Malaysian female coders share their experiences, opinions, hopes and struggles as women in an industry that often is stereotyped as being dominated by men.

Published 2016-09-20 14:21:10

No one likes being put into a box, but it’s always an uphill battle when you’re fighting against an established image in people’s heads.

Take coders. Most of the general population don’t even understand what they do—programmers and developers will also understand the pain of trying to explain their jobs to the masses.

A quick Google image search will show you the stereotypes and associations they face. Something to do with computers, incomprehensible walls of text and icons, nerds, the Matrix, the list goes on.

Google search results on "coder"
How many stereotypes can you count?

Now, what about female coders?

I tried looking at Google images again. This time I got quite a few pretty girls in makeup (glasses optional) posing in front of computer screens (for a somewhat similar result, try to Google “engineer” then “female engineer”).

Some of those screens aren’t even turned on.

Those stock images are hardly what I want in my own head when I try to imagine female coders. Instead, here are real life examples of women who are actively coding and working in Malaysia, to see what they had to say for themselves.

Jecelyn Yeen

Jecelyn Yeen
Jecelyn Yeen

As an initiative manager in Ezypay, a FinTech company specialising in the provision of subscription payments, Jecelyn leads the front-end architecture and development of our products.

She describes her role are a mixture of software development, project and people management. She primarily codes in C#, JavaScript, HTML, CSS, and a little of Java.

Jecelyn is involved with Women Who Code KL, whichs helps to run multiple tech events and workshops.

Personally, she finds that her gender has not affected her work or her professional life, saying, “I learnt coding by chance as that was the only course that I could afford at that moment. I am now a coder by choice because I really like it and have passion towards it.”

She did express some frustration with how she was perceived saying, “Do not invite women to speak in event solely because she is a woman.”

Her advice for girls who are interested in coding? “Don’t be affected by perceptions (coding is difficult, only guys can code, you must be interested in games, etc) and don’t give up too early. Go for it if that’s what you’re interested in.”

Faezrah Rizalman

Faezrah Rizalman
Faezrah Rizalman

Faezrah is a web developer, but at the moment she’s mentoring for the Full Stack Web Development course at MaGIC Academy. She’s also involved in Rails Girls KL, a non-profit global movement that aims to make technology more approachable for girls (and women) to build their ideas.

She shared, “Sometimes it can be overwhelming for anyone, not only girls, when they first learn to code. Having a support community will help ease the process. In every of our Rails Girls workshops we try to do lightning talks from the women already in tech, in the hope to inspire more girls to be interested in technology.”

Faezrah codes in Ruby, and uses Ruby on Rails as her framework of choice. When asked if she feels her gender has affected her experience working as a coder, she replied, “No. I’m always treated as equal, even though I’m the only girl in my team.”

For girls, or anyone who wishes to learn how to code, Faezrah has this advice: “When you’re learning—don’t do it alone. Find a support group/community, or learn together with friends, and don’t be shy to approach your developer friends when you’re stuck.”

Chee Yim, Goh

Chee Yim, Goh
Chee Yim, Goh

An initiative manager in a billing software company, Chee Yim’s main role is to ensure that her team delivers. Chee Yim uses C#, Java, JavaScript and very recently learnt a bit of Angular 2.

Like Jecelyn, Chee Yim is also part of Women Who Code KL. She said, “I guess female coder is viewed as a rare breed like a female pilot. We stand out easily in the crowd of all guys, which is not necessarily a bad thing.”

She feels she has not experienced any discrimination during her computing studies or career, but realised that it might not the case for other ladies.

Her hope for the tech scene in Malaysia is that more women will be active and involved. “We know there must be many talented ladies in tech out there but we just can’t find them within the tech communities as much as we’d like, compared to the guys.”

According to Chee Yim, she feels the success rate for anyone to learn coding by themselves (e.g. through books, free coding sites) without any prior programming background is low.

“You might understand some basic concepts but if your aim is to build real application or obtain enough skills to get a coding job, you will need much more than that. I have heard so many cases where they gave up thinking that they just don’t have it in them. I’d say, it’s the learning method,” she said.

Jeannette Goon

Jeannette Goon
Jeannette Goon

As a co-founder of VapeClubMY, Jeannette is the lead for content marketing and is also involved in parts of operations. Being part of building a profitable business is one of her proudest achievements.

“I didn’t think it was something I could do because I had close to zero finance or business knowledge,” she said.

She first tried coding out of curiousity and treated it as a hobby but credits Rails Girls KL for opening her eyes to how she wanted it to be more than that.

Now, as part of the organising committee, she feels that the Malaysian tech scene still lacks conversation about why it’s important to have women in tech and why creating safe spaces for women within the tech industry is important.

Jeannette shared some experiences where she feels she was misjudged as a coder, because of her gender.

“There are times when I feel like my lack of knowledge will be attributed to my gender, rather than me as a person. For example, if I made mistakes in my code, I worry that it will be a reason for people to say girls aren’t good at coding, when the truth is, it might be just me.

There was also a hackathon where some of the organisers assumed that my female group member and I weren’t programmers simply because we were female,” she said.

Nuhaa All Bakry

Nuhaa All Bakry
Nuhaa All Bakry

Nuhaa is a senior research engineer in a research team at Seek Asia. Thus far, her role includes autosuggest keyword indexing and retrieval, search result ranking evaluation and genetic algorithm model optimisation for a more relevant search result.

Of all the coders I spoke to, Nuhaa’s hopes for the tech scene in Malaysia showed a markedly different point of view, giving more focus to family.

She said, “I’d like to see women given the option to work from home to be able to care for the family. Some companies provide this to their employers regardless of gender, but I’d like to see it legalised in some way for the benefit of the women, like in a labour law or something similar.

A strong family unit can impact the society in a better bigger ways. Just as someone is valuable as a coder is to a company, she is also usually the center of a family that’s valuable to the society. Giving us the option to contribute both at work and home on the same level is paramount.”

Yen Ping, Chew

Yen Ping, Chew
Yen Ping, Chew

Yen Ping started out as a mentor for the Web Development Bootcamp in NEXT Academy late last year and joined the engineering team early this year.

Her day usually consists of lots of coding and fixing bugs and shipping new features, with occasional mentoring in the web dev bootcamp. She’s also working on building an enterprise software that aims to streamline certain processes within the pharmaceutical industry.

Originally in the in the pharmaceutical industry, she was a pharmacist with retail, hospital and limited industry experience before becoming a coder. She counts learning to code as one of her most significant personal and professional achievements.

Interestingly, she shared that she has never felt discriminated by her gender within the industry. It’s people outside the industry who impose the usual coder steoreotypes on her.

“I’ve never experienced any gender discrimination by other male coders, nor have my skills been underestimated just because I’m a female. Generally, from my experience, I feel that the tech community in Malaysia are quite gender neutral and accepting towards people who want to learn how to code,” she said.

Speaking about the rising awareness of female coders and there being more programmes in existence to support them, she said, “I’m really happy to see these efforts happening, because it makes me feel supported by my own peers. The main changes that I’d really like to see is the stereotype towards coders, have you heard of #ilooklikeanengineer?”

Wei Jia, Chen

Wei Jia, Chen
Wei Jia, Chen

Wei Jia is a software engineer at KFIT and also product manager for the Discovery and Search team for the recently launched Fave app.

This journey took her from having a Bachelor of Law/ Commerce double degree and later a job as an Investments Analyst, to now being able to code in Ruby, HTML, CSS, javascript, jQuery and having built in Ember.js.

She shared, “Learning how to code is to learn the basic building blocks of any tech startup, and having strong foundations can take you far.”

She hopes to see more women leaders in tech, and feels that her own experience has on the whole, been a positive one. “The tech community has, over the years, developed a strong appreciation for female diversity in the engineering space. A number of tech events have free passes for females in tech and more tech startups have acknowledged the need for diversity at the workspace.”

Daphne Choong

Daphne Choong
Daphne Choong

In her role as the CTO of Unixus Solutions, sister company of Logistics Worldwide Express, Daphne makes sure the group of companies gets the best technology to cope with their current operational demands and plans strategically for the long term. She codes in C#, Java for web and Android, PHP, Objective-C, Perl and Python.

According to her, in terms of being treated differently when it comes to her gender, the only obvious difference is when she introduces herself to somebody new. Often one of the first comments she gets would be “It’s rare for a female to be in the IT industry!”

She said, “Other experiences are a lot more subtle, for example, I feel an obligation to constantly work harder to prove my worth technically. Whether or not this is just my own feeling, I don’t know.”

Having worked in Australia and the UK as well as in Malaysia, she feels at the moment, Malaysia finds it hard to compete with other countries in terms of salary for talented software engineers. This results in a brain drain and a slow development in the ICT sector compared to other developed nations.

“I hope the Malaysian government will continue to invest seriously in this sector to develop more interest, skills and talents within the country,” she ended.

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