Inspirational Woman Interview: Jenny Mandl

Jenny Mandl is a junior at the University of Maryland College Park, where she is majoring in Computer Engineering. Previously, she worked as an Explorer Intern at Microsoft in Seattle and a Software Engineering Intern at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. An advocate for women in STEM, Jenny is the Director of Girls Who Code, an organizer at the Technica Women’s Hackathon, and Secretary of the Association of Women in Computing (AWC) at the University of Maryland College Park. She is also a blogger at Medium, where she writes about topics related to computer science and technology.

What is your background?

Jenny Mandl: I am a junior in Computer Engineering at the University of Maryland College Park.

You are the Director of Girls Who Code at the University of Maryland College Park. Can you tell us about some of the initiatives you’ve organized and how you first got involved with Girls Who Code?

Jenny Mandl: Over the summer while interning at Microsoft, I was hanging out with some interns from Georgia tech who told me all about the organization Girls Who Code. They were planning to start a club at GT and after sifting through the girls who code website and reading about the powerful impact it has, I decided I wanted to start a club at the University of Maryland when I went back to school. It was a lot of work initially recruiting students, gathering and training volunteers, reserving classrooms and laptops and so on but it was one of the most fun and rewarding things I have done!

This the first initiative that I organized completely on my own. Prior to this I racked up over 800 hours of community service in Howard County working mainly on Food On The 15th, a program that my mom started, and also for organizations like Meals On Wheels, Vials of Life, Coalition of Geriatric Services, Prepare for Success, and the ASPCA.

My favorite initiative I was involved in prior to Girls Who Code was working alongside my mom to get our entire local community together to fill a 16 wheeler with water, toiletries, clothes, and food for hurricane sandy victims. You can see what we did here. Even the county executive Ken Ulman showed up!

Moreover, you helped organize part of the Technica Women’s Hackathon at University of Maryland College Park. Can you tell us a little more about the process of organizing this hackathon, and some of the main challenges you faced?

Jenny Mandl: I worked to organize some of the hardware workshops held throughout the hackathon to introduce young hackers to world of microprocessors! The process consisted of deciding what hardware we wanted to use, and what we would teach the girls. We used the Adafruit Circuit Playground because it is the most exciting board for any beginner. On one chip, it has a capacitance sensor, a microphone, a speaker, 8 stunning color changing LEDS, and an accelerometer. During pre-workshop planning meetings, we experimented with lots of mini projects like using the capacitance sensors to create a mini piano with small pieces of electrical tape! The main challenge was that when you have a room with 60+ people who have all different computers, versions of the Arduino IDE (the program you write code for the board in), and internet connectivity issues from their personal devices, it can be challenging to move forward at a productive pace. It ended up taking more than one session to get through the example code which demonstrated some of the board’s capabilities and how to access them, but we did it!

You are also the Secretary of the Association of Women in Computing (AWC) on campus. Can you share some of your experiences with the AWC and some projects you worked on?

Jenny Mandl: Until this current semester, I attended AWC meetings and events where I met a lot of my close friends! I also presented at general body meetings to find volunteers for Girls Who Code. Now that I am the Secretary I take notes at council meetings, reserve rooms for events and body meetings, and soon will help to organize various fundraisers like our famous Casino Night!

You also participated in FLEXUS, a two-year living and learning community for women in engineering. What were some valuable takeaways from this experience?

Jenny Mandl: I didn’t think FLEXUS would be too important in my life when I signed up for it, but the people I met through the program in my first semester of college are still my best friends today. They encourage and inspire me constantly. The main takeaway for me is that when you surround yourself with engineers who excite you and think differently and work hard you can do so much more.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Jenny Mandl: Dona Sarkar, the leader of the Windows Insider Program at Microsoft gave a talk this summer that inspired me so deeply. She explained how to negotiate what you want in the work place by making win-win deals and listening carefully to what those around you hope to accomplish. She taught us to use this information to come up with solutions that help you and those around you accomplish greater things. She was also encouraging, and pointed out that although she is very successful now she failed the first computer science course she ever took. She talked about how she didn’t get to where she is alone and that she had a lot of help and encouraged us to find mentors. It really stuck with me. She was so transparent and real about her experiences, and so clear in describing ways to go above and beyond in your work.

On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Jenny Mandl: Women are a little more than half the population. With the increasingly complex problems that we have to face as humans, we need as much creativity and as many perspectives as we can get to come up with solutions. To do that, we need diversity, we need different perspectives, and we need as many bright minds as we can get. By empowering women we are empowering humanity to go further and do more and create the best quality of life for as many people as possible.

What advice do you have for girls interested in pursuing computer science and engineering?

Jenny Mandl: TL;DR Never be afraid to ask questions.

When I started college, I was not confident that I would succeed in engineering. It seemed like I was surrounded by people who had been building complex things from a young age and that I was at a huge disadvantage. The first semester was incredibly challenging, especially because I perceived others to have so much more knowledge than me that I feared I would look dumb if I asked questions.I remember the first time I saw one of those “way more experienced” students at the library struggling into the late hours of the night with the same homework I was having trouble with. It really opened my eyes. This stuff was hard for everyone. With the realization that I wasn’t alone in my confusion, I gained a little bit of confidence in myself. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to start asking a few questions here and there.When I started asking questions, things became easier. I can’t even count how many times I would just ask someone to explain something and end up saying to them “That’s it?!” These concepts were (still challenging) but much more simple than I had thought. I started to realize this doubt was all in my head. I had the first inkling of the feeling “hey… I can do this!”So I started asking more questions. I started making lists in lecture of every single thing I didn’t understand, no matter how tiny it was. I went to office hours and talked about these questions with the professor. I went to my teaching assistants and practiced the things I had learned by playing role reversal and “teaching” them. This solidified the information in my brain.What came next, I never expectedI started getting A’s on exams and beating the curve not by a few points but by leaps and bounds– we are talking entire letter grades.I learned that it is so important and fun to ask questions and it changed the course of my whole career. Once I started asking questions, I never stopped and I don’t plan to stop anytime soon.

What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources related to technology and/or women’s issues?

Jenny Mandl: My favorite thing to do is check out the blogs of companies I care about and see what engineering challenges they are facing, and what features and capabilities they’re working to pop out next. I also love going to various career fairs where I get the opportunity to chat with engineers from that company and ask them questions about the issues they’re facing and what things they have tried to tackle it, while offering some thoughts of my own. I always learn so much when I do that. Aside from that, I love attending events that are packed with female engineers, and conferences where I can hear about the perspective of other women and their experiences in the work place.

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