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WIT WNY Interview with Olga, Lead Software Engineer at Willis Towers Watson

Women in Technology WNY is here to feature the stories of women in our local community and the various technology roles they fill, traditional and non-traditional. TechBuffalo is here to highlight these women to encourage others to not only explore technology opportunities but to take advantage of them. In addition to being a talented photographer (seriously, book her) and mentor, Olga is an individual dedicated to bringing inclusivity to the tech community. Check out her journey and some great advice she offers.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I am currently a lead software engineer on the platform team at Willis Towers Watson, the parent company of Liazon. I came from an infrastructure background but really wanted to get into software engineering, so I ended up joining the Buffalo chapter of Girl Develop IT (GDI). I met a lot of people there that helped me get to where I am now. I wanted the opportunity to give back what I was given and share the experiences I had so I became one of the chapter leaders for this group. Unfortunately, when we found out about the systemic racism going on at the organization’s HQ team, we decided to shut down GDI Buffalo and start Inclusive Tech Buffalo to continue our work. I’m not as active with Inclusive Tech Buffalo as I once was, I stepped away to take care of myself mentally, but I still mentor for them. I’m also one of the organizers for DevOps Days Buffalo and I have a side business as a photographer. I find it’s a really good balance for me because if I get too much of one thing, I just do another.

Who or what piqued your interest in engineering?
I would say there are a couple of things that influenced me. My father was a programmer when I was growing up and, even though I didn’t quite understand what that was in my early years, his general interest in science and engineering did influence me to take up my own interest in STEM. When PCs started to become more affordable and we could finally get one in the house, I became really interested in games and thought about wanting to make them in the future – this is also about the time that I actually learned what a programmer was. Fast forward to college: I had a few interests I was very passionate about throughout my life, including computer science, physics, and fine art. In my uncertainty, I sort of ended up pursuing all of them before finally settling on Computational Physics, which was most of the physics curriculum with some data/programming classes sprinkled in. Although I initially pursued physics, I ultimately decided that software engineering would be a more sustainable career for me.

Software engineering seems like it’s a field that requires you to have some type of college degree behind you. Do you think this is something that can be achieved through a non-traditional path?
Absolutely. I don’t think that a college degree is necessary at all, especially in this day and age. There are so many educational materials out there that are free or at least affordable. You can pick up programming without much trouble. With that said, there is still a ton of gatekeeping in the industry, so having a computer science degree definitely gives you an advantage for getting an interview. At least, until more progress is made in that process. After getting through the interview, what’s really going to matter are the soft skills. If you are willing to learn, have good communication skills, and are motivated you will do well. Technology changes and evolves so quickly. You are always going to be learning. My manager has a philosophy degree and he’s one of the best engineers I know. I’ve also known English majors who became engineers; so yes, having a computer science or some sort of tech degree can be helpful, but it’s not the only path out there.

For those who may not know, what is Inclusive Tech Buffalo & DevOps Days?
Inclusive Tech Buffalo is a group that aims to make technology more accessible for women and other members of underserved communities. The group is about supporting people exploring technology. It’s not strictly for teaching newbies, but rather a safe environment for the members of those communities to learn from and encourage one another within the technology space. For the people who are established in the field, it’s a place they can come and connect, communicate, and share experiences.

DevOps Days is an international chain of technical conferences with topics relevant to programming and operations. DevOps Days Buffalo is the local iteration of that conference. We gather knowledgeable people from around the world to come to speak about subjects that could be beneficial to the local tech workers. It’s also a great way to network with others and share knowledge.

Knowing the champion you are for inclusivity in technology, what advice would you give women looking to start a career in tech?
Oh, I have tons of advice, but I’ll limit it to 3.

  1. Start applying before you feel like you’re ready. A lot of women will look at a job description and think “I only have 30% of what they’re asking for” or “I need to learn all of this to actually apply for this job” and that shouldn’t be the case. And if you check off every bullet they’re asking for, you’re probably over-qualified.
  2. Practice interviewing, even if you feel you may not be ready. Every interview is an opportunity to improve or to get a job. Also, you’re interviewing them just as much as they are interviewing you so come prepared with questions.
  3. Don’t get demotivated by rejections. Sometimes it helps get your name out there and can be a good opportunity for some networking.

This was all fantastic advice given to me when I was starting out and really helped me get to where I am now.

Thank you Olga for chatting with me! If you would like to connect/learn more about Olga visit her LinkedIn. If you are interested in the work Inclusive Tech Buffalo does, visit their Meetup: