Girls Who Code Visit AT&T Bedminster Gaining Better Understanding of Career Possibilities

Photo: Four New Jersey girls visited ATT with Girls Who Code. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Four New Jersey girls visited ATT with Girls Who Code. | Esther Surden

AT&T hosted the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program class at its Bedminster complex on August 14.

The girls received a tour of the AT&T Global Network Operations Center  (GNOC); career inspiration from Dr. Alicia Abella, AVP of Inventive Science, AT&T; and a tour of Abella’s own lab.

Abella was very candid with the girls, speaking about coming from a working-class family of Cuban immigrants and  how she had to persevere. She learned computer programming in high school, when BASIC was the main language and personal computers were just making their way into homes.

She found that she had a knack for coding and taught herself PASCAL over one summer. Then she wound up teaching PASCAL to her high school class because the teacher didn’t know it. Her family made sacrifices to buy her a computer so she could install PASCAL at home.

After high school, she made a practical choice to go to NYU for a computer science degree because she knew that she would be employed when she graduated, and she needed the money.

 “I picked a major that would guarantee me a job. … The passion came later,” Abella told the girls. While at NYU, she applied for an internship at AT&T Bell Labs. To her surprise, she was accepted.

Photo: Dr. Alicia Abella talked about her professional journey with a group from Girls Who Code. Photo Credit: Esther Surden
Dr. Alicia Abella talked about her professional journey with a group from Girls Who Code. | Esther Surden

The internship at Bell Labs was pivotal. While she was there, she had to learn C, and, “by the way, the inventor of C was just down the hall, and the inventor of UNIX was right down another hall!” The experience at Bell Labs inspired her to go on for her PhD so that she could return there one day.

Abella’s PhD journey was an example for the girls of how much persistence she needed to succeed. In order to move forward on her doctoral research, she had to take tests in areas in which she was weak. She said that she failed one of the tests three times, but kept studying and learning until she could pass it.

During the visit to AT&T spoke to four  New Jersey girls who participated in the program: Emma Strauch, a rising senior at Northern Highlands Regional High School (Allendale); Josephine des Rosiers and Michelle Tu, both rising seniors at Bergen County Academies (Hackensack); and Nisha Aggerwal a rising senior at Leonia High School(Leonia).

Strauch said that she signed up for Girls Who Code at the suggestion of an independent guidance counselor she had  consulted. “I didn’t know anything about it. I went to an info session, filled out the application and got into the program. I absolutely loved it.”

Des Rosiers learned about the program from a school email inviting girls who liked to code to sign up for the summer program, she said. “I kind of expected it to be an internship, but I’m happy it wasn’t because we get to learn so much more than I thought we were going to. We also got to make a lot of friends. There are 20 of us per classroom and … we all get to help each other learn.”

Aggerwal said that she had become interested in coding at a young age, “but I was often the only girl in the class, and it was really difficult because the boys would get in there and talk about solutions for problem sets, and you always felt kind of excluded in a way. I started researching computer science programs for the summer and came across Girls Who Code. I thought it would be a unique experience that wasn’t just about coding, but about empowering us to not let that feeling of being an imposter stop us, to make us understand that we could go out and do just what a man could do in the industry.”

Tu said that she knew someone who had previously been in the program and went on to host a local Girls Who Code club at the library in her town, which Tu attended.  “I just applied on a whim, and I had planned to intern at another firm for my senior internship.”

All of the girls were excited by the level of interest AT&T executives showed in them. Strauch noted that the president of AT&T New York, Marissa Shorenstein, who works at the AT&T Rockefeller Center offices, where the group met during the summer, has been “completely accessible” to everyone in the program, even though she travels a lot. “We are trying to have a hackathon at my school … and she offered to help me put it together. She talks to me on the phone and offers to set up meetings … she is like a mentor.”

Aggerwall said that, during the program, “we had a chance to hear from many executives from AT&T and that’s been great. They always talk to us, not like we’re kids, but like we are young women who are really intelligent. They place us on the same level, and that’s really powerful. … The advice they offered about going out there and not letting anything stop you has really inspired me.”

During their visit to the GNOC, the girls learned about how the facility monitors AT&T’s network activity around the world, and why it is a critical component of AT&T’s Network Disaster Recovery (NDR) team. This was particularly relevant, as the tour took place during hurricane season and very close to the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans.

Tu thought that the GNOC presentation was interesting, and she really liked learning about data manipulation and transit systems. “I always wondered how cellular network systems work on the backend, and I was really intrigued by this.”

Strauch was excited about her visit to the GNOC, especially the talk given by Stephen Moser, GNOC visitor program manager. “I have never met someone who is so into his job,” she said. “I love when people have enthusiasm because it gets me enthused. … I’ve never really thought about cyber security that much … but when he was speaking about all the communications the computers have to do and the networks have to take care of, I found myself really interested in it.”

Aggerwal added that it was interesting to learn that there was a tangible place where all the AT&T network traffic is organized and where the networks come together, and that there are people responsible for making sure everything gets to where it needs to be.

The visit to the GNOC also opened up some possibilities for the students.

Des Rosiers pointed out that she hadn’t thought about the problem-solving aspects of networking before she visited AT&T. “What I learned here opens up another door. I love coding because it’s a puzzle and you get to solve it, and then it helps people. To know that there is another branch of this that involves problem solving and not as many syntax errors — that’s an inspiring thought.”

Strauch added that her dream job would be to work for a biotech firm, but “this really opened up my eyes to the possibilities in cyber security.”

In addition to visiting the AT&T Global Network Operations Center and AT&T Labs, the students took a tour of AT&T AdWorks and learned more about the world of TV advertising. They also toured Bloomberg Business, in Manhattan. Apart from Abella, Moser, and Shorenstein, the  AT&T speakers during the program included Anne H. Chow, senior vice president, global solutions and sales operations (AT&T Business Solutions), and Jill Reardon, vice president of premier client services.

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