Leslie Doherty doesn’t want to talk about problems—she wants to talk about solutions.
She describes her role as a front-end architect for Deloitte Consulting’s Digital Studio in Seattle as a “problem-solving role,” in which clients come to her with problems—and her team brings them solutions. Those solutions? Everything from helping giant tech companies launch new products to guiding auto manufacturers through technological changes in the marketplace.
But her broader professional mission is to change the conversation about women in technology from one about problems to one focused on solutions. As she puts it, “There’s a lot of talk about how we got here—but that’s only relevant if we can fix something.”
And she certainly walks her talk: Outside of her day job, she speaks at conferences championing women in technology, she tutors children in web development, and she’s writing a children’s book about programming with her 10-year-old daughter.
We sat down with Doherty to learn more about what she sees as the future of encouraging more diversity in tech—and what anyone who’s ever considered a career in technology can learn from her path.
Tell us about your career path—how did you get into computer science?
I love to talk about this, because I think this is one of the keys for how to get women in computer science. I was taught how to program at age 12; my dad was a tech person, and he taught me the computer language BASIC on a Commodore 64. I certainly don’t think anybody has to be a tech person to encourage their children to go into computer science, but I know I got a lot of it. For people who are introduced early on and encouraged, it kind of feels more natural or less intimidating.
Then, all through high school my dad kept saying I really should do computer science because I really enjoy it. But my interest was in nutrition, and that’s what I majored in in college. I thought I wanted to be a sports psychologist, or a sports trainer, or go into teaching nutrition.
It’s actually kind of funny. Everyone says that the technology world is changing and evolving at a breakneck pace, but I decided not to do nutrition as my master’s because I wanted something that changed less often. I went into computer science because I was getting so frustrated with the values that were coming out at the time. It was all contradictions: Don’t eat red meat, oh all right eat it; eat eggs, don’t eat eggs. I was like, how are we supposed to know? Forget it.
Programming seems way more logical and less conducive to people’s whims. My dad actually encouraged me again, and then my best friend at the time (now he’s my husband) also encouraged me. I started teaching lower level computer classes at a community college and ended up loving it, so I decided to pursue computer science as a master’s.
What are some of the other keys to encouraging more women in technology careers?
People ask me all the time, “What can I do? I totally want to encourage more women to be in science.” Or, “I have these women staff members, what do I do?” I’m like, “Just encourage them.” That’s the best thing you can do: Make sure that they’re supported. There’s a lot of competition in the tech world, and girls generally aren’t seeking that out as much as collaboration. If you just support them, they’re going to be way more likely to succeed and stick with it.
From a systemic level, I think there’s a lot to be said about teaching methodologies. We’re seeing results at one college, which last year graduated more female engineers than male. They were noticing their retention rates for women, and so they changed their curriculum for Introduction to Computer Science. The way that it was being taught was very classic, fire and brimstone—“You’re going to come in here, and if you’re not going to get through CS 101, you’re never going to make”—so you lose a bunch of people.
The people who stay are the people who thrive on that competition and think, “I can prove that I’m better than everyone else.” You end up cultivating a whole community of people with that attitude, when other people are perfectly able to do that work; it’s just not their driving motivation to show how amazing they are. They just want to go over something interesting, and make something cool, and work with other people.
So, the school took that teaching style out, and their retention rates went from 10% to 40%. There’s more research that needs to be done—it’s obviously not an actual research study—but it just seems that how we have been approaching computer science is not cultivating the type of collaborative environment of support that’s going to make more people comfortable. It’s going to kind of be a select few people that go into that.
There’s a lot of competition in development, and I really don’t know why, because there’s plenty of work to go around. There’s plenty of interesting things to do, so having a less competitive environment, I think, really attracts more diversity.
There’s a lot of talk about how we got here—but that’s only relevant if we can fix something.
Have you personally been in those really competitive environments, or in situations where you were the only woman in a male-dominated environment? What are your tips for others who are in those situations?
I think I’ve had both really good and really bad experiences in that scenario. What I have found is that some communities are a little more competitive than others. I think the front end tends to be a little more competitive, only because there’s so much to it. There are so many different options.
On back end work, there’s not 20,000 ways to solve this one problem, there’s 10. It’s a little more of a sit down, conversational, collaborative environment. I came from the back end to the front, and often in these communities, I would be the only girl in a group of 30 dudes. But I have never felt more supported than I did there. Everyone’s like, “Oh, that’s totally interesting. I’ve never thought of doing it that way.” Or, “Oh hey, I’ve got this new idea I’ve been thinking I’m going to try it out.” Being of one or two females in that environment, they’re like brothers to me now. And I absolutely thrived there.
It really just depends on the situation. If you find a group or a language or you find something that clicks, you end up thriving and learning there.
What advice do you have to people who are pursing engineering paths today?
First, if it doesn’t come quickly, that’s okay. There are a lot of things that come really quickly, and those usually are really fun. There’s a lot of stuff that you have to work through. It’s being really persistent and being willing to go back and learn from all that stuff. It’s always about refining, going back, and being like, “Oh, I know I could have done this better.” You never know when you start what you know at the end. You’re supposed to look back and go, “Oh, I would have done that differently.” Clean it up and keep learning.
That’s great advice. Especially for women, to know that there’s permission to break things and do things that are supposed to not be perfect is really important to hear.
Gosh, don’t be afraid to break things—that’s how you learn! It’s good to break things. You’ll have questions, you’ll ask. And you’ll get to a place where you don’t feel intimidated.