Elizabeth Smith (she/her) is a graduate student in Computer Science at the University of Oxford. Hailing from Washington, she moved to California in 2014 to attend Santa Clara University and intern as a software engineer at Facebook, Google, and CrowdStrike. Elizabeth enjoys playing the harp, snuggling with yellow labs, drinking coffee, and going on meditation runs.
Women of Silicon Valley provides her with a support network as she continues to heal from her own experiences of sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. Through her role, Elizabeth looks forward to giving back to this community and empowering other women facing similar challenges.
1/ When did you know that you wanted to work in tech?
I was never much of a tech “enthusiast” as a kid, except for the occasional game of Freddi Fish or Zoo Tycoon (90s kids know that these games were, for lack of a better word, lit). The first time I was introduced to a computer program was in my senior year of high school, when I haphazardly registered for AP Computer Science. I remember walking into the first class, quite apprehensive, because my only image of a computer scientist was an awkward white man with a neckbeard who played video games in his free time and had been coding since he could walk … and I most definitely didn’t fit that description!
My teacher, Mr. Procopio, however, quelled my fears. Just like me, he didn’t fit my image of a coder. He, too, had discovered the subject later in life and this gave him the unique ability to teach with immense patience and explore non-conventional ways of explaining concepts. On top of preparing us for the AP exam, he was also an exceptional mentor, inviting guest speakers to the classroom and taking us on fieldtrips. Through this, I was able to see a more “human” side of computers — a side that has been influential in sustaining my passion for tech, especially during long nights of debugging, or frustrating interactions with classmates and coworkers.
2/ Who is a role model that you look up to?
My big sister, Christina! She is currently pursuing a PhD in Medieval Archeology, specializing in Insular (Scottish and English) high crosses. For me, Christina is a model of unquenchable passion and discipline. She is not afraid of going against the status quo and getting her hands dirty (literally), which is something I really struggle with at times. In recent years, she’s endured a lot of voices telling her she needs to do things a specific way (choose a certain school, research a certain topic, etc.) but she has remained steadfast to her goals.
Although I’ve worked as a software developer for four summers now, coding is not something that brings me a lot of joy. My sister’s resilient love and tenacity towards archeology has encouraged me to not settle for something just because it is convenient. In recent months, I’ve been exploring other roles in tech like product management and sales engineering. I know I will be my happiest and contribute most authentically and fully when I have the courage to step out of my comfort zone and seek something that truly excites me.
3/ Where is your hometown?
Seattle, Washington. Yes, I love the rain. Yes, I am a discerning coffee drinker. Yes, I wear flannel. Go Seahawks.
4/ What is a struggle that you’ve faced and how did you handle it?
Sexual harassment and abuse in industry. To be honest, for a while I didn’t handle these experiences well, or really at all. It took diagnoses of depression, panic attacks, and anxiety for me to finally stop suppressing the painful experiences and seek help. Antidepressants, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and desensitization therapy have all been part of my healing process, and I think one of the most important things to remember is that overcoming any challenge takes time. Just like you can’t expect to run a marathon shortly after a physical injury, you must also give yourself time after an emotional injury.
When I got raped by a coworker who threatened to disrupt my career, I entered a state of mental paralysis. I didn’t know what to do or who to confide in. Women of Silicon Valley provided me a support network by showcasing successful, resilient women in tech. Through reading the stories of various people, I slowly gained the courage to share about my own experiences with my psychologist, close friends, and even family. Some days I criticize myself for not seeking help sooner, but then I am reminded that the important thing is that I did seek help, as awareness and acknowledgment of a challenge are often the most difficult parts the aftermath of assault. Although I still struggle most days with unwarranted shame and embarrassment, I am slowly coming to accept that my challenges do not define my actions, nor should they be an excuse for not taking a risk.
(Disclaimer: In sharing my experiences, I do not intend to place blame on any tech company. I am extremely grateful for the opportunities presented to me and the skills I’ve learned while in industry and I wholeheartedly look forward to returning to industry after the completion of my master’s degree.)
5/ What is something that you are immensely proud of?
I am proud of my Swedish heritage. It’s given me my blonde hair and blue eyes, love of the outdoors (particularly winter-related sports), baking, and fika (Swedish coffee hour, a custom I practice daily). Ever since I was very little, my mom has prioritized traditions, many of which are Swedish. One particular holiday I look forward to celebrating every December 13 is St. Lucia Day. Even though I am rarely home these days, I always make time to celebrate it myself.
6/ What’s something that’s been on your mind a lot lately?
Practicing mindfulness! A year ago, I was introduced to the meditation app Headspace. Initially I could barely sit through a 5-minute session, and now I meditate for up to an hour a day. I’ve even integrated the practice into activities like running and eating! Meditation has helped me to become more mindful to the present moment and attentive to the people and things going on around me. Through it, I’ve developed greater self-awareness and self-care, which I believe has helped me to more effectively and genuinely care for others.
7/ Favorite food?
Do rye Manhattans count? ☺ If not, then joulutorttu, a Finnish pastry made with dried plums and dusted with (ideally lots of) powdered sugar.
8/ Favorite book?
I have two:
L’Étranger (The Stranger) by Albert Camus. I can’t deny that part of my attachment comes from initially reading it in the native French, an impressive feat considering I was a struggling French minor at the time! That aside, Camus provides the reader with a unique perspective on life, through the eyes of an “outsider” in society. Growing up in a very close-knit family and having attended all private Christian schools, I can struggle with being a bit judgmental due to my limited life experiences. The main character, Meursault, kills an Arab and faces execution, and although I cannot understand his motives, Camus’ style leads me to reach an eventual appreciation for Meursault. I do not consider myself an existentialist or remotely support Meursault’s actions, but I value his authenticity and desire to not conform to societal expectations. It’s an unconventional, absurd bildungsroman (don’t mistake me for being a literary fiend … I just remember a few terms from high school English!!) that does an excellent job of highlighting the consequences of conformity and self-awareness.
Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur. Her writing is raw, emotive, and passionate, and for me, serves as a voice for women who have suffered silently through abuse. This collection of poems has helped me to articulate and bring to the surface many of the painful memories I blocked out for years. Suppressing thoughts and feelings only generates tension why is why these poems have been instrumental in creating closure and healing in my life.
9/ If you could try another job for a day, what would it be?
10/ If you could give your 18-year-old self a piece of advice, what would it be?
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” — Eleanor Roosevelt
During my first internship after freshman year of college, I had an evaluation with a senior software engineer who told me that I “sucked at coding.” I remember returning home from work that evening, devastated, and bursting into tears on the phone with my mom. To comfort me, she shared the above quote. Another time during my freshman year, one of my professors politely suggested I drop my Computer Science major and switch to Mathematics. Again, I took those words as the absolute truth and began to believe that I was not destined to study and work in software. After being assaulted, I let any remaining self-respect inside me die. For a while, I lived defined by the painful actions of another and suffered from much undue shame.
Certain mindsets take a lot of work to undo, and even long before 18, I struggled with being easily swayed by what other did and said to me. I would ruminate over every single interaction I’d have and easily lost sight of myself. Tech is an industry where you have to be very grounded and self-aware because there are a lot of times you can be swayed to do something. Being a female in tech introduces added pressure because you are considered somewhat of a “commodity.” I’ve had multiple occasions where I’ve felt like the only way to progress or be accepted by a team is by conforming to it — and when the majority of teams are male, this is a very fatiguing and unhappy way to live. I’ve often let the words of others determine my value to a team and this has led me to underestimate my abilities and proceed in a state of limitation due to Imposter Syndrome. That’s why WoSV has been such a critical community for me. Reading the stories of other women has helped me to recognize and fight these feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, and lack of belonging.