Brock, a fourth year student, to talk about her transition into CS from arts, her passion for UI/UX, and how her support network keeps her grounded.
Despite her involvement in mathletes and engineering club in high school, Caley never pictured herself as an engineer or computer scientist. Although there were no programming classes offered at her school, she got the opportunity to intern as a QA tester for an educational games startup in Florida, her home state.
Her passion for design led her to the Arts and Business program at the University of Waterloo, in which she majored in speech communication with a specialization in digital arts. Dissatisfied with her program, she began taking math courses.
CS 115 (Introduction to Computer Science) was the first time she saw code. "Three years ago, I thought people coded in 0s and 1s," Caley laughs. The course sparked an interest in computer science and made her recall her positive internship experience.
Rather than just pursuing a minor, she decided to make the full transition into CS at the end of first year.
"I can only go so far with design, but if I build things so many more doors open," she describes.
The transition was a rigorous process, as switching programs is "harder than switching schools". High school achievements are not put into consideration. On top of maintaining grades for the Arts faculty, she had to take all of the first year CS major courses and maintain at least a 70 average. It took about a year for her to enter the Math faculty, become a CS major, and get into the co-op program.
Throughout the process, the lack of support from academic staff and classmates from both faculties took a toll on her self-esteem. An Arts advisor discouraged her because it was uncommon for students to switch into CS due to the heavier workload. In the past, Caley believed that CS was an exclusive field for people who were considered "really smart".
Although her peers did not outright discourage her, they were condescending. Caley felt like she did not belong in her CS class because she was a woman who did not code at an early age. This made her feel like an imposter, rather than an aspiring computer scientist.
"The only reason I kept going was to prove to myself that I could keep going," she explains.
With perseverance, Caley successfully transitioned into the computer science co-op program. She had to complete five consecutive study terms in order to catch up with her class, which damaged her confidence.
Caley found more confidence and support in her work terms. She believes that employers value what you can offer more than "how long you've programmed for" or what "grades you have".
"Anybody can learn to program," she believes, "your value is what you can do on top of that."
In the workplace, Caley has found immense support from her co-workers. Kristin Powers, a PM and UX designer from her high school internship, inspires her to be more confident and not let anyone "stand in the way" of her ambitions. Sachin Agrawal, a mentor from her second work term, has challenged her to be a risk-taker and "take on projects that are absolutely terrifying".
These mentors have helped Caley to enjoy her computer science experience and encouraged her interests in UI/UX. As a designer, she enjoys the challenge of designing for interactive applications. For Caley, it's more than making things "look pretty". She recommends shadowing designers in the workplace and on social media sites like Twitter and Feedly. In addition, she advocates for early offerings of UI/UX courses in the CS program, along with more access to courses offered to systems design engineering students.
All of her experiences have taught her that creativity is not limited to the arts and humanities.
"Computer science is one of the most creative things you can do," she explains, "there is so much problem-solving."
Caley believes that there needs to be earlier exposure to computer science education in high school through mentorships.
"There needs to be more one-on-one support and mentorships. When learning programming, it's frustrating to get an error and not know what to do. It doesn't mean you're stupid. You understand the concepts. Computer science is not just for men who sit in their basements and hack all day."
Follow Caley @calesbrock!
Get to Know is a series of interviews with women in computing at the University of Waterloo. They showcase women in our community with inspiring stories. If you're interested in sharing your story or nominating someone else, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Get to Know".