Girl Guides, Engineering Badges and the Imposter Syndrome | BitchWhoCodes | Stacey Mulcahy - a Microsoft Technical Evangelist

Girl Guides, Engineering Badges and the Imposter Syndrome

Girl Guides, the Eng

I didn’t see it coming. What IT exactly is, I still don’t know. I just know that things are just a tiny bit different. Maybe that I am a tiny bit different. It’s small enough it would normally go unnoticed, but for some reason, even though the change feels small, its effect is nothing short of large.

The Girl Guides have a new engineering badge. I’m still not sure what it looks like, and to be honest, I really don’t know what any of the badges look like. I never went to Brownies or Girl Guides as a child. I don’t really feel like I missed out on much either – the girls who went to those types of things and the girls who did not were two very separate groups. I was never really exposed to what it was and only had this vaguest idea of what they did, and for some reason that idea was mostly dominated by visions of paddycake.

So here I am, about to volunteer with a group I know pretty much nothing about and I’m there to help represent the field of computing. I imagine these little girls to be quiet and focused, that they all show up in sashes plastered in badges, a sort of childish training for when they actually have to wear all sorts of flare like a walking corkboard and ask you about your sides. I start thinking about a gaggle of girls and my raging case of potty mouth and I wonder how long I’ll last before something escapes from my mouth that even my best behavior can’t stuff back down my throat, deep in the depths of my own cynicism.  I start to wonder if I am the right person for this. I get confused. Out of all the things I have done, why is spending an hour with a group of girl guides to help them get their computer engineer badge giving me the worst case of Imposter syndrome I’ve ever had? It’s because, this matters.

Saturday morning shows up, as it tends to do. I walk the 40 minutes to the Church where the Girl Guides meet in one of the side rooms. I was warned that the door might be locked. I slowly walk up and outside are a few parents waiting to drop their kids off. They open the doors, and we are ushered into a side room – off the kitchen in the church. It’s the perfect room for Sunday School and it probably is – there is a few cupboards full of childrens’ toys and a clumsy divider to split the room into two, as it was now. The girls start arriving, games of tag start, small cliques start to form, then change and grow like spilt mercury. Two little girls are hiding behind one of the tall cupboards, squatting side by side, whispering to each other and avoiding the madness of the others running around, in circles, again, and again. One little girl comes up to me and starts doing jumping jacks. She counts. Somewhere around 50 and then every ten after that she has push her glasses back up to their rightful place on the bridge of her wide nose. 88,89. She gets up to 120 even though she skipped counting 112 and 113.  I watch her, amazed, knowing that had I joined her, my count would have been much more anemic. She has made me her friend. She finds me fascinating and I find her frightening.

We begin. My friend has brought her laptop and one of those portable, not great at far distances pico projector.  The girls are herded into a little group where they all sit cross-legged, half of them with their head cradled in their hands, the other half sitting on their hands, moments away from feeling the prickly tingle of sleep announcing itself in those limbs. They are trying to be quiet. They are trying to pay attention. I can tell I don’t have much time.

My friend has prepared a slide deck for me, so this went down almost like a game of charades – I look at the slide and deduce what I should be saying.  A picture of me shows up – the one that Adobe had got eBoy to make so there I am in full pixel glory. Fun.

“Hi, I’m Stacey.”

I get a huge greeting back from all the girls in unison, coaxed out of them from one of the guide leaders.

Next slide has a map of North America and I don’t even know where to go with this one.

“I am Canadian. I was born in Canada and then I moved here. Who knows where Canada is? ”.

Everyone raises their arm.

“Who has lived here their whole life?”. Ok, Stacey. They are 6. Dumb question. Even if they lived somewhere else, would they remember? Get in the game.

One girl is busting to share her answer. It is the same girl who miscounted her jumping jacks. She has lived her whole life but not in the same place. She has lived in two places. One place wasn’t too far from here but they had to move when … and she then she quickly got shutdown by one of the leaders. It was about to be an overshare.  At some point, I thought, hopefully that girl would be fortunate enough to have a friend who might do the same thing, help her from oversharing.  Thing is, I wanted to hear more. It was amazing, how she told her stories in a series of truth, jetsonied out of her in a bulleted fashion.

Crap , next slide. I don’t even remember what it was.  I could see the interest was waning, as some of the girls had started to rock themselves side to sides as they sat on their hands, shifting weight.

“I work with Computers. Some people call me a computer engineer. I make things. Sometimes I make things that you play with, like games. Sometimes I make things that you use, like a website. How many of you like to play games? “

Bingo. There we go. Everyone had their hand up and wanted to share what their favorite game was. I went around the group and each girl could talk about the game they liked. One girl talked about how she had just played Animal Safari. She would grow up to be a slow talker, with her words carefully chosen and measured twice before she cut them loose. She took her time as she told us about how to play the game, why it was fun, how she learned more about animals by playing it. This little five year old was flat out pitching a product to us, and none of us realized. Smooth, girl, smooth.

I asked if they had any questions for me. Ms. Future Slow Talker raised her hand.

“So if you are a computer engineer, does that mean you make Kinetic Sculptures?”.

It’s a good thing internal dialog is internal, because at this point, I was completely thinking WTF. This girl is five or six max. She’s asking me about kinetic sculptures – something most adults haven’t a clue about, and something, I frankly don’t know much about either. In my mind, I had already hired her. Because, in her, I saw the future of women in technology, in STEM and I knew everything was going to be ok. Part of me wanted to pick her up and bear hug the absolute crap out of her, but I’m a stranger and she’s a child, and well that’s just weird.

“No, I don’t make Kinetic Sculptures. But they sure are cool right? “.  Only response I could muster out. I was still taken aback. The roles had reversed had reversed here and I wasn’t prepared to be an understudy for a 5 year old again.

We went off to play a game we had devised to teach programming. Let’s face it, you’re not really going to teach the average five year old much about coding, but we had some fun with some ideas like order of execution, patterns, and process. Each girl picked a sheet of paper and it had a set of instructions like “ jump”, “swirl”, “kick” and a few of the cards were more like a programming structure with “if”, “then”, “and”. We went down the line and did our appropriate instructions, waiting for the previous person to finish before we started. The girls that had the bad fortune of picking the “if”, “and” types of cards were shortly bored, so I gave them alternative actions to do. “IF” meant you did a big old karate chop and yelled. “And” was a polite curtsey. And so this continued until the promise of cake was delivered upon and again, small cliques formed, and shrunk and grew amongst the girls.

At the end, they did a circle of friendship bit where everyone held hands in a circle. The girl with the miscounted jumping jacks held out and shook her arm furiously to signal that I should be her friend, that I should join her side. I did. We stood in a circle and they sang a song of friendship. At the end, they sent a squeeze that would travel from hand to hand – get the squeeze from your left, then pass it on by squeezing the hand you were holding in your right. You could watch the squeeze make its way around the circle, the pulse identifiable by a giggle when it was received.

I left that day different. I know that those girls won’t always have that innocence. That their curiousity might wane, and with it their lust for life. And I know there will come a time when they will offer less information instead of more, or when everything will just have so much more weight. But they reminded me, for that one hour on a Saturday morning, how I had all that once too. It was a reminder of how I used to stomp around as a 5 year old and not care what anyone thought, tirelessly making things that didn’t work, and a few that did. A recollection of a time where more of it was spent actually being awesome rather than thinking about it or worse, hoping for its arrival.

I’m not about to do 120 jumping jacks and count ( or miscount ) them out at the top of my lungs. But thanks to that little squeeze, I might be a bit more likely to celebrate the small successes like they were large ones. And who doesn’t need a little more of that?



Filed under: Ramblings — Stacey @ 2:56 pm

  • LLK

    You are awesome, Stacey. :)

  • Christian Heilmann

    I just got back from a coderdojo in Sweden with 7-12 year olds. super insightful, too.