Coraline Ada Ehmke is a developer, diversity activist, and transgender feminist. She’s passionate about open-source projects (especially those involving Ruby), increasing diversity and inclusivity within the tech community, and the sharing of ideas through public speaking and presentations at conferences. Among her many projects that are making the internet a better place is a website called Open Source for Women, a resource/community for women who are involved or interested in contributing to open source projects. More information about her can be found at where.coraline.codes.
I was excited to be able to ask Coraline some questions about her work and get her advice on being female in tech and how we as a community (FIRST Ladies and FIRST as a whole) can be more welcoming, sensitive, and inclusive.
Q. You have a lot of projects going on right now - out of everything you’re working on, what are you most proud of and why?
A. The Contributor Covenant is my favorite project right now. It's a code of conduct for open source projects. A lot of underrepresented and marginalized people are turned away from contributing to open source software, often because of sexist, racist, or ableist language, or because projects are not friendly to new developers. The Contributor Covenant tries to address that problem by turning open source communities into safe spaces where everyone is welcome to contribute and participate. It's been adopted by a number of high-profile projects, and the list grows every day. I'm very encouraged by this and I hope it leads to a solution to the problem that our community can have with inclusion and diversity.
Q. As a developer, your job is to solve problems, which (as the programmers within FIRST ladies know), can often be frustrating. How do you stay motivated when you're blocked or struggling to figure out a problem?
A. I try to remember that when I'm struggling, that's when I'm also learning. And learning is my favorite thing about my work. It would be really boring if I immediately knew the answer to every problem that came my way. So I like to remind myself of that, especially when I'm frustrated.
Q. FIRST involves more than just robots - teams have to learn lots of skills, including presenting their projects to judges and public audiences. As a successful public speaker, do you have any tips for teams about how to present engagingly and effectively?
A. I think that the secret to a great presentation is sincerity. You put something of yourself in your project, and you need to share that spark. If you don't care about the results you achieved, it will show when you talk to someone about it. We get excited by other people's passion, and making sure that passion comes through is the most important thing. More important than anything you can say is the look on your face when you're saying it.
It's also a good idea to spend some time thinking about the story you want to share through your presentation. And note that I said story, not information. People love a narrative, and the best talks in my opinion are those that tell a compelling story.
Q. How have your unique experiences as a transgender woman within the tech community influenced your views on the culture surrounding STEM?
A. Having spent the first half of my career with male privilege, I have what I consider to be a unique perspective on issues of diversity and inclusivity in STEM. I've been on both sides of the issue. And really, it wasn't until I gave up my male privilege when I transitioned that I saw first-hand how tough things can be for women and other underrepresented people. I knew that there was a problem at an intellectual level, but experiencing it for myself was shocking. That's what inspires my outreach work; I want to use my experiences to make things better for other people who may be struggling.
Q. Being an active and visible internet presence can inspire and encourage people who follow you, but unfortunately often comes with uninvited comments and straight-up hate. How do you deal with criticism and insensitivity regarding your code, your work, and you personally?
A. There are a lot of really hateful and ignorant people in the world, and it takes real effort to keep their voices from drowning out the positive things in my life. My support community is essential to my mental well-being. I have people that I can rely on, that I can share my experiences with; people who have been there, too. I think having a network of people who love you and care about you is the most important thing. It's dangerous to go alone!
I also have a little trick that I use to cheer myself up when things do get me down. I take screenshots of nice things that people have said about me, and I keep them in a folder on my desktop called Kindnesses. When I'm not feeling good about myself I can browse the pictures in that folder and relive the moments that have made me smile, made me feel appreciated. That helps a lot.
Q. What advice would you give to girls, specifically trans girls, who are interested in coding or other tech-related jobs?
A. When I started my transition, I used the fact that I was changing everything about my life to push me to examine who I really wanted to be, and to move myself closer to that ideal person. Empathy is something that I learned through this process of reinventing myself.
And empathy is critical to success in the tech field. No matter what technology you're working with, almost any technical problem comes down to a people problem. If you're going to succeed, you have to be good at recognizing and solving them at this level. That means using empathy to understand where someone is coming from, or how your users will feel. Clear communication with the people in charge of projects, and especially your coworkers. The ability to express yourself clearly and confidently. All of these skills-- too easily dismissed as 'soft skills'-- are the most crucial to my success as a developer.
Q. What are some things the FIRST community can do to encourage diversity and promote trans inclusivity?
A. Be clear and direct about the space you're trying to create with your community. Express your values and follow through on them. Use inclusive language and make sure that you're making people who don't look like you feel welcome there. But most importantly, make sure that your leadership reflects the diversity that you're trying to create in your participants. It's important that everyone in the group have a role model, someone like them that they can look up to and be inspired by. Diversity is simultaneously top-down and bottom-up.
Q. Is there anything else you would like the ladies of FIRST to know (about you, being a successful woman in tech, etc)?
A. Learn how to learn, and fall in love with the cycle of struggle and growth. This skill will take you wherever you want to go.
If you want to learn more about Coraline, you can find her on Twitter (@CoralineAda).
This blog was written by Annika Garbers, FTC 5975 Alum & current college freshman at RIT. If you are interested in blogging for FIRST Ladies, click here to sign up on the schedule.
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