Neem Serra

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How many years have you been in tech?

Almost four years!

Tell me about your background. What were your early years like?

I never thought that I’d be working in tech. Growing up, I always thought I’d be a doctor or a teacher. When I was in undergrad, I was a nanny to a computer science professor/evolutionary development biologist and data scientist/bioinformatician. They introduced me to the hybrid world of science and technology. I changed my major to Genomics and Molecular Genetics and dabbled in some programming classes. I loved problem solving of my programming classes but hated the class itself because I was one of the few women and therefore, most of the men wouldn’t pair up with me to work on our in-class programming assignments. Luckily, I was friends with a lot of Computer Science graduate students and professors so even though I stopped the classes, I was introduced to algorithms and data structures as fun things to discuss at bars. I also was going to take a two-day Software Carpentry workshop which was aimed at teaching programming to biologists, but I was suddenly promoted to be a teaching assistant to the class. This meant that I had to learn the material a little bit faster than people needing help. I found it exhilarating, and I wanted to get to the point where I could teach the class myself (which is something I do currently).

I went to graduate school for biology, but my research projects had me working on interdisciplinary teams with computer scientists through a program called BEACON. I stopped seeing where the line was between the two fields, and I only could see how the two were inseparable. My research mentors taught me the magic of bash, git, and python where I was instilled with a deep gratitude for open source work. I wanted to learn more about programming, but I needed to balance the demands of being a biology graduate student with the desire to deep-dive into learning C++ and python to program things to help with my own research.

In early 2013, my best friend Mark encouraged me to move to St. Louis from Michigan and quit graduate school. My mentors were split on the merits of this idea but luckily I had very supportive people who gave me the confidence to take this risk. I moved to St. Louis in February of 2013, and Mark taught me test driven development and gave me coding exercises every day. I was fortunate to get a couple of job offers in March, and I started at Asynchrony in April of 2013.

What was your first job like?

At the beginning, things seemed both incredibly awesome and insanely bleak. My team didn’t have any other female developers. I was learning so much, but every time I made a mistake, it felt like I was under a microscope for being a woman. I remember the first time someone told me that maybe I would never be a good developer because females brains weren’t wired that way. I tried to fit in by buying nerdy t-shirts and learning to swear, but I didn’t like who I was pretending to be at work. I went to the other extreme of trying to only hang out with people who were more like me, but that didn’t feel right either.

It’s been a long journey to be okay with who I am, and I’m happy I got here. I learned how to find the right people to be vulnerable around, and we learned to trust each other and advocate for each other. I embraced that I’m a girly girl who wears dresses and has pretty nail polish but also can tackle tricky clients, investigate weird bugs, and create awesome apps.

What is your current role?

I’m currently an iOS developer, but I spent a year and a half doing ruby. I’m currently developing in Swift and teaching a 12-week class on iOS development to other developers at Asynchrony. I’m the lead of St. Louis Women Techmakers which as been fun and challenging. I work on the Rising Leaders board for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation in St. Louis, and I teach at a lot of non-profits including Software Carpentry.

What is your proudest accomplishment?

I’ve worked on a variety of apps that have gone to production for internal projects, but this week, my team at work released an app to the App Store. I’m really proud of us — we came together and supported each other even when things were stressful.

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Tell us about a time that this applied to you.

There were so many times when I wanted to quit tech, but one of the harder things I’ve done in the past year was actually to create the Women Techmakers group in St. Louis.  I was nervous when people would casually comment that they didn’t think a women in tech meetup would have anyone come, but I was especially crushed when a few of my friends at work echoed the same sentiments.  I know there’s a lot of feelings that you don’t want to single yourself out as a woman because you feel like you’ll get unfair advantages or that men will look at you differently.

The day of the launch of Women Techmakers in St. Louis, a friend of mine was warning me not to be too disappointed if only a dozen or so people came, and I was crushed because I had spent the past month hustling to email everyone I knew to spread the word.  A different friend came and gave me a pep talk, saying he believed that my hard work would pay off, and it didn’t matter if a dozen people or a hundred people came because I was doing something that I believed in.  I’m so thankful to him because his confidence in me gave me the calm that I needed before the event.  The launch party had 150% of the expected turn out, and people stayed well past the end of the event to chat with their new friends.  This experience reminded me to trust in myself, but also surround myself with people who would lend me confidence when I was feeling vulnerable.

What are you learning right now?

I’ve been reading a lot of books on how teams work and how to make people happy. While I like programming, I love getting people to want to bring their best to work and challenge themselves. I think the interpersonal dynamics of a team are fascinating — how do we get our teammates to trust each other? How do we ensure that everyone is happy and we get our work done?  My favorite part about going to work is that I’m seeing my second family every day.  I care about what goes on in my team member’s lives, and I love that most of my friends work at Asynchrony (in fact, I met most of them there).

What was the last fear that you faced? How did you feel after you conquered it?

I’ve been a lurker at a variety of tech conferences, but last year, my company decided to hold an internal conference.  I was at lunch with a couple of friends, and they encouraged me to submit a couple of talks.  My talk on Battling Unconscious Bias was accepted for the internal conference.  I was terrified of giving this talk because I didn’t want to embarrass myself in front of my coworkers.  I also was very aware of the viewpoints of people who didn’t believe that sexism or racism or other biases were real things that affected our workplace.  I gave up television for a month, and I delved deep into unconscious bias training from Facebook and Google as well as reading over 100 research papers on the topic.  I had to balance the facts with some humor so that they talk wasn’t too dry; I wanted the talk to be approachable and not make people feel like they were being lectured.  It was terrifying — people kept joking around that they didn’t have bias or worse, people were “joking” that it would be a boring talk about sexism.  I solicited topics to talk about from everyone I talked to at work, and I learned about so many aspects of bias that I didn’t even think to include even from my extensive research.  It was nice to put a real human aspect to it while backing it up with data.

I poured my heart and soul into making the talk: I drew my own graphics and I even made a cupcake skirt the night before as a confidence booster.  I was telling a stranger on the elevator how nervous I was, and they went to my talk in support.  I had prepared the talk itself in isolation — the only person who heard me practice was my husband.  However, I had so many friends in the audience that their presence calmed my jitters a bit.  The room was almost completely full, and I felt awesome after I finished the talk.  I got a lot of awesome feedback afterwards, and I was happy to hear that the talk inspired people to open up the dialogue with their teammates.  The agile coaches at work encouraged me to submit my talk to a couple of conferences, and I’ve given the talk at 3 conferences since then.

I felt amazing that I conquered my fear and created something that I was really proud of.  I’ve been trying to continue the dialogue about this at work and the local community.

What are you currently struggling with?

In the past year or so, I’ve been working on giving people honest, constructive feedback on a regular basis.  It feels mean to tell someone about something that they’re doing sub-optimally, but I realized that I would want someone to tell me that if they thought that of my actions.  I had to learn how to give people feedback that made them want to improve instead of shutting down our working relationship.  I’m still struggling with it — it’s hard to do all the time, but I’m getting better at it every day.

What advice do you wish someone had given to you? What advice would you give to others starting out?

I wish someone would have told me that it’s okay to not fit in and that I would eventually find my place.  I struggled for a good year trying to be someone that I wasn’t because I so wanted to be a “culture fit.”  My advice to others is to find the right people to be vulnerable around, and then help each other to become their best selves.  Sometimes, I find myself becoming jealous of other women’s success because I felt like if some other woman succeeded, it was taking something away from me or I wasn’t being good enough.  I’ve learned to stop comparing myself to others and to be proud of each other because every little bit of success pushes us all forward.

What are your hobbies?

Reading comics, baking (especially rage-baking), hosting craft nights, cosplaying, writing letters to my pen pals, exploring St. Louis, and eating often.

What do you like about St. Louis? The midwest? Why do you live here?

Every time I see the Arch, I can’t help but smile. I love St. Louis — I grew up here as a child, and I was happy to move back here as an adult. The tech scene in the midwest is different from the coasts — I feel like the pace is better and we’re more accepting of the challenges of having a family. I don’t feel insane pressure to work on the next best thing, but I also feel like I’m surrounded by people who have good balance between work and their personal lives.

Who inspires you?

All of my friends inspire me in different ways. Thank you Nayani for always helping me see the beauty in the world, Snow for showing me it’s never too late to start something new and scary, Angella for reminding me I’m not alone and I always have allies, Helena for pushing me to get the roles that I want, Lisa for teaching me to recognize where people are instead of where I want them to be, Cait for helping me be proud of the culture I grew up in, Krutie for encouraging me to be comfortable in my brown skin, Anna for challenging me to speak more, Cheryl for teaching me to recognize adversity makes us stronger, Karly for showing me that kindness and compassion can quell any fear, Ashley for finding musicals that can motivate me through anything, Hilary for calling out hard truths and then spending the time to help me talk through them, Amy for inspiring me to draw and be confident in wearing dresses, Sharon for reminding me to be engaged in the world around me and be true to myself, and Anya for pushing me to read more. I know there are so many more women that I haven’t listed who have taught me countless other lessons, and I’m grateful for each and every one.

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One thought on “Neem Serra

  1. Neem, I think your post is awesome. I’m so proud of all you have accomplished. Thank you for asking me to take part and share my story, there are so many beautiful, amazing, smart women in this area. It is wonderful that we can learn and grow together. This is a great forum, keep doing what you are doing and inspiring others to follow their dreams.

    Keisha

    Like

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