Saki Serizawa

photos Dayna Weststeyn

A recent report found that Amazon’s facial technology (that even its investors are raising concerns about) misidentifies women as men, particularly when they have darker skin. US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared that report in a tweet, adding “When you don’t address human bias, that bias gets automated. Machines are reflections of their creators, which means they are flawed, and we should be mindful of that. It’s one good reason why diversity isn’t just ‘nice,’ it’s a safeguard against trends like this.”

If diversity will save technology, how do we support that? A great place to start is with Canada Learning Code. They’re taking coding out of its former dwellings (basements, garages, specialized tech firms) and into the classroom. They not only host Ladies Learning Code workshops but also have developed a K-12 framework for computer science education, and others are noticing; Amazon donated $525,000 to support their work. BCIT have also announced a partnership with Microsoft for their Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program that will teach high school students the foundational framework of coding.

“We are excited and honoured that BC students and teachers are the first in Canada to be a part of this cutting-edge program,” said BC Minister of Education Rob Fleming. “Our government will continue to support programs like TEALS to ensure our students have the skills they need to succeed, graduate successfully, and find good jobs in BC’s booming tech sector.”

Who is transfiguring technology? I met with Saki Serizawa, who is helping redefine the workforce of programmers. She is a BCIT student and Canada Learning Code volunteer. She spoke at Amazon HQ about what got her interested in coding, where it’s taking her, and how she takes care of herself with a full course of CST programs on her schedule.

How did you get here?

I graduated from UBC two years ago. My experience there was really one of growth.  I did First Nations studies and food studies; I graduated from faculty of food and land systems. There was a lot of opportunities I was able to participate in, like going to Nunavut and living in Mexico. I graduated and started working in settlement; helping teens and tweens get settled into the community. I worked in a community house. I loved working with such passionate people who were so invested in the growth of the city’s more vulnerable populations. The youth themselves that I worked with were also incredibly inspiring, with their ability to adapt and climatize to a new-to-them atmosphere so quickly.

As I was working there, I eventually realised I wanted to steer my life in a more intentional way. I was worried I was going to burn out. I’ve always loved living abroad and being abroad.

‘What’s something I can do where I can take a skill with me to several different places?’

When I was in Seattle, I met a lot of software developers. Seattle is hot for tech, and they had come from all over; they seemed excited about what they were doing. I would meet people who worked in big corporations, small start-ups, government! There was this flexibility to software development that fascinated me.

I decided to take a course with Ladies Learning Code. I did a part-time course with them. The atmosphere was great; everyone was so encouraging. It was really magical, I was creating something. That excitement brought me to the CST BCIT program.”

What attracted you to coding?

“Software development is a skill I can take with me everywhere. As a naturally curious person, it’s a skill I can keep growing. It requires curiosity and consistent learning.”

“This past summer, I worked part-time to prepare for my co-op search in September. I wanted to do something meaningful—to start giving back. I volunteered with—what is now—Canada Learning Code. It used to be Ladies Learning Code when I was with them. They had multiple week-end camps for Kids Learning Code. It was super fun! Kids pick things up really quickly. It’s amazing they’re learning things I did as an adult while they’re in elementary school. The creativity and things they come up with. They also say the funniest things. I was asked to speak at Amazon when they donated $525,000 towards coding education through Canada Learning Code.”

Do you remember your speech?

“I spoke about how excited I was about the potential of what people are working on in the industry now. Using the imagination and sparking the passion of younger people. What can they come up with? I shared my own journey on that path.”

Can you tell me about any events for BCIT Women in Computing?

“We put on a few events over the semester—the one we were most excited about was partnering with a start-up in Vancouver, Grow. We wanted to put on a technical interview night at BCIT. Speaking with the HR person, she mentioned that a lot fewer women apply—and studies done in the industry show that job postings look more intimidating with the word choices. Women would be less likely to apply. We wanted to help women with the interview process. During technical interviews, they’ll give you a question that you have to try to solve on a white board. People will watch you and assess your skill level. That can be quite intimidating to a lot of people. As students, we don’t get a lot of experience doing that in the classroom. We had four other start-ups involved working

with us and held the women’s interview technical night. There was food and a Q&A at the end with the companies about common questions. Each company came with someone on the software developing team and shared questions they might usually ask. We got into groups of four or five with different stations to work on those questions. It was a really exciting night; the interview practice was really beneficial. It created a great and safe atmosphere where they could practice that. It was really successful; we built some great relationships.

That was a lot of what we were about with starting the club; creating a safe space, building organic social connections and gaining new skills. The registration filled up really quick. It also showed there is a thirst for women to get out there and learn and represent.”

There’s so much support from faculty. People want to see more diversity. When we were connecting with start-ups, faculty, other students, they all wanted to support us. That was a really cool thing. People are more excited about women in computing.”

What’s the average day for a CST student?

If you join the program full-time, it’s a heavy course load. Your every day is about managing time, when you are going to get your assignments done. All your preparation before classes start, working with your group or studying with your friends. On presentations, on assignments. There’s always a lot coming at you. That’s one of the differences I’ve noticed, going from UBC to BCIT. “

How do you take care of yourself with that much of your day being already accounted for?

“It’s very tempting to 100% give yourself to school and forget about everything else in your life. It seems so pressing and important, but it’s really important to keep a healthy perspective. Sure, it’s important to understand what you’re learning, but the key of surviving the program is balance. Everyone does that in different ways; whether that’s going to the gym, gaming, or getting their eight hours [of sleep]. All those things are important for each person. Finding the balance of what works for you is important. You need to understand yourself, reflect, and figure out what’s important to you. Keeping that balance, for me, involved not studying at home. I did all of my school work at school. Maintaining important relationships in my life, so managing my time well enough so I could see my boyfriend or my friends and family. Keeping up with one or two of your hobbies, too. For me, that’s kyudo (Japanese archery), I’ve been practicing that since high school. It helps me focus on my breathing, turning off and doing what I have to do to stay grounded.”

Is there a fair relation to compiling code and kyudo?

“I think there’s the same amount of patience involved. The reward that can come from fixing a bug in your program, even if it’s something small, it can be related to kyudo as a journey. It’s a constant journey – but there’s a sense of excitement from working on something and it finally clicks. As my senpai would say, it’s just you vs the target. You can’t blame it on anyone else. I think that makes you look at yourself and reflect on yourself.”

“That’s a big appeal from flipping so hard from social sciences to coding, I want to be able to dabble in both. I want to understand the complexities of machines as well ideas. Damn, that sounds cool. Hopefully, there’s more crossover as people from different backgrounds get into coding. It seems like that’s the case. I have a lot of classmates from different backgrounds. When there’s a lot of diversity, the results can be a lot cooler.

What is next for you?

“So, 2019 is going to be a very exciting year for me. I’m excited to do all the learning – I’m in a co-op position and my co-op coordinator, Suzanna, was a huge help finding my job. She helped me deal with self-doubt and was really mindful and great about discoursing that kind of talk. She was a great mentor in general and helped me and a lot of other students find co-op jobs. I would say because of her I have a job right now. I’m going to be there for 8 months and working with a database that UBC has – working with their department of alumni engagement. My role there is a junior program analyst and I’m really excited to see what it’s like to be out in industry and working on bigger databases than what we have in our classrooms. To learn from my supervisors and mentors and then go back to school for my third term – which is notoriously the hard term. But I’m very excited about 2019 and what it’s going to bring for me.”