With continued challenges facing many women in technology, at times Charlene Tshitoka, a developer with our ThoughtWorks South Africa office, asks herself, “What if I have to give it up one day?”
But then she says, “I see women like Rebecca Parsons [CTO of ThoughtWorks] and I tell myself, ‘If she has made it this far, I definitely can!’”
Charlene is an application developer with ThoughtWorks South Africa, and the first female developer hired in ThoughtWorks Pan Africa for Africa. In this Q&A she shares her journey as a technologist, which includes time in academia, her thoughts on sexism in the workplace, as well as her advice for women considering a technology career.
Charlene says, “I want to inspire other women to think, ‘If she can do it, I can do it too!’”
Q: Tell us about your current role at ThoughtWorks. What are you working on?
I’m an application developer. I’m currently part of an onsite assignment in a South African company that provides health and finance products. I have also been experimenting with acquiring some devops skills.
Q: How did you get to where you are today? What was your career path?
Two years ago I was working in academia. I was a lecturer for first year Computer Science students, and teaching introduction to programming and problem solving subjects. Two years before that, I was a student assistant within the same department.
My journey at ThoughtWorks began when a former recruiter contacted me via email. ThoughtWorks was coming to open an office in South Africa and she wanted to meet me. A few weeks later, I went to meet ThoughtWorkers at the hotel where the company was still operating at the time. The series of events and interviews that followed contributed into making me the ThoughtWorker I am now. Long story short, I was the first female developer hired in ThoughtWorks Pan Africa for Africa.
Q: What is the hardest thing you have done? What did you learn from it?
Up to this day, the hardest thing I’ve ever done has been to prepare for my semester tests a couple of days after my dad’s funeral. I was a second year student at that time. I had spent years working hard to make him proud. My motivation would mainly come from the smile I would put on his face every time I did something well. And I knew I could always rely on his support when school got difficult. But that night after his passing, as I sat to prepare for my tests, I knew I had to learn how to become my own motivation. That was my biggest lesson!
Making the decision to join ThoughtWorks was also a hard thing for me. I feared I would miss sharing my passion for software development with people that needed it. Being in academia gave me a sense of purpose I did not want to lose.
Two years later, I’m glad I joined ThoughtWorks. My role as a teacher continues. I’ve had a couple of occasions to talk about the things I’m passionate about at conferences, meetups and even gave a guest lecture at the University of Nairobi since I’ve joined the company.
Q: Who is your role model, and why?
I would say my mother but that would be too obvious, right? Though she has been a housewife her entire life, mother has always strived for her daughters to fulfill their goals in life. One way or another, she ensured I was given the same opportunities as my brothers. I still admire her for that.
Rebecca Parsons, ThoughtWorks CTO, is a woman I also dearly look up to. The first time I saw her I told myself, I want to remain this passionate about technology even when I grow older. With the challenges faced by women in technology, sometimes I wonder, “What if I have to give up one day?” Then I see women like Rebecca and I tell myself “If she has made it this far, I definitely can!”
Q: What is the best piece of career advice you have received?
“When you are scared to do something, do it anyway. It’s okay to be scared as long as your fears do not block you from achieving your goals in life.”
Q: Your presentation at Grace Hopper 2013 on not-so-smart phones was very well received. What is your key takeaway from the event?
I have come to realize that the things we do and those that happen around us sometimes need a voice to help others notice them. I learned a lot from other women at the Grace Hopper Conference. And, I like to believe that others might have learned from me too.
[Read a recap from Charlene's talk: Not-so-smart Phones Delivering Health Services in Africa.]
Q: Are there specific challenges currently facing female technologists in South Africa? If yes, what are you or ThoughtWorks doing to address them?
When I was a lecturer, I once asked my students why there were not many girls in Computer Science. A male student in my class answered that women were not designed for challenging fields.
A few weeks ago, a male software developer asked me where the other female technologists were. According to him, so far only two female developers have had computing skills good enough to impress him. And he has spent the last 10 years he has been in the IT industry.
Female technologists have to join in a field that is not so welcoming to them. Somehow, women feel they constantly have to “prove” themselves. That alone, is a factor that discourages quite a number of women. But even before that, programming is not advertised to girls as an appealing career choice. The idea that a “female geek” will never have time for shopping or spending time with friends and family is just wrong.
ThoughtWorks South Africa is involved with a few key initiatives to address some of the challenges faced by women in technology. We introduced Black Girls Code in Johannesburg, a non-profit organization that provides technology education to girls from age 7 to 17. We’re looking into working with SAWomeng to target girls who are about to start their tertiary education and those already active in STEM fields. We also like encouraging female participation in our programs such as LevelUp and Young African Technologists (YAT).
Q: What is next for you in your career journey?
I would like to focus on building up my technical and consulting skills. I wish to be in a place where another technical woman would say “If she can do it, I can do it too!” That thought should keep me busy for the next couple of years.