Women Computing conference photo 2011

Remembering Me

Hi, my name is Melissa and I am a software engineer. I studied computer science for five years and have worked in the industry for nearly seven. Just over a year ago, I participated in a career panel where I finally understood the importance of representation.

This panel was organized by a few of my alma mater’s student groups: the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers, Women in Tech, and the Biochemistry Club. When they asked me to join the panel, I hesitated…a lot. Sure, I’m in tech and yes, I am also a woman, but oddly enough, it was the “Asian” part that I felt the least qualified to as. I am of Chinese descent after all, and China is part of Asia the last time I checked, so what’s the big deal?

I’ve spent a great deal of time both in my college days and in the tech community trying to draw awareness to the lack of women in tech. This panel invitation reminded me there was whole other side to me that I hadn’t tried to tackle in my efforts nor even talk about in my industry — my ethnic background. I was just so used to working with predominantly white teams that I’d forgotten the other parts of me. How could I find it in me to speak in front of such an unfamiliar environment? How could I find it in me to talk to an audience that on the surface have so much in common in me but underneath feels so foreign to me?

It took me nearly a week to respond, but I finally decided to take the plunge and agree to be a panelist anyway. (I tend to do things that make me feel uncomfortable.) When I got there, the first thing I noticed was that of the six panelists, I was the only woman. I took comfort in this though, based on its familiarity. Here’s how it all played out:

  • I’ve participated in many panels where I shared my stories about how I got into computer science, what my struggles were as a student, what working in the industry is like, etc. This time, it felt different. The students actually laughed, nodded, and sighed at my anecdotes about things like stressing over grades and having to overcome language barriers. They actually responded in a way that made me feel understood. It all just came out of me so naturally and that’s when I knew that psychological safety is a real thing.
  • After the panel was over, a few students — all young women — came up to me and expressed how much my stories had resonated with them, especially the ones about having to fight to be heard. They were also really appreciative of how I was the only woman on the panel. Then, on their own, they each shared their own stories with me about their own struggles at both school and work and I just couldn’t help but to see so much of myself in them. I couldn’t believe it, but a few tears were shed and hugs were exchanged. I’ve never felt so touched or so connected with my audience members before.

As you can see (and despite all of my initial hesitation!), things went better than I imagined at this career panel and I’m so glad I decided to do it. Since then, I’ve been inspired to do a few things:

  • Share my experiences with more people because there’s always the chance that I’ll make someone feel less alone in what they’re going through.
  • Do my best to either encourage others to voice themselves or speak on behalf of them if they can’t risk it.
  • Be an active listener because you never know what new perspective you might learn.

As I practice these acts, it’s important to remember who I am. I know that my activities and occupation may change over time, but my identity won’t.

Hi, my name is Melissa Xie and I am a Chinese-American woman — not just a software engineer.

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