Can you introduce yourself and tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
My name is Anna, I’m 32 and I was born & raised in Rzeszów, Poland.
When I was a child, I wanted to become a writer, then a singer. But in high school, I liked the idea of being a Polish teacher. I finished the Bachelor of Polish language & literature with a specialization in teaching at the University of Rzeszów. Then, after a year-long break from studying, helping my mother part-time in her wholesale business, I started studying English, also with a teaching specialization.
In 2014, during my last semester of English studies, I came to Belgium for the Erasmus scholarship, where I met my current partner. After coming back to Poland, I started looking for a job, but teaching at a public school was not very high on my priorities’ list. I landed a job in software testing for medical institutions in the United States & Canada. Back then, I did not have any tech-related competences, except knowing the Office package well and having some outdated knowledge of HTML & CSS, from a decade before. It was blogging hype then and I was making blog layouts.
7 years ago it was almost impossible to study software testing at universities in Poland, and many of my colleagues also had a non-tech-related background. For the first 3 months on the job we were trained – not only on how to test software, so it would fulfill all the rigorous quality requirements in healthcare software systems, but also how hospitals and laboratories in the U.S. & Canada work. We worked using the waterfall model. I joined the (all-girls subsection of a) team, which tested software for pathologists. I was also responsible for testing integration with a third party speech recognition software, so I could put my English skills to good use.
At the very end of 2016, after over two years of long distance relationship, I moved to Roeselare, Belgium and started by testing insurance management software. It was hard on a personal level: I left my life in Poland and I kind of struggled to transfer it online. The company was much smaller, with a great team to work with. I was the only girl in a team of 10+ male co-workers, and soon-to-be the only tester in the company. This was my first encounter with Agile.
After 1,5 years I passed my ISTQB Foundation Level exam, which is the universally accepted standard for software testing capabilities. I did it mostly to quiet down my impostor syndrome and to prove that I have some testing skills to future employers (and to myself). I moved to another company, where I was hired as an IT consultant and I am now working for a governmental institution. It was another switch for me, because the main focus here is put on testing web applications.
Did you experience any challenges during your job search related to being an immigrant in Belgium?
Mostly my inability to speak one of the three official languages. I plan to stay here forever, so learning Flemish was one of my priorities; plus, I didn’t want to be ignorant. After all, language creates reality.
I was going to an evening school for a year and a half for “Nederlands voor anderstaligen” course, but later I resigned because of the 4h commute. I understand quite a lot, but speaking Dutch is another story – I’m painfully aware that I’m not as fluent as I would like to be, which causes me to become too self-conscious. It’s a vicious cycle really, but I plan to go back to school this autumn.
As a foreigner, I’ve got to be extra careful when it comes to unfair employers, because they might see some opportunities to benefit from my unawareness of labor law. I would really recommend joining the unions, like ACV; that way you can always consult with experts.
What is your job and what does a typical workday look like for you?
I don’t start my day with coffee, like most of the IT employees. 😊 beBefore Covid-19 I had to spend 4h+ (sic!) commuting to Brussels every single day. I didn’t mind it so much though, as I chose trains as my means of transport. For the past year I have had more time for sleep 🙂 At work I spend 30-40% weekly time on meetings. For the almost three years I’ve been working here, I have managed to participate in various projects, mostly regarding software concerning road traffic.
We currently work using the Scrum framework, but the team I am now a part of, consists of 19 people. My day starts with a daily scrum meeting, where we discuss what will be done in the current day, and by whom; who from the team is blocked, often by some other issue, or stuck and needs help. I often do pair testing with other, more tech-oriented testers or developers. The rest of the time I spend either on testing the current project manually or writing test scenarios for automatic testing or managing test data.
How about when you’re not working? Any hobbies or interests you’d like to tell us about?
Before I moved to Belgium, I had been an active member of a historical reenactment society since 2003, where we try to recapture life of the turn of 14th and 15th centuries. I was most interested in sewing and dancing. Besides reenacting, I was also keen on fire dancing. But In 2015, when I was 27, I suffered an ischemic stroke of the left side of my brain, which caused temporary aphasia and paralysis of half of my body. Thanks to my relatively young age and countless hours of rehabilitation, I managed to restore most of my abilities, but I basically had to say goodbye to my previous hobbies.
I had been volunteering as a Polish Language Coordinator at the Global translator community on Coursera.org since 2016. Besides that, I am hooked on listening to audiobooks and binge-watching TV series 😊
What or who got you initially interested in coding and / or pursuing a career in tech?
In my current work, besides being hired as a manual tester, I am helping my team with automated testing, but from the functional side. I started learning how to code out of curiosity, to understand what is happening ‘under the hood’ of automation. Most manual testers may never be required to know how to program and I do not think it is a must.
You can specialize in many areas of testing without writing a single line of code. But coding can solve a lot of problems that testers come across and makes testing much faster. However, learning how to code is hard for me. You can get a lot of information online, free courses, but how do you decide which bits of it are actually useful? How do you filter through all the information to find what’s relevant and important?
I think the path to IT is lined with learning something new every day and I find it exciting. The problem is often how much information you’re exposed to in an insufficient amount of time. I was watching many videos and reading many articles titled “How to learn how to code“. I was doing everything, except actually sitting down and writing code. I was used to the structure of a school or university course, where you start from some piece of information, and you build your knowledge on top of it. It took me a while to understand that you don’t have to be an expert to learn new things.
If you have the curiosity and ability to read, you can find out how something works just by reading a few blog posts and watching videos and you learn, as you go.
What is the best professional advice you’ve ever received?
“Just try; the worst-case scenario – you won’t like it and you will look for something else.” were the words my best friend Sabina, a fellow tester, wrote to me, when she recommended sending my CV to the company she works at, that later turned out to be my first testing workplace. Having two BA degrees that focused on language and literature, I felt out of place to even consider working in tech.
We live in an age, where women do not send their CV for a job posting, if they don’t meet a 100% of the requirements. I would never work in Brussels, if I spotted an announcement by myself on LinkedIn, I would probably just skip it.
According to LinkedIn’s Gender Insight Report, when women do apply to a job, they are 16% more likely than men to get hired, and that number goes to 18%, if the role is more senior than their current position.
If you look back on when you first started out. What advice would you give yourself?
You can’t know everything, especially not at once. Give yourself time, instead of binging one weekend on an idea and not touch it for the next month or two. You have to learn about things one day at a time, piece by piece.
Are there any particular women in STEM who have inspired you?
Maria Skłodowska-Curie (Marie Curie)? In her day, women were not expected to go into professions where they were intellectually engaged, such as physics or chemistry.
The idea that a woman might one day become a physics or chemistry professor was beyond the realms of possibility. She had a different set of difficulties a century ago, than we have today, but it wouldn’t stop her from studying at the University in Paris (higher education for women was unfortunately unavailable on Polish grounds at that time) and later pioneering research on radioactivity and winning two Nobel prizes in different categories.
Do you have any favourite resources or projects you like to follow?
The women.code(be) monthly newsletter of course! 😊
If you are a tester, you are probably familiar with the Ministry of Testing newsletters. It’s an awesome community consisting of software testers and those who work in software quality in general. Their meetups and conferences, TestBash, are taking place in the whole world. In 2020, having their events cancelled due to pandemic, they organized a 24h-long online conference, TestBashHome, so everyone would feel included, regardless of the time zone. This year they are about to repeat that.
I also like the Software Testing Weekly newsletter, by Dawid Dylowicz.
I bet you didn’t think of Instagram as a medium where you can find some tech knowledge? It is a platform that for many brings to mind photos of food, cats and impossible-to-meet-standards of body image through heavily edited pictures. But, it doesn’t have to be like that – remember, that you are in charge of which content you follow.
During the last year of lockdown the Dev community flourished. ola.qnysz, kama.gawrońska or pani.od.programowania are only a few women who use Instagram to share the tech knowledge and variety of skills that one may find useful in tech industry. If your Polish skills are a bit rusty 😉 there are plenty English-spoken accounts: ela_in_tech, beatka.lipska or tiffintech.
I don’t really listen to podcasts, but https://shouldthisexist.com/ would definitely deserve to be mentioned.
What made you join the women.code(be) community?
I found out about the women.code(be) meetups during another meetup in Gent, SoCraTesBe. It is an inclusive meetup, it often happened that I was the only girl.
How could the tech industry be more inclusive for women and minorities?
There is no silver bullet here, I’m afraid. IT industry is often perceived as a (white) man’s world. There is no doubt that society has some kind of prejudice against women in technology. It sometimes becomes apparent from the microaggressions, e.g. the seemingly meaningless sexist jokes to the full-blown cyber bullying (have you read Brotopia by Emily Chang?).
The same prejudice is also an unfortunate part of the upbringing. A lot of people have this deep-rooted sense of what they were “meant” to do. By the time people reach an age where they can choose what to do with their lives, they are already set in stone on what they think is expected of them, based on their gender, race, color, abilities, etc.
By encouraging diverse groups of young people to learn to code, to work in STEM fields, and follow their dreams we are putting a cultural shift in motion. It’s a grassroots work for the next several dozen years, but it is definitely needed. There also needs to be more programs that reach out to inner-city schools and rural areas to get more kids interested in pursuing careers in STEM. Then everybody will have the same chances at the starting line.
It also needs to become more widespread that we, as a society, will not accept disparity in any field. To quote Amelia Earhart, an American aviator, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932: “A pilot is a pilot. I hope that men and women may achieve equally on any endeavor they set out”.
Let’s be impressed by abilities to work in tech, not gender or a person’s origin, but at the same time let’s not ignore that diversity is being recognized as a driver of creativity and innovation. Wouldn’t it make sense for businesses then to ensure they hire employees with diverse backgrounds and experiences?
Having people be aware of those problems is a big step too. So react to those jokes, explain and educate people and educate yourself for that matter.
What challenges have you faced in the workplace, especially in male-dominated environments?
I don’t think that women should go into IT, or any different male-dominated industry, with the feeling that they are outnumbered, because that may undermine their confidence.
I experienced some inappropriate jokes or comments, I struggled to make my voice heard in general or wasn’t even invited to the meetings in the first place. During one daily standup my co-worker said, directly to me, “Anna, don’t buy too many things on Black Friday”, because that was the current day. The conversation wasn’t even about Black Friday or how this is just another day to celebrate consumerism.
He just needed to tell me that, out of nowhere, not to warn the entire team about spending too much money on a shopping spree. In times like these I feel that I am flattened to a pervasive stereotype and I am no longer a professional, that brings valuable input and perspective to the team. But I’ve been in the industry since 2014 and those were just a few moments, so I guess I’m “lucky” to not having experienced any other form of hostility.
We have to remember that we are part of the ongoing change and soon those fossilized bro-cultures will be out of date.
How would you go about tackling the prejudice that roots from early on? And what could be done to encourage more girls to consider a career in tech?
In the last decade we experienced Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel transferred to the screens; even Star Wars had a female protagonist, Rey. Anna and Elsa from Frozen or Merida from Brave are changing the culture of Disney princesses, who no longer wait for princes charming to save them from distress.
Last year Kamala Harris became the first female vice-president of the United States, saying “While I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last”. Because we socialize in the process of incorporating the norms and ideologies of the society that we live in, representation matters. For girls it might have been difficult to associate themselves with male heroes or see a future in politics before. I believe it will empower girls to be courageous and to make choices that will maybe change the world someday.
The founder of Girls Who Code initiative, Reshma Saujani, in her book Brave, not Perfect says that women also need a relatable role model, because comparing yourself to a superhero that speaks 12 languages, is super strong and attractive, can be overwhelming.
Seeing successful women in an industry filled with men in one’s local environment can motivate girls, who wants to be part of STEM someday to pursue their dreams. If there are no women in STEM in sight, even following the #womenwhoengineer hashtag on social media and going through different stories can be inspiring.