Wendy Powley – Teach Tech Early, Take Every Opportunity

Today we kick off the “Keep Your WiTs (Women in Technology) About You” interview series with our first feature, Lecturer Wendy Powley of Queen’s University. What better way to begin the series than with a woman who directly affects the way young people learn technology?

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As a woman in technology, Wendy knows firsthand what it’s like to work her way through the male-dominated industry. “My career path, like many women who find themselves in tech, was a winding road,” she says. Initially planning to be a math major, the then-student switched to major in psychology, then went to teacher’s college upon finishing her degree. When Wendy found that teaching junior primary didn’t suit her, she landed a job in the psychology department running a research study on the use of biofeedback to treat urinary problems. Here she had her first experience with programming when she had to automate the data collection and perform calculations on the streaming data, using a PC. “I was fascinated,” she says, “and completely captivated by solving this problem and by learning to program. I began taking some undergraduate computer science courses and I was hooked.”

Returning to Queen’s School of Computing, Wendy then completed her MSC in computing and went on to work as a project manager at the Royal Military College, researching Air Traffic Control detection systems and flight strip automation. She left this position in 1992 to return to Queen’s once again, this time as a researcher in the Database Systems Laboratory. She began teaching computing in 1999, and this past year began teaching the curriculum course on Computer Science in the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University.

And not only does she work with tech, Wendy is also on the committee for ONCWIC, the Ontario Celebration of Women in Technology. This year’s celebration will be held on October 24 and 25 at the University of Guelph – an event I am dying to attend!

Wendy has some great advice for students: “Follow your passion, but keep in mind that you are probably going to want a career after you finish university.  Computing is the perfect field to combine with any other field.  If you are passionate about politics or economics, why not do a minor in computing as well?  This way, when you apply for jobs in your area, you will have that “one up” on others also applying as you have some computer knowledge as well.  Tech is pervasive in our society — it is everywhere and in every field.”

How true it is. Every day we see more and more companies adopting technology as an integral part of their products and services. Good luck finding a company that doesn’t use technology at all! Coding is becoming a fundamental skill, and I predict that everyone will know how to code in the future. Maybe one day, computer science will accompany reading, writing and arithmetic as one of the pillars of modern education. Personally, I look forward to that day, and Wendy does too:

Computer science needs to become another science in secondary school (or before) just like physics, math, chemistry and biology.  There is no excuse these days for CS not to be offered in all secondary schools — and it needs to count as a science credit so that more kids will opt to try it.” Wendy says it takes positive exposure to computer science at a young age to get more young people – especially women – into tech jobs. “I believe that they are not interested because they have no idea what tech careers are all about,” she reasons, and that’s why CS should be integrated into mandatory education.

When asked what she loves most about computer science, Wendy answers, “The high when you figure something out or get a program to work – there’s nothing like it!” If you’ve ever written a working program, you know the satisfaction and buzz of working out the kinks and finally getting the expected output. To program is to build without bricks, to make functionality out of static words, and that kind of creative liberty is a really amazing power to wield.

Nearing the end of our interview, I feel inspired by Wendy’s perspective. As a student it can be daunting to be one of the only women in the room, and it’s so good to see a professor who truly understands and cares about getting more women involved in the industry. As we come to a close, Wendy gives one final piece of advice for young women beginning or thinking about careers in technology:

Say yes! Do not turn down opportunity.  Seek opportunities — there are so many opportunities available to young women right now — scholarships, internships, conferences — take advantage of it all! Learn about the impostor syndrome early — you’ll find that you DO belong and that you are not alone in feeling like you don’t!”

I love that: “Say yes!” That’s all it takes. Find the opportunities and seize them as they come.

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PS: If you know someone who would like to be featured, or if you would like to be interviewed yourself, please don’t hesitate to send me a message! There’s room for all of us in our big webspace, so the more the merrier!

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