Guts, Growth, and Grit: How to Succeed in Computer Science

Photo of Chineye Emeghara.

Women have an uphill battle when it comes to making their mark on the field of computer science: only 20% of CS majors are women, a statistic that peaked at 34% in the 1980s and continues to be declining. Even fewer women represent the engineering workforce — only about 13%, according to researchers.

However, anyone who’s been to the annual Grace Hopper Celebration (the largest gathering of women in technology) knows that women in tech are a force to be reckoned with. The Windows Insider Program recently brought 10 extraordinary women to the Grace Hopper Celebration as winners of the Windows Insider Women in Computing Award. (Next year, the winners will also visit Microsoft headquarters for mentoring.) These women are high achievers, passionate about their work, and determined to bring their talents to the table. We asked them for their perspectives on what it takes to succeed in CS and how to support more women in the field. This article is the first in our series.

“I didn’t really have a community, and it was so cool to see people connecting with one another to help each other learn skills and create awesome things,” Chineye Emeghara says, describing how she first discovered her interest in computer science through a Reddit thread. Chineye is currently a CS Major at the University of Texas at Austin and will be interning at Microsoft next year.

“It was the summer of my high school freshman year, and I didn’t really have any plans,” Chineye recalls. “I wasn’t that motivated, just reading a lot, and happened to come across a subreddit, r/learningprogramming. The thread was titled, ‘What kind of language should I learn first?’ and for some reason, I was just drawn to understanding what these people were talking about.”

Through the Reddit community, Chineye discovered resources like Code Academy and from there taught herself how to code. (Her first project? A website coded with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript dedicated to Sonic the Hedgehog.) While she repeatedly asked her school to offer an AP Computer Science class, administrators responded that they had no one to teach such a class. Armed with determination and with the encouragement of her parents, Chineye kept taking online courses and practicing on her own. She became one of just three students from her school who were accepted into the University of Texas’s CS program.

In college, Chineye faced a new set of challenges. During the first few weeks of class, she discovered that some students already had a strong grasp of certain programming languages. “I would be struggling on the first programs for days and days, while they would have it done in a couple of hours. That kind of messes with your head a little bit, but it was those same students who had had the resources — the AP CS classes, the workshops — prior to college.”

Chineye realized that it might take her a little bit longer to catch up, but if she focused on her own progress rather than comparing herself to her classmates, she would be able to get her programs done.

“I kept learning, and I reached out to my professor, the TA’s, and to other students who were in the same place as me,” Chineye says. “It sort of created this community where we could lean on each other and know that with diligence, we could all get through.”

She describes her first year as not only about building her programming skills, but also strengthening her learning muscle — “I had to learn how to learn.”

“Learning Java was one of the biggest learning curves of my life, and at the time, I thought ‘I just need to know Java — that’s everything.’” Chineye explains. “But in reality, it was a lot bigger than that. In the process, I built the foundation to utilize my resources — like tutoring or my TA or my professor. I learned how to network, make connections, and study smarter. Even how to utilize the internet better to find out what I need to know. So learning how to learn Java aided me later in being able to pick up Python and C#. It gave me a skill set and a perseverance to learn anything else I want to, even quicker for the future.”

Some people have downplayed Chineye’s achievements, saying that she was accepted to her CS program as a result of a diversity quota, rather than her own merit. Chineye has felt the pressure to prove the doubters wrong by excelling above and beyond — a feeling that many women in tech have similarly expressed.

“Basically, there were people saying that I didn’t deserve to be accepted,” she says. “I just kind of smiled and moved on, but coming into UT my first year, as I was struggling with my first programs, I wondered, ‘Am I supposed to be here? Like, were they right? Am I just part of a quota?’ I just had to tell myself, ‘You are here for a reason, and you will be successful — even if that means working 10 times as hard.’ Now that I’ve gotten through some of the hardest classes UT offers, I feel like I continue to prove those people wrong.”

Chineye emphasizes how her parents, who emigrated from Nigeria to ensure their children would have better opportunities, have helped her stay motivated. We asked if she had any thoughts on how more diverse women might be supported to pursue careers in CS.

“It would really help to ensure that young women, young black women, even from K-12, have access to resources to learn about the different careers that they can have in tech,” she says. “Showing girls that they can pursue the passions that they already have, whether it’s fashion or music or sports, through technology. Just someone saying, ‘Hey, computer science is a possibility for you. Explore it.’”

It’s still early for Chineye to say exactly where she’ll be after college, but right now she’s fascinated by mixed reality as well as tech’s potential for improving lives in developing countries. Ultimately, she knows she’ll be building a career doing “something really innovative that’s definitely pushing the boundaries and making the world a better place. I think that’s the most important thing.”

Editor’s Note: Chineye was selected as a winner of the Windows Insider Women in Computing Award and will be invited to Microsoft headquarters for a week of mentoring next year. Follow us on Twitter for more opportunities from the Windows Insider Program to learn, grow your network, and more.