We had the pleasure of meeting Cate Huston at the ONCWIC conference this past Fall, and hearing about her journey from the UK to Waterloo (with many stops along the way!). She’s now a software junkie at Google, working on building great products for the world to enjoy. And while Cate is certainly not shy by any standard, she still has battles with self doubt like so many of us women-in-tech do…
What motivated you to pursue a career in software development?
I’m not totally sure, I definitely did not love CS when I started studying it at university! Actually I hated it – I begged my advisor to let me drop it and he bribed me to stay. An internship helped, but I think the big draw for me was the increasing pervasiveness of technology, and getting to build things that make people more effective, or more connected. In 2003, when I started at university (in Scotland), we had a really terrible (dialup!) internet connection in our apartment and hadn’t heard of Google. It was really hard to find things online! Computers were quite unpleasant to use. But while I was there I got my first mac (a 12” powerbook, super cute), broadband, and phones got cameras and user experience seemed to become more important – it was definitely improving.
When I was in China, training in martial arts, my master (teacher) was totally transfixed by my powerbook. They’d come to inspect our rooms and he would just stare at it. We were up a mountain in a national park, beautiful and remote, living this really basic existence, training 6 hours a day or so… for me it was a temporary adventure, but this was his life – and yet excitement about technology was something we found in common. I think spending a year away from school and technology made me more excited about it, because I learned a lot more about how people integrate it into their lives. When I spoke at ONCWIC I talked about how I have the second best job in the world because I build things for humans. I find it really exciting what humans will do, and create, and change, when they’re enabled by software.
Who have been your main mentors / role models throughout your career?
A friend who was a PhD student at another university mentored me through my first few years of school. He was amazing, patient in explaining things to me and sharing his love of functional programming. My now-boyfriend, as well, we were friends in undergrad and stayed in touch afterwards – he’s who convinced me to apply for Google (he’s also in the Waterloo office)! My manager and teammates are really important to my career too. We’re very close and supportive of one another. I’m involved in the women’s network at Google, which is awesome, I always have people to meet when I’m in other offices and people to turn to for advice. GHC (Grace Hopper Celebration) is like my mentoring checkup for the year. GHC 2011 was a couple of weeks ago in Portlant and it was AMAZING, to spend some time with so many amazing technical women. Some that I knew, and many new ones.
Role models are pretty recent, that’s a problem for women, there are so few visible ones in technical positions, not business or product. I’m a big fan of Hilary Mason (at Bit.ly) and Caterina Fake (of Flickr and Hunch).
Most exciting thing about your career?
How many people use the things that we build. That I can tell people, “Oh G+ for iOS? I worked on that!”, or “you know pull to refresh in mobile gmail?” and they know what I’m talking about. I’m very excited about tablet, and enabling online social interaction in inherently social experiences and getting to work on that kind of thing is very cool. When I was thinking about what to do when I escaped from grad school, Google was building everything I was most excited about, and I get to be part of it. That’s amazing.
Dealing with self doubt. When I was at school I compared how I thought I was doing (terribly) with how the arrogant nerd-boys thought they were doing (amazingly) and it took me a long time to realize that no-one is as good as those guys thought they were. I worry about how many opportunities I missed and how many things I didn’t go for because I was convinced I was completely hopeless. I’ve now progressed to feeling like I’m not doing enough rather than feeling like a complete failure, but it’s definitely a work in progress. I think having a network of other women really helps, I’ll be open with them and vice versa, and feel less alone in my feelings of inadequacy!
Any advice for other women, who are as passionate about making great tech products and wanting to work for a company like Google?
Two bits of information, and two bits of advice. The first is: female math teachers who are anxious about math tend to pass that anxiety on to their female students. The second: women on objective measures (GPA etc) tend to underestimate themselves a little, while men tend to overestimate a little.
The first piece of advice comes from this information. As a woman, it’s likely that you doubt yourself more. Be aware of that – it’s OK to be scared, but go for it anyway, because you might surprise yourself. You are almost certainly doing better than you think you are.
The second – go and suck at things. I think I learned more about being an engineer qualifying as a ski instructor than in my entire time at grad school. Because I went and I wasn’t a good skiier, I’d skiied maybe 5 weeks. I sucked. I worked really hard, skiied before class, during lunch, and often closed with the ski patrol. Spent evenings in the gym. I left with my CSIA level 2 – better than I ever dreamed I would be, but still not a great skiier. So much of writing code is about sucking at it, doing something and realizing that it’s too slow, or you’ve not architected it to be extendable enough for this new use-case. You don’t need to be the person with all the answers, you need to be the person who can figure it out. And if you’re afraid of not-knowing, of sucking, you won’t be able to. So I guess, go be terrible at something. Skiing, juggling, kickboxing, writing poetry – anything. And then go be terrible at coding. It’s the only way to get good at it. I’m inspired by Peter Norvig’s learn to code in 10 years – http://norvig.com/21-days.html