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What It's Really Like to Be a Computer Scientist

In our 9–5 series, we ask our favourite boss babes what a day in the office entails. This week, computer programmer and Microsoft content developer Sage Franch, who also blogs about women in tech at her website Trendy Techie, gives us a glimpse into her grind

what it's like to be a computer programmer

Sage Franch works remotely for Microsoft and runs a website, Trendy Techie (Photo: Mateo Yorke, Photopathic)

Age: 22

Education: Bachelor of Computer Science from Dalhousie University, to be completed in October

Length of time at current gig: Two and a half years

When you were a kid, what did you dream of doing? I went through a lot of different phases, including wanting to be the next Jackie Chan because I was really into martial arts. But when I started thinking seriously, I wanted to own Pixar. That’s what got me interested in computer graphics.

How did you go from being interested in graphics to coding? I went to a summer computer graphics camp at the University of Pennsylvania and one day the professor showed us something really cool. He pulled up what looked like a film script and said, “This is going to make fire.” He clicked “run” on what ended up being code, and it turned into a huge rendering of fire. It looked so realistic! We had spent weeks learning how make visual graphics, but this professor basically spoke the language of the computers and made flames come to life on screen. That was the moment that drew me to the back end. That was my spark.

When you started studying computer science at Dal, how many women were in your classes? Very few, sadly. It started out at around 17 percent but it dwindled over the years. That’s the unfortunate reality about being a woman in tech: it’s always a higher percentage when you start and then people leave for one reason or another.

Did you find it hard being one of very few women? I’m an outspoken and confident person so I didn’t fall into the trap of anticipating a lot of negativity. I also found a lot of student societies, like the Women in Technology Society at Dal, that were supportive. I didn’t feel alienated by the male students. It was a positive experience overall—but I know that other girls don’t always experience that.

Why do you think more women aren’t entering computer science? A lot of girls are taught early on that math and science are for boys. So, before they’re even conscious of it, young girls learn not to pursue STEM fields, and I think that’s really where the problem is.

Now that you’re working for Microsoft, what does your job entail? I’m on the Microsoft learning experiences team, and we’re in charge of running Microsoft Virtual Academy and our edX University, in partnership with Harvard and MIT. We basically create free online courseware that teaches people how to develop on our platform. Right now I’ve created two courses teaching Windows 10 app development, like how to create apps that can run on your phone, tablet and Xbox.

Is learning code similar to learning any another language? Yes! Like spoken languages, coding languages often share similar characteristics, making them easy to learn in tandem. For example, once you know French it’s easier to learn Spanish, because many words come from the same roots and the languages have similar structure. In the same way, once you learn Java it’s easier to learn C#. After all, being able to code is basically like being able to talk to a computer.

What’s your work schedule like? I work remotely, which means that my day is almost entirely in my home office, which right now is my bedroom. I wake up and the first thing I do is check my email. My entire team is based in Seattle and with the three-hour time difference, they’ll send emails way after I’m offline for the night. So in the morning, I have a lot of fresh work to do. Then the rest of the day is checking the discussion boards, course maintenance and building apps that will help teach the students how to do cool things with Windows.

How do you get in the zone before sitting down at your computer? I actually rap in the morning! I have different songs depending on what I’m doing but I have a playlist that starts with dancehall music and goes into B.o.B, who is my favourite rapper, and sometimes a bit of Macklemore or Chance The Rapper. That’s my pump-up music. I listen to it while I have my coffee, check my emails, and then I’m ready to go because I’ve geared up my brain with the music, and I’ve geared up for the day by getting the emails out of the way, and I’m set.

What’s your go-to song? I rap “Play for Keeps” by B.o.B if I need to calm my nerves—like right before I met Justin Trudeau.

“My education has been instrumental in fueling my career and success. From SciTech and IBT programs in middle school, AP classes and financial aid at the Bishop Strachan School in Toronto, to co-op terms and scholarships at Dalhousie University, schooling was how I put down roots for my future path. In 2015 I was hired full-time as an educator at Microsoft, and through support from Microsoft and Dal's incredible Faculty of Computer Science I have been able to kickstart my career while I finish my undergrad. I am so grateful to have been able to take advantage of the amazing programs our education systems provide.” –Sage Franch, @thetrendytechie In #Budget2016, we committed to strengthening Canada’s middle class and those working hard to join it – because making sure young Canadians have access to education, jobs and training is key to building the economy of the future. To read the full budget or get the highlights, click the link in the bio. #EducationCan « Mes études ont joué un rôle essentiel dans ma carrière et ma réussite. Qu’il s’agisse du programme de sciences et technologie ou du programme international de commerce et de technologie à l’école intermédiaire, des cours du programme avancé et de l’aide financière à l’école Bishop Strachan de Toronto ou des sessions de stage et des bourses de l’Université Dalhousie, mes études m’ont permis de jeter les fondements de mon cheminement ultérieur. En 2015, j’ai été embauchée à temps plein comme éducatrice chez Microsoft et, grâce à l’appui de Microsoft et à l’incroyable faculté de sciences informatiques de l’Université de Dalhousie, j’ai été en mesure de donner le coup d’envoi à ma carrière en finissant mes études de premier cycle. Je suis très reconnaissante d’avoir pu tirer profit des formidables programmes offerts par nos systèmes d’éducation. » –Sage Franch, @thetrendytechie Dans le #Budget2016, nous nous sommes engagés à renforcer la classe moyenne du Canada et les personnes qui travaillent fort pour s’y joindre – et le fait de veiller à ce que les jeunes Canadiens aient accès aux études, à des emplois et à de la formation est essentiel pour bâtir l’économie de l’avenir. En savoir plus:

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What are some misconceptions you’ve encountered about coders? People think that coders are just basement-dwellers or that sitting at a computer is a boring job, but it’s really not. Being a coder is the most flexible job you can have, because you can do it from anywhere at any time.

How have you made working remotely work for you? It’s definitely a challenge. You have to be motivated, a self-starter and very disciplined. Especially since I’m a social media person, it can be tempting to open Instagram and be on it all day long, or open Snapchat and hunt down new people and filters. The way I do it is to separate my work computer and my personal devices. When I’m on my work computer, I’m only on my work computer, and it’s like I’m in an office.

What’s the best part of your day? When code compiles correctly. When you’re coding, every little character can make a difference. The worst thing for a coder is when you forget a semicolon. It’s such a mundane little thing, but if you forget it, your entire program won’t run. When you’re coding and testing, “compiling” is where you actually make raw code turn into something real. So when something “compiles successfully,” it’s working and it’s running.

What have you built that you are you most proud of? Trendy Techie, the website I launched four years ago. While it’s not a coding project per se, it really is the one that’s the closest to my heart because it speaks to other young women in tech and makes them feel welcome.

What was your motivation to build it? I was at Best Buy looking for a laptop and asked the salesperson what he’d recommend. He pointed me to this sparkly, shiny little laptop that had barely any power. I told him that I’d need at least 8GB of RAM because I am a coder and I develop apps for Microsoft. He said, “Oh wow, I’m sorry, you just don’t look like you know how to code.” In that moment I was really offended and I went looking online for discussions about being discriminated against in the tech sphere because of your appearance. I wanted to read stories about women who were having it all, being technologists but also wearing dresses and lipstick—because those are not mutually exclusive. No one was writing those stories. So I launched Trendy Techie for people like me.

What has the response been? Really positive. A lot of women face similar things and care about being seen as more than the “geek” girl.

Why does tech need more women? A lot of studies have show that men and women think very differently and have different approaches to problem solving. I’ve even found that when I’m working in a team of mixed genders, it’s a lot more successful and more dynamic. It really helps to have diversity on a team, and that’s not just for gender, it’s for every background and life experience.

Who is a woman in this field that you admire? Everyone woman who is in technology, especially those in the generations before me. They’re the ones that paved the way in such a stigmatized field and really opened the doors for all the women coming in now. In particular? Admiral Grace Hopper, she was one of the pioneering mothers of computer science and just revolutionized the way women are seen in the industry.

What are some big things we can expect from the tech industry soon? Augmented reality and virtual reality are huge right now in the tech space. Pokémon Go is really the first augmented reality app to take off because people relate to it the most, but they’re coming out everywhere. For instance, we’re seeing people augmenting storefronts with technology, creating these virtual mirrors that let you “try on” clothes in the store without ever physically putting them on. It’s truly incredible, and I think we’re going to see a lot more augmented and virtual reality coming out soon.

What attributes does someone need to be a coder? Be logical and creative. Those two don’t always go hand in hand, but you really need both to be a coder, because it’s basically math with words that makes magic happen.

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