Women in STEM: Gail Carmichael: “Focus on how you can use computer science to solve interesting problems.”

It used to be that formal education happened in schools, but Gail Carmichael is proof that’s an outdated concept. As the manager of external education programs at Shopify, she’s in charge of forming partnerships between secondary and post-secondary educational institutions and the Ottawa-based e-commerce software company. As a former Carleton University computer science instructor, Carmichael is right at home creating opportunities for young people — and, by extension, the industry, too.

What exactly do you do at Shopify?

With the university program, we’re looking at ways to put more structure on co-op terms, trying to make it so that students can earn credit at Shopify through the work they do here. They are learning many competencies, for example, that are relevant to a computer science degree while they’re here. The high-school outreach is to try to get people interested in computer science and engineering. They can feed the workforce in general and Shopify, as well.

How much of your old job do you apply to your new one?

A lot. As an instructor you’re obviously developing educational materials for your courses, and that’s directly relevant because I’m working on curricula to use in our various programs here. There was one semester where I managed 18 teaching assistants and 700 students, so I also learned some good management skills that are applicable to a traditional management position like I have now.

How did you discover a love for computing?

My dad worked for the government and he used to bring home their discarded computers, I had one in my room from a very young age. I was always interested in creating things on the computer — not in code per se, but, for example, by writing stories and creating newsletters for my Grade 6 class.

In high school, I became fascinated with what might be happening behind the screen. I eventually started my computer science degree and got hooked on programming. I enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of it and the ability to create in a new kind of way.

Who inspired you growing up?

I got lucky because my boyfriend in high school, now my husband, was also interested in computer science. When he went off to college, I got to see the stuff he was doing — he was a couple years ahead. It didn’t hurt that I got to feel really proud in helping him with his college math.

The tech sector gets a lot of criticism for being male dominated. What does it need to do to get more women into more important roles?

If you look at TV shows, CSI had an amazing effect on people — including women — wanting to become forensic scientists because of the role models. If you look at shows that feature programmers or hackers, you really don’t get the same kind of cool factor. The tend to reinforce the stereotypes. There are a lot of problems with people simply not understanding what computer science is.

Outreach programs like what I do are good for showing people it’s all about problem solving, but we do need a broader cultural change.

What tips do you offer girls or women who might want to get into e-commerce and the tech sector in general?

Whatever you’re passionate about, make sure you consider how computer science is connected to it. Focus on how you can use computer science to solve interesting problems rather than thinking of it as being a tool in and of itself.

 

Follow along with our “Women in STEM” week here.

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