To the graduating women of computer science: First, even though you’ve heard it a lot lately, I want to say it, too: Congratulations!
I know that getting here required many hours writing algorithms, studying computer architectures, learning new languages, fighting your way through problem sets, and holding your breath to see if your code compiles with no errors (and hopefully only a couple of warnings). It has been, I imagine, alternately frustrating, fascinating, stressful and—most of all—endlessly satisfying. It’s also probably involved a lot of coffee. Now, it’s time to share your new skills with the world.
For me, the end of school meant the beginning of my dream job at Microsoft. I still have the note from my mom saying that Microsoft had called to offer me the position. My hopes for this job couldn’t have been higher—and remarkably, for the most part, it actually lived up to them. I got to work with truly brilliant people and felt like I was putting my fingerprints on the future. I loved it.
The reason I mention this is that I don’t think young women hear stories like it enough. Instead, you hear about the stubborn gender gap in tech and the challenges of being the only woman in a room full of “brogrammers.” You hear that tech companies still struggle to attract and retain talented women and that venture capital funds still underinvest in their ideas. After years of studying these issues, unfortunately, I know that this part of the story is true, too.
But I worry that if we let the negative storylines overwhelm the positive ones, we’ll scare away talented women who want to be in tech—and who deserve to be. I think it’s important that women technologists support each other by spreading the word that while the industry is still far from perfect, it’s also a place where you can have a successful and rewarding career and an outsized impact on the world.
I also want you to know that even in a dream job, there are bad days as well as good ones. As much as I loved Microsoft, there was a brief time when I considered quitting. I worried that the people I saw in managing roles (all men, by the way) had a very different leadership style than I did—more aggressive, less collaborative. I thought that in order to succeed, I’d need to act more like them. But when I tried it, I hated it.
Fortunately, I made a deal with myself that before I could leave, I would try being myself and managing in a way that felt true to me. And that was the moment everything changed. It turned out there was room for my leadership style, too. Nothing made me prouder than when colleagues started asking to be reassigned to my team.
If you ever find yourself feeling out of place, I hope you’ll bear in mind that the last thing tech needs is more people who look and think the same. Innovation requires new insights and new perspectives—and that’s exactly what you have to offer.
Remember that with this degree, you have earned your spot in the industry. Nobody belongs here more than you do. So it’s important you stay true to what makes you you.
And as you forge your own path, keep in mind the people who will follow in your footsteps. Right now, there’s a young woman out there wondering if computer science is the field for her. Make sure she hears your story. Let her see you out there doing great things in your own unique style.
And in the meantime, add me to the long list of people who are rooting for you.
Melinda Gates is co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.