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Awards' international female role models beg a question

BACK IN 1989, I was chairman of the Scottish Software Federation, the then nascent trade association for the Scottish software industry. Nowadays it is known as ScotlandIS and represents an industry which employs over 90,000 skilled people and adds £4.5 bn to the Scottish economy.

 

But back in those days we were pretty small and insignificant and we were keen to organize a new awards competition to raise our visibility. We decided to create an award to recognise young people entering the profession.

 

We asked each University in Scotland with a Computer Science course to send us their best final year project. All universities require their students to undertake a major project in their final year and these make a substantial contribution to the grade that will be awarded to the graduating student.

 

We called it the ‘Young Software Engineer of the Year Award’ and it has been running ever since; this year the winners were announced at a awards dinner on October 5th. I’ve been chairing the judging session for the last 28 years and it is always a huge pleasure to see how these final year projects respond to the changing world of computing. These days they tend to be on topical areas such as novel user interfaces, mobile apps, artificial intelligence and ‘big data’.

 

It’s a great award to win and provides an excellent springboard on which to launch a career in the software industry. I employed the very first YSE winner and the last time I saw him he was driving a yellow convertible from our Seattle office. This year’s winner, Gala Malbasic, flew up specially for the evening from London where she now works at the financial publishing giant Bloomberg.

 

The judging is a well established process and the 7 or 8 judges, all senior engineers from organisations such as Amazon, BCS and Microsoft meet and read the submissions and mark each one under a number of key criteria: Level of Innovation; Planning & Organisation; Technical Difficulty; Commercial/Social Relevance; Quality of presentation; Level of Knowledge of Previous Research, and Quality of Engineering.

 

Each of these factors is scored out of ten and then added up; providing an initial order which we then discuss. If there is a major discrepancy between the judges on one or more of the criteria we discuss whether there has been a misunderstanding and try to resolve the matter and achieve an agreed position.

 

Because this process is scored under these various criteria the results tend to be pretty objective. The student’s names are on the projects but we don’t tend to notice them – it is the quality of the content of the projects that, literally, counts.

 

So this year, only when we had decided on the top four candidates, we discovered that all four were female. This was a interesting outcome since the percentage of females studying computer science in the UK is only around 14% - it is a very male dominated profession.

 

So it was refreshing to be able to celebrate the fact that a software career is a superb one for women. It is well-paid industry without many of the traditional hierarchical structures that you often find in older businesses.

 

However, another aspect of this situation that we also noted is that that all four winning students are international students – from Serbia, Malta, Singapore and France.

 

Which begs the question – what can we do to encourage our young Scottish females to follow their lead and pursue an exciting career as a software engineer?

 

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