Valerie Houseman


How many years have you been in tech?


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

Product of a high school teacher and an engineer, mostly likely to be found at the top of a tree reading a book. I had my first experience as a TA when my wise and resourceful mother, who was raising three children, working on a Masters in teaching techniques, and supporting a traveling spouse, discovered she could teach her youngest some vocabulary by convincing her that checking quizzes was really fun! (It was fun.)

Truly became an extrovert when amongst fellow nerds at the University of Missouri – Rolla, where learned to let my geek flag fly, and got some early practice in legacy code by being a TA once again – this time, grading C++ programs.

My family and I exist because a dozen or so German, Irish, Sicilian, and Swiss dreamers left their homelands in the 1800s to move to the land of opportunity, and because my Grandmother chose a job and a tiny apartment over a Chicago USO, defying expectations to become a Nun or Farmer’s wife. #BeBoldForChange

I was convinced at 17 that I the future was French translation software, was convinced at 21 that an entire career in genomics software was the plan. I can’t wait to see what I was wrong about next.

How were you exposed to tech?

I’m very grateful that in my teenage years, I was required to pick something new to learn, and followed my instincts into breaking the mold.

I took Visual Basic in high school and loved it. The first thing I made for myself was a pace calculator that my friends and I could use to find our pace goals for our weekly 5k races. I carried around a yellow legal pad and was scribbling pseudocode between customers while working at the grocery store. The class was in Fall of 2001, and a game creation project provided a needed outlet for patriotic expression.

This choice in course happened because I attended a high school which required a certain number of unique arts and skills classes. When the guidance counselor presented me with my options, they proudly beamed, “Oh! You’re a Houseman. I know what to do with you. You’ll love interior design”. This was an accurate reference to my aesthetically gifted older sister, but anyone who seen me work on CSS knows that I lack the genes to find joy in design. After day one of interior design class, I returned and renewed my reservations. The counselor insisted I should stick with Interior Design, adding –

“With your schedule, the only other option is Computer Programming, and I don’t think you’re going to like it” … … …

What is your current role?

Scientific Software Engineer at The Climate Corporation Turning scientific formulas and TB-scale datasets into scalable, cloud-based software products

What is your proudest accomplishment?

There have been many times when I’ve been handed a software system and asked to make it do something it most assuredly wasn’t designed to do:

  • “It was built for 96-well plates; it needs to work on 384-well plates, too”.
  • “It was designed to index images as large as several states, it needs to be as fast for images that are only 10 square miles”. My current employer dares us to “Find the Possible in the Impossible”. Challenge Accepted.
What are you learning right now?

Scala, Apache Spark, Platform Design, but most importantly, picking up on the subtleties in people to become a more effective teacher.

Describe a time where you solved a problem in a creative way. For example, did something in your personal life trigger a solution to a problem at work?

While working on a project to import concepts from external collaborators to Monsanto’s R&D, I was tasked with estimating a feature nobody wanted to build or test – build tooling to allow more people to change the settings on an elaborate 12-step data import. Hoping for a better way, I instead spent the day exploring and querying and modeling and making sense of the way the system was used until I could prove to myself – that 4 of those 12 steps weren’t even necessary.

The next day, by the time my user’s boss joined a call to make sure he’d convinced me to build the tooling, he ended up convincing them that we didn’t need it.

A love of messy data was born, and my favorite software feature was the one I didn’t build.

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

Keep a few breadcrumbs for your future self to find – such as old code, notes, monthly summaries.

Because there will always be those people who make learning new tech and staying current look effortless. Rising to that standard may seem impossible, and seeds such nettlesome questions like “Can I keep this up for an entire career?” Stumbling upon those breadcrumbs are the immunity to all that – you can laugh at how difficult “that thing was to master”, and realize that impossible thing now feels like second nature.

Other than that – Software is a passport to every field in human achievement. Find one that means something to you, and the motivation to solve that problem will carry you through the difficult learning cycles.

What are your hobbies?

Backpacking, Rock Climbing, Mentoring future coders through CoderGirl and community programs, Aunting, Traveling, Yoga, Ancestry, and taking photos of my cat.

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

St. Louis has this sneaky way of showing its history every now and then. Whether it’s a downtown road giving you a peek at Cobblestone underneath, the old stones of the Civilian Conservation Corps out in the Ozarks, old rails and stone steps in Castlewood from when it was the beyond the edge of civilization, or old agrarian maps of Downtown – this area reminds what it used to be and that its form is impermanent.

It’s been a privilege to witness this city figure out how to heal over the past few years – to see the products of history’s shortcomings – and to dare its artists and professionals to roll up their sleeves and create its future.

St. Louis’ flag represents the Mississippi and Missouri rivers combining at a confluence to create a mightier thoroughfare, and that’s what the best St. Louisans do every day.

Who inspires you?

I took a page from the show “Parks and Recreation” and started a “Wall of Inspirational Figures” with photos in my home office. So far it features

  • Margaret Hamilton – with a stack of Apollo source code
  • The present day Housemans – who have collectively risked comforts to turn their dreams into businesses, personified sheer determination in human form, and defied convention on what a full-time parent looks like.
  • My first CoderGirl mentees – who remind us that what an engineer “looks like” is always changing
  • A moment of silliness at the Climate office featuring sombreros and the invaluable Jenny Brown – who introduced me to CoderGirl and has selflessly shared her wisdom in teaching and seeing the subtleties in people

I would be remiss not to name the inspirational force that is Crystal Martin and her example of creating a space that empowers women to learn and become their future, as well as my first Monsanto manager Scott MacDonald, who hired the team’s intern, with no qualms that her knowledge of C# would translate to Java, and profoundly would not accept his new hire sitting idle waiting for an IT account her first week of the work, insisting “Damnit, we need things from her”.

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