I attended the Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing conference back in September of this year. A close friend of mine brought up the idea of attending a conference during one of our conversations. I went on the ACM website and found the Tapia conference, which was scheduled to commence in less than 1 week’s time. After contacting the conference coordinator for late registration, I decided to take a chance, and booked a plane ticket and Airbnb to Austin, Texas.

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As a recent graduate from a liberal arts college with no prior industry/internship experience, the world of software engineering seemed distant and cold, and I had a strong hunch that a conference established specifically to celebrate diversity wasn’t going to change any of that. While I was excited by the talks and workshops at the conference, I was most intrigued by the career fair, and getting to know different tech companies and graduate schools.

“Not technical enough”, “Did not demonstrate impact”, and “Unclear of what positions you are looking for” were 3 of many criticisms I received from recruiters and engineers upon handing them my resume at the career fairs, resume workshops, and career development workshops. The 3rd comment took me by surprise the most, as I thought (incorrectly) that listing a computer science major, programming projects, and CS related experiences on my resume should have translated to “Software Engineer”. I took each comment and edited my resume accordingly. Throughout the 3 day conference, I must have made changes and polished my resume about 15+ times. It was rough to say the least, but I constantly reminded myself that this was exactly what I came here for; to witness the reality of competition in this industry, understand where someone with my experiences can fit, and how I can improve and move forward after this conference.

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After experiencing very little traction with companies, I arrived to the booth of company P and met recruiter A. They were the only recruiters who took interest in my musical background as a violinist, and validated qualities that I had previously overlooked. I will always remember the moment during my one-on-one interview with recruiter A, when she reminded me to be confident in what makes me unique, and to never sell myself short. That was one of the only times during the conference where I felt like I was being valued, and people were seeing past my technical skills and experiences. It wasn’t until after the conference that I realized that what made my experience with company P different from every other company was that the recruiter approached me from a place of understanding, compassion, and true embrace of diversity.

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My experience speaking with admissions representatives and students from CS graduate schools was much more nurturing and welcoming in comparison. In particular, I learned so much from current grad students who generously shared their personal experiences, journeys and insights on doing graduate work in CS.

There are several things that I took away from attending the Tapia conference. First, coming from a liberal arts college that very few people know about means that you have more to prove in order to get noticed. If you were not a part of the selected few to land a job at a big tech company (that have the resources to recruit at liberal arts schools), you are not out of options. But those opportunities won’t come to you like they do in top 10 engineering schools; you have to fight for them by demonstrating genuine passion for software and their products, not letting others trivialize your strengths (both technical and non-technical), and being your authentic self. Second, though it is often dismissed, company culture actually does matter when it comes to choosing companies in which to invest your time and energy. You don’t want to waste time pursuing a company that prioritize your GPA and only cares about your technical skills and experiences. A recruiter or engineer who does not try to get a holistic view of you as a person is a good indication that the company lacks a strong culture of diversity and inclusion. Lastly, be resilient throughout this process. You are going to be judged, rejected, or even ignored many many times. But just remember, at the end of the day, you can only say ‘yes’ to one of them, so make sure it is the right fit.