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Women in STEM
Why Chicago Is The Right Place for Women in STEM, According to This Software Engineer
Photo courtesy of DRW
Fairygodboss
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Carissa Miller had just finished her master’s degree in computer science and was ready to leave the world of classrooms behind her. Previously a high school math teacher on the verge of burnout, she’d decided to make the leap to software engineering with little technical experience in her past and a lot of hope for more varied waters in her future.

And that’s exactly what Miller, now a senior software engineer at Chicago-based principal trading firm DRW, found not only in her new role, but in the city as a whole. Known for its burgeoning tech scene and diverse span of businesses, Miller calls Chicago a particularly stand-out choice for women pursuing STEM careers.

“Being in a place where there’s this amount of variety is really helpful in keeping me grounded, as opposed to being somewhere like Silicon Valley where it’s all tech, all the time,” she explained. “We have so many different kinds of businesses, and there are a lot of different ways technology is being applied to them.”

Chicago has long been the capital of the derivatives industry, starting with the first exchange opening in 1848 and more recently becoming a hub for financial technology, or “fintech.” Last year alone, tech employees increased 15% within the city, and the community continues to grow as opportunities expand (including at DRW, which is hiring in a big way).

One of the ways this opportunity boom has benefited the Chicago tech community is through its corresponding slew of local meetups and events. At these events, where folks from Chicago industries ranging from manufacturing to consumer web to trading can co-mingle, developers are able to gain a fresh perspective on their work.

“Being in the financial industry, there are always new challenges that we come across that require us to find new problem-solving techniques,” Miller said. “These meetups and other groups not only help newcomers become more familiar with Chicago in general, but also it’s a healthy way to shake up your mind a bit, so you’re not so stuck in one way of solving technical problems.”

Though the pace of Chicago’s growing tech scene may be energizing, Miller added that she’s still given the autonomy at DRW, her employer of more than eight years, to craft a schedule that suits her family’s needs.

“I love how flexible it is,” she said, explaining that her start and end times typically revolve around that day’s child care situation. “I just keep my manager in the loop, and I’m really able to make a personalized schedule. I think that’s how DRW works in general. There aren’t a lot of strict rules. It’s very personal in making sure that employees have an environment and a schedule that works for them.”

Miller is also able to apply that same emphasis on personalized flexibility to her lunch breaks, which she’ll spend away from her desk at an in-house yoga class or in DRW’s game room, complete with shuffleboard and pool table.

“Having that midday break is really helpful, because you might encounter a problem in the morning that needs a new perspective,” she said. “Being able to get away at lunch and do something else, you can go back to that problem in the afternoon feeling like you can take a fresh look.”

Today, Miller is loving all the flexibility and space for creative problem solving that her work affords and couldn’t be happier that she opted to shift career paths. But the actual process of changing careers isn’t always the smoothest endeavor, and that can hold even truer when one lacks prior experience in their new field. For Miller, who hadn’t owned a computer until college, the first bump along her new path came upon learning she was the only woman in many of her master’s-level computer science classes.

“Instead of thinking about yourself as one out of 100 people in a room trying to learn something new, you start thinking about yourself as the only one: ‘I am the only woman here. Should I even be here?’” she recalled. “You really put yourself at a disadvantage when you think that way…it puts an extra level of pressure on you.”

To other women who have an interest in switching over to STEM fields but fear they lack the expertise to do so, Miller advises focusing on the “bigger picture.”

“I think it’s easy to say, in the moment, ‘I can’t do this right now,’” she said. “But in a field like technology, there are a lot of well-paying, satisfying jobs out there. So looking at the bigger picture and saying, ‘My future growth and earnings potential will be much greater’ — that’s really what carried me through.”

Interested in continuing — or creating! — your tech career at a company that’s as dynamic and diverse as it is flexible? Check out DRW’s openings in Chicago and beyond!

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