As an innovative tech company, Cape Privacy relies on a diverse and skilled team of professionals who bring their talents to a highly collaborative environment. Through that collaboration we are building a platform that protects security by default with a novel combination of secret sharing and secure multiparty computation.
For women's history month, a number of our strong women talk about what inspires them about working in tech, how they overcame challenges in their careers, and their visions for what the future of engineering should look like. These fascinating conversations demonstrate the power of what's possible when you build a diverse workforce that values the contributions of people with different perspectives.
This women in tech dialogue is between head of marketing and software engineer Reesha Dedhia and Grace Poetzinger.
Reesha Dedhia: Hi, Grace, and thanks for sitting down with me. Let's start out with a little bit of get-to-know-you.* *Where are you from, and where do you live now?
Grace Poetzinger: I'm from South Florida, and now I live in Nashville, Tennessee.
Reesha: How did you get into your career path as a software engineer? Were you always interested in a career in tech?
Grace: While still at university, I started making portfolio websites for friends to showcase their achievements as artists or academics. Through this process, I taught myself the basics of building and maintaining simple websites.
Looking back, those early sites were definitely the catalyst of my obsession for making things with code. I loved that I could create a digital space that would feature some niche domain of information, or media that I wanted to promote. At the time I was studying dance and feeling disheartened at the lack of dance documentation on the web. A lot of my early projects centered on this interest.
Reesha: When you discovered Cape Privacy, what was it about the organization that you found compelling?
Grace: I believe the tech we're working on has revolutionary potential. When first getting introduced to the company, I was also inspired by our origin story; how the company has grown from open source roots. I found that to be very authentic and demonstrative of people's passion here to push this boundary at the intersection of cryptography and ML.
Reesha: What's the most exciting thing about your job as a software engineer?
Grace: As a developer, learning is an essential skill. It's both exciting and humbling to know that you could go down a bunch of different software rabbit holes, and it would take a long time to develop mastery in any single domain. Being in the field for seven years now has given me the opportunity to go deep into several of these - interface development, API design, and now backend microservices. I think finding pleasure in the ongoing challenge of pushing up against what you don't know yet is something many engineers relate to.
Reesha: What does a typical day in your job involve?
Grace: It's different day-to-day. We have prioritized goal-posts, but otherwise it's an open playing field. Routinely I get to ask myself, "What sort of impact do I want to make?"
I like to write code, so I aim to have a deep coding session at least once a day, lasting maybe two to four hours. Depending on the complexity of the work at hand, sometimes that session will be paired. Outside of that, I review other people's code to keep up-to-date with what is going on, and also to support our collective standard for quality code.
And then of course, there are the zoomed-out alignment sessions, for reflecting on what we're actually working on, how it could be better, and making sure that it fits into the larger picture. I enjoy switching between these different modes.
Reesha: From the outside looking in, software engineering is a male-dominated field. In fact, women represent only 14 percent of the total software engineering workforce. Knowing that, and knowing you'd face a broad tech gender gap, what was it that attracted you to the field?
Grace: In university, I studied physics and math, and that was the first time that I experienced the gender gap in STEM-related fields. I definitely took note of the fact that in any one class, only about 10% of us were not male - and the ratio for tenured professorship was even worse. I found myself questioning my decision to go into this specialization, like, maybe there's some sort of inherent biological difference that makes men more interested or suited to this type of work? I had my moments of wrestling with such questions, but by the time I entered the field, I was at peace with the situation. I wasn't going to let the skewed gender ratio keep me from a career I knew would be lucrative and stimulating to me.
Reesha: Who are your role models as you pursued a career in software engineering? And who are some of the people who helped you along the way?
Grace: I had the fortune of having a good friend enter the industry a little before I did. She's coached me through several important milestones, from landing my first job to skilling up as a backend developer. I remember sitting with her to debug one of the first Python programs I wrote - she's the one who first showed me step-through shell debugging. We even worked together on a few projects. An interesting one involved collaborating with Petr Janata, a psychology professor at UC Davis, to refactor an application that he built that utilized graph visualization to link user memories and certain pieces of music. It's been invaluable to have someone who's tracked my career progression, and who has always openly shared her own experiences with me. Shoutout to Smith Freeman - I've learned a lot from her.
Reesha: What's the biggest obstacle you've faced in your career so far, and how did you overcome it?
Grace: Coming into the field without a computer science education, the burden of proof has been on me to demonstrate that I could write good software. And naturally, I initially struggled to do so. But I've found that focusing on the task at hand and driving projects to completion is a great teacher. I've also had solid coworkers along the way that were willing to point out holes in my understanding or teach me new things. It's helpful that being supportive of self-starting and continuous learning is a key part of tech culture.
Reesha: It's International Women's Month and the theme is Breaking the Bias. You talked about the obstacles you faced; what would you say is the most important action that needs to be taken to overcome gender bias?
Grace: I feel like the industry is doing a pretty good job at aiming to recruit for diversity. Since joining the field, every new place I've worked at has felt more inclusive. One key to this seems to be supporting women and people from other minority backgrounds as they grow into more senior positions. Everyone wants to hire strong engineers from diverse backgrounds, and a cool way for organizations to achieve this team composition is to take seriously the growth of junior to mid-level engineers, and lift them up.
Reesha: And individuals can help lift each other up too, right?
Grace: Yeah, definitely. And that's something that we do a good job of here at Cape. It doesn't feel like there's a rigid hierarchy between senior engineers and others - the lines are blurred, and everyone supports each other and their learning. It's a model I would recommend to other places that want to encourage the growth of all of their people.
Reesha: What advice would you give a young woman who might be thinking about joining the rarefied air of becoming a woman in tech?
Grace: Cultivate your own standard for quality work, and find peers who will support your growth. And when you identify what your interest is in the field, go deep into it. You'll see how easy it is to make the kind of impact you want.