INTERVIEW & ARTICLE BY: CARRIE TANGUAY
Larissa Dawe is a Software Developer. She was interviewed as part of a 12 month Achievers Women’s Network (AWN) series. The series highlights women leaders at different stages of their career throughout the organization.
As we settle in at a high-top table I notice Larissa’s posture. She projects confidence without even realizing it. While there’s a soft-spoken, endearing innocence and politeness in her tone of voice her words are powerful. I’m immediately blown away by how someone so young has already learned so much. She’s an amazing woman and a talented developer, brimming with optimism, positivity and potential.
But Larissa’s life has been full of adversity and she doesn’t shy away from it. She’s candid about how her parents struggled to make ends meet, her constant self-doubt and how her first job was so toxic she almost left the industry before her career even began. She coyly smiles as she mentions her “quiet defiance” and how she used that to turn every challenge into an opportunity to better herself, her career and those around her.
Larissa’s face lights up and she smiles broadly when she talks about being a developer, seeing her work come to life and the problems she tackles. It’s heartbreaking to know she was one bad experience away from giving up her passion. And I can’t help but wonder how many women like Larissa are out there that have dropped out before anyone knew their story.
Her Back Story
PHOTOGRAPHS BY: NITI RANDHAWA
Tell me about your family and growing up in Florida.
I grew up in the suburbs of Orlando, Florida with not much to do. Being in Toronto now is pretty different for me. My parents are both very loving parents. They are both missionaries. We didn’t always have much money, but my parents always worked super hard to make ends meet. My dad especially. He’s a really smart man and he’s always worked so hard balancing our finances to give us a normal life. They always pushed my sister, brother and I to do really well in school. I grew up with straight As being the expectation which is good because that led me to a successful life. We all ended up getting big scholarships which is great because we may not have been able to afford to go to college without them.
There are a lot of things that made me who I am. When I was in elementary school I was bullied. Having that be a prominent part of my childhood years helped make me somebody who is kind and empathetic towards other people. I’m someone who tries to see things from multiple perspectives which is something I really like about myself.
Throughout high school and the early portion of my career I had low self-esteem. I wasn’t good at standing up for myself. ‘A’s I’ve grown up, those experiences have made me stronger. Its given me more of a voice and I’m more willing to speak up and stand up for myself and for other people.
Why did you pursue a degree in Computer Science?
I intended to go to school to study theatre and environmental studies but I had a friend (he’s no longer a friend) that told me I could never handle Calculus and I was very offended.
I can be quietly defiant. So once he said that I thought, well, I’m taking Calculus! And I signed up for a course in college. Thinking back on it I’ve always been good in math and I’ve gotten straight A’s in it since the fourth grade. I did really well. My teacher, who really took a liking to me, was one of the biggest influences on me staying in the math field. She asked me what I was going to do after this course and she gave me all these courses she wanted me to take. Seeing her believe in me like that got me thinking; “hmm, I guess I’m pretty good at this, maybe I should stick with it!” So I changed my major to math after that semester. Eventually I got to thinking what do I want to do with math? I’m not really interested in accounting or being an actuary or anything like that. I was required to take a Programming One course for a math major and after that I thought “this is it!” It’s creativity meets logic and that’s where I feel like my brain excels. I’m a huge problem solver but I’m also so creative and in mathematics there’s one way to solve a problem but in computer science there are many ways and there’s not best way just better ways. So I stuck with computer science after that.
Given your relatively recent move to Canada, what does your support system look like?
My number one supporter is my husband. We’ve been married for a year and half and he’s always there for me. He’s a motivated and determined guy who dreams big. If I’m struggling with something at work I’ll send him a message and he’s always like ”I know you can get it you’re so smart”. And when I do solve that problem, he’ll say “I didn’t doubt you for a second”.
I struggle with believing in myself and he always believes in me 100%! I can doubt my intelligence but he thinks I’m super intelligent. He’ll always tell me that which helps me feel more confident and capable and I go for things I may not have gone for otherwise.
What is your approach or philosophy to overcoming challenges?
Personally what drives me in almost every stage of my life has been overcoming things people put on you, like oppressive tendencies. I’m pretty motivated by people doubting me. If people think I can’t do something my first instinct is to go out and do it. I don’t know if I’d be in my career today if it weren’t for people along the way that made me feel like I couldn’t.
I wanted to prove to myself and to everyone else that I could be a woman in STEM.
What inspires you to make a difference? Where does that sense of responsibility come from?
Growing up female I’ve faced a lot of hardship and a lot of trauma as a lot of women have. I know how hard that was for me and so I want my life to be dedicated towards making sure that future women don’t have to go through similar things. I know that gender, being a minority, things like that makes a person a little less privileged and it can make life really hard.
That’s why I’m inspired by just everyday people who try to do what they can to promote diversity, inclusion and social justice. Things like the leaders in AWN or writing this blog – that kind of stuff inspires me quite a bit. I hope to be one of those individuals who spends their life trying to make a difference and make it an easier place for other people to live in. Hopefully a world where we can all be on the same level.
Her Career Path
Tell me about your current role as Software Developer. What do you find most rewarding and challenging about your role?
In general, I get assigned a problem and I figure out a way to solve it. Right now specifically we’re working on reporting for the “Check-Ins” application. I’m working on a table showing all of the responses we’ve gotten from the check-in and being able to filter by specific fields.
It’s a lot of problem solving, figuring things out, learning on the spot. It’s definitely something I love about the job. I’m never comfortable and I feel like I thrive in that sort of an environment even though sometimes it can make me feel like I have imposter syndrome. I think “I don’t know enough, I’m never going to be as good as everyone because they understand this and I don’t” but at the same time once you do get something there’s this adrenaline rush! When you finally see it work and you see the fruition of your effort it’s really exciting to know you put in all this work, you learned so much and now there’s this application you can use.
The most challenging thing is the same thing I like about it. You constantly have to be learning and that’s great. Sometimes the learning will be quick, you’ll spend a half-hour and you’ll get it but there might be times where you’re working on something a lot more challenging. You have no idea what you’re doing and you have to learn a whole new language or you have problems that take you days to figure out. It can make me feel like “I don’t know if I’m ever going to get this” and it weighs on you sometimes. You learn, you implement and it’s this quick high and low but if you’re in the low for an extended period of time that can feel uncomfortable.
I love how fast the space changes. There’s so much that you can achieve with technology and especially now we’re at this interesting point where I think we’re about to go through a lot of crazy shifts, on the brink of things like BitCoin, Artificial Intelligence becoming integrated into our everyday lives and I just find it all very fascinating and very exciting. I really enjoy being a part of it.
What do you consider to be your biggest success to date?
My first job was with a company where I was very unhappy with the work environment. I stayed at the company for one year and it doesn’t sound like that big of a deal but quitting that job was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made for my personal and mental health. It took a lot of guts to leave. It was my first job out of college and it was so scary because I didn’t know how good I was. It was a big-name company that looked good on a resume and I didn’t know if I would ever get another opportunity like that again. I’m really proud of myself for being able to quit that job and keep moving forward.
Of course, looking back, I was a software developer and everyone is looking for them so I was able to find another job. It was a big leap of faith for me to make that decision. I’m really proud of myself for doing it because in a way it was me putting my foot down and standing up for myself and doing something for myself which, as a more passive person, I usually find intimidating.
What advice would you give to your younger yourself or other women who want to follow your career path?
Being a female in the software engineering world – it’s hard! It depends on what company you work for but at my first job I was the only female on my entire floor for a month and a half. It wasn’t a good environment to work in and I wish that I had quit that job sooner. My advice would be if you’re trying to be a software engineer there’s jobs out there for you and there’s companies that you’re going to love. If you’re at a job where adversity is this huge deal, I don’t think it’s necessary for you to stay there. You can find a place that’s going to appreciate you and a place where you won’t face those same challenges.
I would love for more females to enter this industry. One of my biggest passions is getting more women into STEM fields because we have so much to offer. The problem is that once you’re in the STEM field it can be hard if you’re not in the right company.
I thought “my next job in this industry was going to be my final straw”. I had also applied to a bunch of positions outside of Software Development. I wanted to get out because I didn’t have a good experience in my past jobs at all, I didn’t think I was going to stay in it. And when I got this position at Achievers I thought “well if this doesn’t go well I don’t want to do this any more.” Fortunately, it has gone well and I want other girls and women to know there are companies like this out there. You don’t have to settle for companies where conditions are hostile or you’re not being listened to.
How have you navigated the challenges you face in your career because of your gender?
When I first got into the field, I was 21 and I don’t think I was ready for it. I think I was caught unaware and I wish I could go back in time and handle things differently. Sometimes when I tell people about my first job people’s reaction is “you should have done this or you should have done that” and the thing to keep in mind is that I was so young. At the time, I did face adversity and I don’t think I did the right thing. I would try to laugh things off or act like nothing had happened. There were so many guys, so many young guys at the company and it turned into a boys’ locker room. There was a lot of sexual harassment type stuff that occurred like inappropriate nicknames, calling me “baby”, comments about how I looked everyday, it got to be a lot. But I never really did anything about it. There was one guy at the company that was pretty nice and we were friends but then the other guys started saying inappropriate things about our friendship and it just made me feel so alone. I remember crying in the bathroom and I called my husband and said “I can’t take this any more, I have to quit”. And that’s what I did to stand up for myself.
I wish I could go back and say “I need to talk to HR about what is happening.” If I had another chance I think I would. I would’ve done something else. Other than that all you can do is move on and not give up. Don’t stop doing things because you’re facing adversity. Things aren’t going to get better if you drop-out. I had that thought for a second there and I’m so thankful I found Achievers because now I’m so happy I didn’t. I don’t want other women to drop-out because if they do it’s letting other people who are creating these conditions for us win. Keep going, don’t stop, don’t give up.
Have you started to establish a personal brand? Or do you know what you want it to be?
I’m still so young, I’m still figuring that out. I guess I’d like to be seen as someone in the development world that can take on anything, front-end or back-end and as someone who can just get it done.
What I bring to the table that’s unique is definitely hyper positivity and optimism. That’s something that’s been consistent in every job review I’ve had: it’s always “positivity, positivity, positivity!” I think I have a real can-do attitude. If someone presents me with a challenge my approach is “just say yes” and go for it because you’re never sure if you can do something until you try. You’ll be surprised by what you can do. I can take on challenges and stress while being able to smile about it and be somebody who’s an uplifting presence in the office. I think that’s my real unique contribution.
Her Lived Experience
What do you think is the biggest challenge facing women in tech today?
Every woman faces different challenges based on their circumstance but I definitely think there’s power in numbers and we don’t have a lot of numbers [laughs]. You can feel very alone. I sometimes felt so alone in my jobs. Even if you try to fit in, try to make friends, you’re still so hyper aware of your gender in certain situations. So I think the more numbers we get the more power we’ll have. I think women face challenges across all fields but the challenges increase for women who are in fields where we’re so underrepresented. Sometimes I think women struggle to be heard. We have to work twice as hard to prove ourselves. Things like the “Google Memo” that came out about women not naturally being better software developers and similar articles that try to present “facts” that women are less qualified or less naturally prone to be good at these kinds of subjects…..it just sucks! I think women in the industry are tired of having to prove themselves and having to make a name for themselves and having a fair chance would be nice and not having people try to knock you down or act like “oh maybe there are some women out there who are good but this is actually a man’s field” would also be nice.
Historically, the original computers were all women. So when you really think about it computer programming and software engineering was a women’s field that was taken over by men [laughs loudly]. I think people are equally qualified for it.
When you have moments of self-doubt or lack confidence, what do you do to successfully move forward?
You have to think a bit objectively about yourself sometimes because you can really get in your own head. Taking a step back and looking at yourself through an objective lens can really help you get perspective on your abilities. You think “I’m stupid, I can’t do this, what if I fail? Other people are better than me” and all of this stuff. But you need to take a step back and think about all you’ve accomplished, where you came from and what you know. Sometimes I’ll be working on a problem and think “I’m never going to get this or other developers are more competent than me”. Then when I look back, I can see “wow, I’ve come a long way and I’m so much better than I was and it’s amazing I’ve grown so much”. Every step of the way there have been challenges and every time I’ve conquered it and I’ve learned and I’ve been able to come out of it having that new skill set.
What role do you think women play in our advancement?
Huge! A huge role. I think women can create a hostile environment for each other sometimes. I’ve met a number of women who aren’t for other women. I’ve also met so many women who are truly 100% for other women and I think that’s a beautiful thing. Being the kind of woman that’s excited about the success of other women and the things they are doing: those are the kind of women that push other girls and women to be their best self. Sometimes it can be hard to believe in yourself but if you have other women that are there saying “listen, you can do this! You’re smart! Capable!” that sometimes can be what you need to take that leap of faith. Having that kind of support system can make all the difference.
If you could give men in your field one piece of advice what would it be?
First, do whatever it takes to become aware of what happens to women and how often it happens. Sometimes I talk to my guy friends who are nice guys, and they say, “how could anyone do that?” The problem is there are people that would and do act like that. It’s something I want men to understand, that you may be a nice guy but not everybody is and just because you wouldn’t do this doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen and having that awareness that this does happen is so important.
Second, I would really encourage men if they want to do something it’s as easy as: if they see something happening, say something. Don’t just laugh, don’t have a “boys will be boys mentality.” If you care, don’t accept that kind of behaviour.
Thinking back on my first experience working in the industry, I wish anyone would’ve said something. I remember this time I was in my cubicle with my cube mate and this other guy came in and unbuttoned his shirt and said “you like that don’t you”. It freaked me out and I just kept saying “stop it!” and finally the guy left. My cube-mate just said “that was weird” afterwards. In that moment, I wish he had done something to help. It’s not necessarily that men have to do it but women shouldn’t have to either! And everyday we’re forced to.
Women are forced to put their foot down and they’re forced to have to stand up for themselves. I wish there were more men out there who would put their foot down with us because it can mean so much to a person who is going through something hard like that. So they don’t feel alone.
The Achievers Women’s Network would like to acknowledge & thank the “In Her Own Way” blog for inspiring the 12-month series.