An Interview with iOS and Ruby Developer Neem Serra


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Neem Serra, iOS and Ruby Developer, shares her journey through a career in technology.

WITI: You have a background in genomics and biology. How do these studies connect with programming?

Neem Serra (NS): The sequencing of the first human genome was one of the biggest advances in science because it allowed researchers to study human DNA, how it compared to other species, and what differences we had amongst each other. Every day, scientists sequence more aspects of our lives to answer fundamental questions, such as, "How does our environment change our health?" or, "How can we cure certain diseases?"

Data that can't be directly analyzed is at the core of these human studies. I was fortunate in my undergraduate because I worked in a lab that combined biology with computer science. I saw firsthand how scientists needed programming skills to explore data in a fast, efficient, and reproducible manner.

Programming now is at the heart of furthering science.

WITI: How did your path lead you into the technology field and to WWT Asynchrony Labs?

NS: I got my master's in evolutionary biology. While there are a lot of labs that are rigorous about programming, many scientists don't record code. This omission can lead to problems in reproducibility and reliability of data analysis.

In 2013, a colleague told me about an opportunity at WWT Asynchrony Labs, so I left the Ph.D. program and started my career. During that time, I learned about programming. I enjoyed seeing people collaborate and push each other to adhere to good practice—like how to test code and review others' code. My favorite part is how open people are to teach one another to get better in different aspects of their professional lives, whether it be coding skills or communication skills.

WITI: You're an iOS developer. What makes Swift different from other programming languages?

NS: iOS is Apple's operating system for iPhones and iPads. A few years ago, Apple came out with their programming language called Swift to replace the older language, Objective-C.

Swift is different from other languages in a variety of ways. Many tests that are optimized for mobile devices show Swift code runs faster than Objective-C. Every year, Apple releases a new version of Swift and new frameworks in Swift that allow developers to take complex features, like augmented reality or machine learning, and easily drop them into their app.

This technology revolutionized those who can make apps because now people of all experience levels need only bring their creativity and problem-solving skills to the table to create full-featured applications, instead of recreating the wheel. Apple created Swift to be beginner-friendly, but also more open and less proprietary so the language can foster a better community among users. Swift makes programming more accessible.

WITI: When did you start the St. Louis Techies Project? What is the goal of this project?

NS: The St. Louis Techies Project highlights the diversity of technical women in the St. Louis area. A year ago, I started the St. Louis chapter of the Google's Women Techmakers program. Before that, I hosted craft nights as a social gathering for technical women in the area. I loved hosting because I got to know tech women from a variety of backgrounds.

But, I would get frustrated when I heard time after time, that tech women in St. Louis didn't exist.

The theme of this year's International Women's Day was to tell our stories, so I latched on to the idea, and launched a website where people could tell their tech stories. I reached out to every woman I knew in the area, and even women I didn't know. Most of the women, especially senior women, shocked me by responding that they couldn't fill out the form because they weren't "technical" enough.

After convincing many of the women they were technical enough, I had a launch party with women telling their stories from all areas of tech (programmers, quality assurance advocates, project managers, technical writers, designers, etc.). We heard from people new to tech and people who've been in tech for decades. Everyone was inspirational. My goal was to highlight the incredible women and their experiences in tech. The project helped strengthen the St. Louis women in the tech scene.

WITI: When you speak at conferences, what do you aim to highlight?

NS: I talk about unconscious bias. Over the years, I realized humans unintentionally hurt each other. We need training to recognize those situations so we can avoid them. I quit watching TV for a month so I could think about the talk I wanted to give. I wanted to be intentional in my phrasing to avoid putting people on the defensive while making them feel open during the talk about an uncomfortable topic.

I ate a ton of cupcakes during that month, which inspired the theme "A Cupcake in a Doughnut World." Extracting bias to the level of desserts made it much more accessible for people because I was able to talk about a hard subject in a light-hearted manner. The theme worked so well that Catholic nuns approached me this summer to do the same talk at one of their conferences because it spoke to the heart and was generic enough that everyone could use it.

WITI: Do you have any future aspirations for other projects?

NS: I strive to figure out my next steps because I worry about becoming complacent. I have a lot of energy. I want the world to hear me roar, while I also help others find their voice and passion.

My next projects involve empowering people. I'm trying to find ways to get underrepresented minorities in St. Louis to find avenues into tech that capture their interest in a sustainable way. We can teach skills while helping the community around us.

I'm also working on a workshop to help women reframe their narratives to understand how technical they are, and how they belong in this field. Statistically, women have too low a rate of retention in tech, so I want to convince the women we have to stay, while also calling on everyone else to make the culture better so that it is healthy for women to want to stay in tech.

This goal requires continuing to teach people about unconscious bias and doing workshops for people on ally-skills so that we can all make our community a better place to work and to prosper.

Neem Serra is an iOS and Ruby Developer formerly at WWT Asynchrony Labs in St. Louis. She has a master's degree in evolutionary biology from the University of Washington—Seattle and a bachelor's in genomics and molecular genetics from Michigan State University. Neem is the lead for the Women Techmakers group in St. Louis and a regular speaker at technology conferences throughout the U.S.