Emma Krantz first discovered computers by osmosis, exploring the early internet of the 90s on her dad’s knee.
When she was just eight, she demanded he teach her how to code. She spent the school holidays that followed tackling coding challenges while he was at work, unpacking where she was stuck when he got home.
What began as a bonding exercise eventually became a career for Emma, who at 26 years old is now a Senior Software Engineer at CSIRO’s Data61. We caught up with her about working at CSIRO and her experiences as a queer woman in tech.
Do you remember when it was that you decided you wanted to pursue a career in tech?
There's a stereotype of people in STEM being good at maths and science. I was equally good at English literature, politics and legal studies. And so, when I was 17 and told to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I decided just to do the things that I was interested in and see what happened. I have a Bachelor of Science majoring in Computer Science and Law and Society. I didn't decide I would be a software engineer until about halfway through uni. Even then, I nearly became a lawyer.
I think we’ve made an artificial divide between STEM and non-STEM, but women often straddle the divide. Even though hopefully people don’t actively discourage women from pursuing careers in technical fields, society instinctively pulls them away from them, towards other careers we value them doing more. As a result, I think many women don't even realise a career in STEM is accessible to them.
What do you think propelled you in the opposite direction to society’s pull?
I think one of the reasons why despite writing code as a teenager I never aspired to be a software engineer, was because I'd never seen anyone like me follow that path. And then I went to a programming summer camp, and I met some software engineers who were women. And they were real, they were three dimensional, and it sounds very cliche, but seeing someone like you doing something connects a circuit, particularly in kids’ brains. It was life changing. For me personally, contributing to that visibility by being an openly queer person in the industry is one of the most positive impacts I've made in my life.
What’s a myth about software engineering you’d like to bust?
Don’t get me wrong, I am a massive nerd. But the idea that software engineers just sit in a dark room alone and code couldn’t be further from the truth. To be a good software engineer, you must be good at interacting with people. It's a team sport. And if you don't have strong collaboration and communication skills, it's really career-limiting.
As a software engineer, everything is connected. You are participating in a network of the company, your users, your team and customers and people beyond these systems. You will use your emotional intelligence, your organisational skills, writing and public speaking skills. This is one reason why we need more women in tech. That’s not to say men are lacking or can’t improve in those areas, but these skills are often a strength of women.
Tell me about a project you’re working on that excites you?
I am the lead Software Engineer for a project called Ocean Explorer. Here, we’re prototyping tools to visualise the multidimensional data used by oceanographers in more interactive and intuitive ways using virtual reality and browser-based applications.
Scientists are very good at talking in concrete facts but so much of science happens in the connective tissue of people's brains. Arriving at hard evidence they are happy to stand behind and publish requires years of experience and understanding which then becomes instinct. Ocean Explorer is about surfacing that by reducing the barriers between people and how they interact with their data. We’re working closely with ocean scientists to try and solve problems for them in a way that CSIRO is well equipped to do because our focus is on delivering value, not just profit.
What do you love most about working at CSIRO’s Data61?
Scientists are wonderful to work with. They’re passionate and so willing to share a bit of themselves in their work. The organisation also champions and normalises flexible working arrangements[Link will open in a new window]. It's always been normal for people to finish and start early to pick up their kids, which is conducive to greater diversity in teams.
CSIRO's Data61[Link will open in a new window] feels like a small company within a big company. I've always had quite a lot of influence and autonomy over the projects I work on. Because we tend to be working on individual applications, recent graduates can make important decisions within small teams and really participate in the direction of the products. On the other hand, if you're a small part of a gigantic organisation, the cost of errors can be high, and progress can be slow.
What can organisations do to improve diversity in leadership?
Women and queer people in tech often aren't as good at self-promotion and so miss out on seniority. Organisations in this space need to value diversity throughout the interview and decision-making process proactively. But it’s also about the selection criteria and the way you go about defining roles. Even if your job ad is inclusive and diverse, if your actual role criteria for senior positions embed structural, old-fashioned ideas about professionalism and what makes a leader, you’ll exclude some amazing candidates. Alternatively, if you strip criteria back to what's actually important, I think we'll see more diversity in positions of power, which will snowball in impact.
What is it like representing two minorities as a queer woman in your team?
I'm spokeswoman and spokesgay in a lot of contexts, and I'm pretty comfortable with that. But bringing that alternative perspective can be taxing at times. You don’t necessarily have to remember to give people rainbow flags on Mardi Gras. It's about realising that someone might come from a different background, and really trying to listen and kind of bridge the gap bilaterally, which the people around me all do. But it can still be really hard.
What’s a practical thing that men could do to better support women in tech?
It comes back to flexing your empathy muscles and developing it as a skill. We sell men short a lot. We sometimes infantilise them by acting like they're not capable of emotional intelligence. I think that's really limiting. I work with a bunch of really empathic men. Overemphasising gender differences can discourage men from building those skills and valuing them. This is an exercise that would benefit men personally, as well as the world.