Meet Cait Powell, Made By Girls Instructor

By Peggy Lee

Aside from teaching co-ed programming courses at DMA, Cait Powell is also a Made By Girls Programming with Java instructor. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Scripps College, with emphasis in creative writing and digital humanities, and began her master’s degree in interdisciplinary computer science at Mills College last autumn. She is also a competitive ballroom dancer, published poet and big fan of intersectional feminism.

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Cait’s newest hobby is circus arts – like aerial silks, aerial rope and flying trapeze!

Tell us about your journey through the world of tech. What got you interested in computer science?
I got into computer science by accident. During the second semester of my senior year of college, I had an extra space in my schedule and needed to find another class to take while I wrote my senior thesis.

I picked an introductory Python course on a whim, thinking that I probably wouldn’t love it but that it would be a useful skill to have when I graduated. It turned out that I did, in fact, love it, but I wouldn’t have considered it as a career until I got across-the-board rejected from graduate programs in English. (Who knew that 1-percent acceptance rates were so common?)

Though I basically wanted to hide under my covers and lick my wounds in private, I needed to make some sort of plan before I left college, and I impulsively decided to pursue interdisciplinary computer science as a field of graduate study and as a career, keeping literature and writing as a personal side project. I worked, took classes on my own, programmed in my spare time, and a year later, was accepted to four different CS master’s programs. Turns out, rejection always feels pretty terrible, but sometimes it’s an incredibly fortuitous thing.

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After graduating from Scripps College, Cait is ready to begin her master’s degree in interdisciplinary computer science at Mills College!

What’s something about computer science or tech that you think would be surprising to somebody just coming into it?
Before I started coding and talking extensively to other programmers about coding, I thought that good programmers developed some magical set of skills that allowed them to solve all sorts of complex problems without getting bogged down by bugs and confusion. I felt stupid when I got stuck on problems I thought should be easy and was way too hard on myself.

But it turns out that everyone I know, from people in their first week of an intro CS class to software engineers who have been working for 20 years, gets stuck. They encounter bugs they can’t squish and conceptual problems they can’t figure out. No matter how experienced they are, they search the Internet, gnash their teeth and ask their friends or colleagues for help. Getting stuck, being confused and asking for help in no way indicate that you’re not good at programming – it’s just a natural part of the process.

What do you find most challenging and what do you find most fun and rewarding about CS?
As a woman (and a woman with a background in the arts and the humanities at that), the most challenging thing about pursuing tech has been my own internalized perception that I’m “not a STEM sort of person.” I take a math class, do as well or better than all my classmates and tell myself that somehow it’s a fluke or I’ve fooled everyone into thinking I know what I’m doing. Imposter syndrome is very real, and it can be very harmful.

However, being aware of it is a huge help. When you catch yourself bringing yourself down, ask yourself how you would treat your best female friend if she were self-doubting, and ask yourself if you would think that a male peer having the same problem was bad at coding or just stuck on a problem. Remind yourself that you are not obligated to be perfect or to represent your entire gender; you are allowed to be confused.

Remind yourself that you are not an imposter and that you belong exactly where you are. And once you’ve checked yourself like this, go back to the problem at hand with a clearer head. Because, for me, when my internal critic is quiet, coding is just like doing a puzzle. And, as with any complicated puzzle, the rush you get when you finally figure out a solution is completely addicting and utterly rewarding.

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Instructor Cait Powell goes over a student’s code in DMA’s co-ed Intro to Java Programming course.

Do you have any advice for girls who are interested in CS/tech but don’t know where to start?
Although many high schools, community colleges and universities offer computer science classes or computer science majors, many girls are discouraged from taking these courses, be it as a result of lack of exposure, societal pressure or feelings of inadequacy in relation to the discipline.

If you’re a girl and you’re interested in tech, my advice is to take those courses if you have access to them! If your high school offers a CS course, take it. If it doesn’t, find a community college and take a course at night or on the weekends. Look for after-school programs that offer coding workshops. If you don’t have access to physical classes, find an online course. There are a great many options, lots of them free or at very low cost.

Practice coding on your own – a simple Google search will turn up tons of lists with basic or intermediate coding projects (sometimes with solutions in a variety of languages). Don’t be afraid to be the only girl in your CS course, or to choose to major in CS in college even when not a lot of girls are doing so, or to teach yourself to code. Ask questions, populate forums and don’t be afraid to assert yourself, your potential and your talent.

Who were some of your mentors along your journey, and what encouragement did they give you that helped keep you engaged in your studies or work?
My fabulous intro CS professor at Pomona College, Sara Sood, was the first person to make me realize that there was no such thing as a specific kind of person who loves and is good at CS. Not only was she a successful and well-respected professional, she was a mother, a wife and a hilarious, effective lecturer. She made CS accessible, fun and totally non-intimidating.

Her office hours offered a friendly, nonjudgmental place to do homework and get help (and I took liberal advantage of them). When she pointed out to me that I was good at what I was doing, I was genuinely surprised. But knowing she had confidence in me was enough to convince me that if I loved CS enough, I could pursue it.

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Being awesome at CS is only one aspect of Cait’s life. She’s also a competitive ballroom dancer!

Does CS impact other parts of your life?
Actively pursuing CS gives me an increased sense of confidence in almost every aspect of my life. Knowing that I have the ability to learn a new skill, change paths and take control of what I want to learn and where I want to go makes most other challenges seem much more manageable. It’s shown me a whole new way of thinking and making connections that I’d previously never explored.

Picking a major or a first job isn’t a lifelong commitment. A degree in a certain subject or a background in a certain area doesn’t mean that’s the only subject you’ll ever have mastery over or the only field you’ll ever work in, and your initial interests and degrees can inform and enrich your experiences in other fields.

Peggy Lee is a DMA Regional Director and Director of Made By Girls.