Hi Lenka, Thank you very much for taking part in our interview series with tech ladies from the Czech Republic. I find your career journey really inspiring, and I was looking forward to sharing your story with a broader audience since I heard your talk at the DevConf CZ in January 2020. I am glad we managed to find a way despite the unfortunate worldwide epidemic situation.
Let me start with your background - you got your PhD. in Agricultural Chemistry. Why did you choose this particular specialization? And did your studies play any role in your decision to start with programming?
The field of my doctoral studies could hardly be farther from programming. My master thesis made me visit an analytical lab and I liked the experience enough to stick around. I was quite convinced that I would stay on that path. I liked being in the wet lab and playing with all the big machines. However, my decision to start programming did not have anything to do with my past career, where the only programming exposure I had was some statistics in R.
You completed an online Python course in May 2015. Was this your first encounter with programming? And why did you choose Python?
I visited the Django Girls workshop while pregnant. The defense of my doctoral thesis happened already with my first child being born and while on early maternity leave I continued with the Django tutorial, which I didn’t have the time to finish before. It served as a way to keep my mind sane, while raising my child.
Some time after that I learned about the Pyladies presential course in Brno. The teacher there was awesome and really dedicated. He provided lots of valuable knowledge in a very digestible way for newbies. I think that this good first experience was very important for somebody who just started experimenting with a new field.
Why Python? Well, I didn’t know about any C-ladies, Goladies or other ladies (though there are Czechitas and Rails girls now). Also, the Django framework is Python-based, so I just continued with the same language. I trusted the general opinion that Python is a good language to start hello worlding with. It sure was nicer than R. There is a wealth of materials and there’s tons of examples of people building all sorts of crazy and niche things in it as well, so when you try to find how on earth to do X in Python, it is very rare to draw a blank.
Three years passed between the online course and your Outreachy internship in 2018. What did you do over those three years? Did you continue with self-learning or any other form of education in IT?
In the middle of the Pyladies course I moved near Barcelona. Fortunately Pyladies have communities worldwide and there is one in Barcelona too. It was like landing in a known haven, despite the fact that the concept of Pyladies Barcelona is different from Pyladies Brno. In Barcelona there are monthly meetups with talks or workshops, not beginner-oriented courses as in Brno. The community there was sharing some members with Codebar and I also started to go to their meetups. Codebar’s approach is a bit different, they run regular programming workshops where they pair students with mentors. Because of that, the sessions were tailor made for every student.
Sometime around this time, when my second child was born, my goal gradually changed. From passing the time with something interesting while mostly caring for the kids to real interest in how things work. I kept finishing more and more online courses and at some point I realized that I enjoy programming more than I enjoy research in the wet lab. I could surely do it anytime anywhere, in the night, from the playground, while breastfeeding…
We have mentioned the Outreachy program. Could you explain to us how it works? Was it hard to apply? What was the most beneficial for you about this program?
Outreachy is a scholarship program for underrepresented people in tech to work in open source projects. The way it works is that mentoring organizations provide funding and project ideas to work on. Then people can apply after doing a bit of eligibility paperwork. And then the contribution rush begins.
You have to find a project that interests you or you have the required skills for. Then you have a few weeks to make contributions and to join its community. After that, the mentors choose among the applicants (if any) to their projects. The more popular and accessible a project is, the more competition there will be for the position. Outreachy organizers provide a collection of suggestions about how to make a strong application and increase your chances to be accepted.
The most beneficial part for me was the inestimable help of the community around the project I chose, Pagure. The learning curve was very steep for me and included learning about the ways of communication within the ecosystem, good practices and the workflow of a project operated in the open. The good thing is that the community expects the applicants to start arriving, so the new contributors get extra care and it’s easier for shy newbies to ask for help. It was really nice to have to be able to dedicate full time to a project that is so welcoming and supportive of new people. And not just Pagure, but also the wider Fedora community.
Tell us more about your current job. You are working on cancer research. Was it your goal to get to this field or more of a coincidence? And what exactly is your daily work?
It was very difficult to get the confidence to start applying for jobs. I was staring at the job offers coming through the Pyladies and Codebar mailing lists. At this stage, the selection process was a bit peculiar, I would look at the offers and quickly find out reasons I should not apply. Once my eyes stopped into this job position in the cancer research computational lab… I just couldn’t find any excuse not to apply. It spoke to my research background, it was really meaningful and it was an entry level position. The interview went well and the team was very welcoming.
The project I work on is to build an application which gathers known and also computed information about mutations found in cancer genomes. My daily work has been evolving during my tenure in the lab. At first it was just taking ownership of some legacy projects and coding a replacement, then I started integrating what I did with the existing stack. A bit later I started gathering requirements and improving the UX and lately I’ve started handling some of the operation analysis web apps we have. A little bit of everything.
You took quite a journey from agricultural chemistry to cancer research. What would you say has been the biggest challenge in your career so far?
I‘m part of a cancer genomics computational lab, but I’m not a researcher here. My job is to translate the work of the researchers into code. Of course, to do so correctly is a big responsibility, because the application I’m working on will be used by both clinicians and researchers in oncology. For this, it is also necessary to learn at least the basics of gene expression and translation, which is incredibly interesting, but also another world of knowledge. It is inspiring to be in a lab full of brilliant researchers and I feel that the future of cancer research is in good hands.
The biggest challenge so far were the first weeks and months in the first tech job. It takes a lot of courage when all you have been doing is self-learning and building things by yourself. There was the fear of self-learners that my knowledge is patchy and incomplete and of course a great deal of impostor syndrome. Also it must have been a lot of courage on the side of the group leader to whom I could not offer much in the way of computer science background in my CV, but who gave me my first chance despite that.
As I mentioned at the beginning of our interview, I saw you speaking at DevConf CZ. If I remember correctly, it was your first time as a speaker. Why did you decide to talk at DevConf? How was the experience?
I had previously attended DevConfCZ thanks to the Outreachy travel stipend and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Having been a previous attendee I received the call for papers email and I started to think about how conferences are from the speaker side. Fortunately Devconf offers a Speaker Guide and an assistance of a Speaker Coach for new speakers. The Speaker Coach contacted me some time before the conference and helped me to improve the slides and practice the talk.
One of the long-term goals of the CyberMagnolia community is to put together a group of female tech speakers. We want to increase their visibility and make it easier for the conference organizers to reach them. Would you consider speaking at some more conferences when the situation allows?
Do you have any advice for those who consider a career change towards SW development?
I don’t think I can give general advice, but one that would have connected with me back when I was getting started. My advice would be to build things as soon as you can. You don’t really know what you can build until you try, and for people like me with an academic background, there’s always the risk of wanting to study things thoroughly before getting your hands dirty.
Thank you for the interview, Lenka!
Lenka Segura made a career change and now works as a software developer in Barcelona Biomedical Genomics Lab which is part of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine. She is involved in the Cancer Genome Interpreter project.
Lenka likes mountains from all possible angles and in all seasons, bakes her own bread, drinks tea and watches anime. She cannot wait to go to visit Japan again.
CyberMagnolia is a growing women’s tech collective in the Czech Republic. Our community goes beyond the borders of programming languages, tech stacks or job descriptions. We’re there for each other creating a space in which every member feels confident asking hard questions, seeking advice, and offering to share their knowledge and experience. If you’re one of us — come and join us!