From Film Major to Software Developer: How and Why I Transitioned Into STEM

Sponsored by CGI

Abbie Merker at a recruiting event. Photo courtesy of CGI.

Abbie Merker at a recruiting event. Photo courtesy of CGI.


We’ve come a long way in enabling women to explore technical careers, but there’s more progress to be made in breaking down barriers and creating awareness of what’s possible for young women in STEM.     

As an example of how far you can go in STEM — even if you don’t expect it — take Abbie Merker. When Merker became a student at the University of Alabama, she wasn’t planning for a career in tech, but thanks to challenging her limits and trying out a new path, she’s now in her second year of a promising IT career.     

In this interview, Merker shares how she started out studying film and what led to her career as an automated testing developer at CGI, one of the world’s largest IT and business consulting firms.

What was it like switching to a more technical major?

I transferred into the Management Information Systems (MIS) program, and it was challenging at first. I struggled with my first programming class, and as we approached the final my grade was not great. Toward the end of the semester, I joined an optional programming challenge with the chance to earn credit for the final. I stayed up late working on the challenge while also preparing for the final and completing assigned projects. That’s when things started to click for me, and I began to understand everything that I’d been learning all semester. I ended up finishing the class with a good grade.

In the end, the experience was incredibly rewarding. It was a great way to challenge my limits and become more productive and efficient. Transitioning to MIS didn't just help me develop career opportunities and a knowledge base, it also taught me discipline and perseverance.

Other than lots of hard work, what else helped you through the transition?

The MIS program at the University of Alabama is great. They have office hours and lab hours where you can get help from professors and teaching assistants, and not only the ones you have classes with. 

In my other major and in high school, I tended to shy away from asking for help. In MIS, I had to jump over that barrier. For our first assignment, we had to go around taking selfies with our classmates, professors, teaching assistants, and advisors. That really helped to break the ice and push me out of my comfort zone in terms of getting out and talking to people.

I’ve learned that it’s important to ask for help and use the help available to you. I took advantage of the office hours and really connected with one professor who wasn’t my instructor at the time — and he ended up being a mentor throughout my time at school.

Abbie Merker at graduation. Photo courtesy of CGI.

You interned with CGI before taking a full-time position. What advice do you have for women seeking IT internships?

Keep in mind that internships are a place to learn more about different fields or skills. No one expects a college student to be an expert at something. So, while you should seek internships relevant to your major, don’t shy away from something just because you don’t know everything yet. You’re there to learn.

Also, look for an internship where you get to be part of a community and do real work. My internship at CGI was very hands-on, and I got to use programming languages I learned in school (e.g., C#, HTML, and JavaScript). I was part of an intern group that collaborated every day. We worked on an internal .NET application to track certifications and training.

What other advice comes to mind for women who want to follow in your footsteps?

One thing is to not underestimate soft skills and how much they can help you in your first internship or while interviewing for your first job. Even in a technical role, it’s important to be a good communicator, display emotional intelligence, and be able to mitigate challenges with your coworkers. Take time in college to develop these skills — I learned a lot from reading books and watching YouTube videos.

I also recommend overcommunicating, especially when you're new to a team. People can’t know what you bring to the table unless you tell them. At times on my first project, someone assumed I didn’t know something — and that can be particularly challenging for women. So, don’t be afraid to speak up and share what you know. Otherwise, people may underestimate you.

At the same time, if you don’t know something, ask. No one should be judgmental about asking questions – especially if you are a new hire or on a new project. People with more experience remember what it was like for them starting out in IT and are typically eager to answer questions. 

What's something about your IT career that you're proud of?

On my first project, I was the only junior developer on the team. Everyone else had years of experience. So, my biggest achievement at CGI was probably having the courage to ask questions in a room of people who knew way more than I did, getting up to speed when I was clearly the one who was the most behind, and just pushing through.

Now that you’re over a year into your career at CGI, how’s it going?

Great! When I joined full-time in January 2022, I attended a new-hire boot camp. It was intense: fast-paced and a lot of work. We presented our deliverables to a mock client at the end of each sprint. It was great to get the experience of meeting with a client, developing requirements, and presenting a solution. 

After boot camp, I joined a project team, and we’re creating reusable automated tests for an Oracle application. I really enjoy the atmosphere of open communication and collaboration on my team. I’m also studying and earning certifications for Oracle cloud development and integrations. I am really excited to try something new and work with a new tech stack.

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