"I started speaking at conferences when I had only been a software engineer for a few months,” said Rice University Computer Science alumna Marie Chatfield (B.A. ’15).
“Harvard was hosting a student-run conference for women engineers and Square sent a few folks to represent the company. They asked me to give a 15-minute talk because I was one of the new grad hires that year and they felt I would connect well with the students.
“I was dealing with a lot of imposter syndrome at the time, questioning if I actually understood what a server was. But I thought an audience of college students wouldn’t be too intimidating, and I might be able to help them learn some of the specific terms and concepts I was struggling with.”
Her WECode 2016 lightning talk, “How to Even Web” alternated between short definitions of fundamental concepts and brief breaks to let audience members find a partner and explain in their own words what they had just learned. Covering topics like servers, clients, static assets, content delivery networks, and databases made Chatfield realize she understand more about her current role than she had given herself credit for.
“The talk went well and one student even came up and said she had learned more about how web development works in those few minutes than in an entire semester in one of her courses. It was really satisfying to help people understand these basic concepts, and made me a lot more confident that I did actually know what I was talking about,” said Chatfield.
Since then, Chatfield has given technical talks and workshops at hackathons, company meetings, professional meet-ups, and conferences across the country. She began writing technical blog posts to provide online tutorials for her audience to reference later or as standalone resources. Teaching people through both presentations and written material allowed her to discover what format works best for various types of content and learners. Regardless of the format, Chatfield said sharing her knowledge yields personal benefits.
“Whenever I write a blog post or present a talk, I spend hours researching the topic first. What do I think I know? If I have a vague idea of how something works, how do I find out more? Turning a fuzzy idea into a concrete certainty backed up by research makes me confident I know what I’m talking about, and how it fits into the wider landscape of a technology or project. And that makes me a better engineer.
Her technical blog post turned into a talk given at EmberFest 2017 in Berlin then EmberConf 2018 in Portland. Following Chatfield’s talks, she received positive feedback from engineers of all experience levels, from beginners through framework maintainers.
“It’s just as important to me to make sure other software engineers at all levels of expertise have access to content that will help them become more effective. I love that moment when a concept clicks for audience members, and the energy in the room just explodes. I love doing what I can to make that happen for other people.”
Chatfield is equally passionate about incorporating accessibility and inclusion in every project she builds. She entered Rice University as a Sociology major and said learning about system oppression, power, and injustice revealed a lot about her world. She has grown increasingly aware of the trickle down results of systemic biases and tries to avoid writing code that might exclude a potential user.
“There’s a saying about everyone having a seat at the table, but some people are prevented from getting through the door into the room altogether. The choices I make as a software engineer can mean preventing people from using the tools they need on a daily basis. I have to think about people accessing my websites with screen readers, or who can only use keyboards, or who can only use a mouse, or who have a lower-end device and slower network connections. All of them should have an excellent experience on any website I help build.”
Chatfield advocates for learning what accessibility and usability features are already provided by different platforms—like the standard HTML elements that browsers implement. She recommends using the built-in versions over building custom versions whenever possible.
“Using standard HTML elements helps you build apps that are more accessible, work better on mobile devices, and require less custom code and debugging on your end,” she said.
“When our sales team has let us know what our customers are asking for, and our support team revealed where customers are still getting stuck, when our product team has identified a gap or an improvement, and our designer has come up with a beautiful way of interacting with it, and our copywriter has contributed clear and concise content for it, and the engineering team has brought it to life and implemented it, then it all comes together. All of us with our different areas of expertise have built the right thing in the right way and delivered it in a timely manner - and that’s a very good day.”
Marie Chatfield’s talks and technical blog posts can be found on her website: http://mariechatfield.com/.