In Utah, Young Women Engineers Are Building the AI Tech of the Future
Each year, seven bright young women at three of Utah’s universities in the Wasatch Front are beneficiaries of the XANT scholarship for Excellence in Engineering in 2019, a program put together to support women pursuing a career in computer science. The students will be meeting with XANT leadership and engineering team on Friday.
The women’s scholarship program was initiated by XANT’s CEO and Founder, Dave Elkington, and it has been offering financial aid to gifted engineering students for four years. He was inspired to create the scholarships after he attended one of his daughter’s middle school science fairs — the scene was filled with girls, but by the time they reached junior high, most girls lost their interest in science.
“Thousands of technology positions go unfilled year after year, and things aren’t going to get better if we constantly exclude an entire demographic from the workforce in this industry. We need to change the mindset, that excludes women from STEM education and careers. We need to make a change and make sure the path is clear for talented women to have access to science education and to engineering positions,” said Dave Elkington, XANT CEO.
Companies all across the US are struggling to keep up with the need for IT and software specialists. The 2017 Global Information Security Workforce Study (GISWS) predicted as many as 1.8 million IT jobs could be unfilled by 2022. Tapping into the pool of women in the workforce would help fill some of these positions, but there is still much to be done in this respect.
Private companies like XANT are attempting to fill the gap by offering free programming classes for young girls or scholarships for women in the STEM field.
Scholarships Opening Up Possibilities for Female Students
We caught up with two of the scholarship’s beneficiaries from 2018, Sara Adamson and Kathryn Rasmussen at XANT, where they are currently working on technology projects. They both feel like the scholarship has opened up new possibilities for them.
“Everything I was learning in school I applied here. I also feel like a lot of things I was learning on my internship I was then able to apply to my classes. It worked out really well. It was a cycle where I was learning in class, applying the internship, and then in turn improving my skills. I’ve also learned a lot of things that you just don’t learn at school,” said Kathryn, a software engineer.
The scholarship helped by offering financial aid and freed up time for study. Data shows that around 40% of undergrads work to pay for tuition. Sara was able to get ahead of her school work, with the help of the XANT scholarship program.
“I actually ended up graduating an entire year earlier because I was able to double the load and take more classes. Because I didn’t have to take care of the income, I had more time to dedicate to school. That was really nice,” said Sara.
Sparking Curiosity in Women about STEM
What made these young women stand out and want to pursue a career in computer science? The motivation and context might be different, but they are both moved by one common denominator — curiosity about how they can solve problems.
Kathryn has three siblings who also have a passion for computer science, two have graduated and one is studying software development. She is soft spoken and seems a bit shy at first – but when talking about computer science, her face lights up.
“I love how programming combines logic with creativity because there’s so many ways you can figure out how to solve a problem,” said Kathryn.
Sara loved computers ever since she was little. “I was constantly asking my parents about how things worked in computers, I was just super curious about it. I wanted to do computer engineering but the school that I initially went to didn’t have a computer engineering program. So I tried computer science and I liked it,” recalls Sara.
What Glass Ceiling?! Oh, This One…
While there’s been volumes written about the glass ceiling that women face in business, as well as in STEM fields, the girls say it’s not been the most difficult problem they had to face. But rather, wrestling with concepts like understanding recursion, fighting network latency, and making the tech-stack as smart as they are.
Both girls remarked that having a group of peers who were supportive and good teachers provided a solid foundation to help them overcome any gender issues that might have come up. “I kind of knew what I was getting into, because I had heard my siblings talk about it, how there’s very few girls and a lot of guys, so I was prepared for that. I also had some really great teachers and a good group of friends, and we just liked software engineering. That was more important than the fact that I was a girl,” said Kathryn.
Sara agreed and added that even with a strong support system, things in computer science can be challenging because sometimes her male counterparts had difficulty understanding what young women in computing go through.
“In college, I was in a group called the Society of Women Engineers. We constantly hosted activities for all the female and male engineers. Coincidentally, males almost never came. I particularly remember one of my dear friends who was a male, he came to one of our meetings and I noticed that he left really quickly after the meeting started. I asked him about it the next day, I said, “Hey, why’d you leave so fast?” He said: “I don’t know, I just felt so awkward. I was the only guy there and I just didn’t really have anything to talk about.” So I said, “Hmm, that’s how we feel.” But I just remember the look on his face as he realized, “Wait a second, that’s what it must feel like to be you…”
Even though being a female in computing can be difficult, there is still hope. Sara advises any young woman looking for a career in computer science to be confident and have faith that everything is going to work out. “Your future and your success is up to you, and that’s for boys and girls alike. The only person that can make a difference in your future is you,” said Sara.
Applying STEM Education to the Real World
Both grant beneficiaries are happy to have landed positions at XANT, the leader in Artificial Intelligence for sales. The software company produces a platform that allows sales teams to maximize productivity and increase revenue through Collective Intelligence insights about buyers.
“I work on the back end doing API integrations and I really like what I do here. I also like front end development, creating the UI, making things look pretty. It’s really fun and challenging, too,” said Sara.
They are both looking forward to improving their programming skills, as they continue to work in the field. Although they say public schools have offered little opportunities for learning computer science, university seems to have leveled the playing field.
“I took the programming classes at BYU, and I loved how they give you a set of tools and you can find a solution to the problem,” said Kathryn.
“When I was in high school, I wouldn’t have known where to start. Now for me, when I become a parent, I will know exactly how to help my kids get started. There’s a lot of resources,” said Sara.
The Do Good Organization – Setting the Foundation for Women’s STEM Education
The Do Good Organization from XANT awards scholarships to women majoring in computer science undergrads at Utah universities.
The scholarship program awards students from Brigham Young University (BYU), University of Utah, and Utah Valley University to pay half their tuition for one year.
In addition, each winner receives the opportunity to apply for a paid summer internship at InsideSales, which includes the opportunity to work on a tween girls’ coding camp, dubbed Girls Code. XANT offers the camp and scholarships annually.