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‘When women support each other, incredible things happen’

- By Akanksha Singh

Meet Akanksha Singh, who is trying to help students by sharing opportunities in tech like scholarships, internships, travel grants, etc through newsletters and social media platforms

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When you are a kid, you don't know what you'd do when you grow up. Your choices depend on the environment you grow in, parents, friends and a lot of other factors. You explore and develop new hobbies, some remain constant and some change with time. Your plan "I want to become a doctor/artist/pilot" also changes with time. Like typical Indian parents, mine wanted me to become a doctor for obvious reasons.

But fate had different plans. Since childhood, I was fascinated by science and technology. I also liked reading, solving puzzles, crossword, and sudoku. My father used to buy me comics and books which not only had interesting stories but lots of puzzles and games. I think it was the reason I developed an interest in general knowledge. I also enjoyed reading encyclopedias and general knowledge books. My brother and I used to ask each other questions on trivial things. Watching Kaun Banega Crorepati, Bournvita Quiz Contest, Spell bee with my brother and keeping scores to see who answered more was my favorite activity.

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I participated in and won my first quiz when I was in class 6. Participated in few more quizzes after this but it was only in class 10 when my computer Science teacher introduced me to inter-school and national level quiz competitions like TCS IT Wiz. I enjoyed reading and digging up Wikipedia, Reddit and other sites for interesting facts and trivia but didn't know about competitions like these where I can test my knowledge. I started preparing for it and participated in some more quizzes that year. Then came class 11 and I knew I had to go for PCM as Maths was my favorite subject. But for the elective subject, I initially chose Physical Education as some seniors told me that it'll be easy to score well and will help me in overall results. After a few P.Ed classes I realized I didn't like the subject much so I switched to Informatics Practices. My school had 2 CS-related electives, one was C++ and another was Informatics Practices (Java). I wanted to go for C++ but there was no girl in that batch hence I chose Informatics Practices. In my class, I had 4 more girls who chose the subject out of 45 students which were still a better ratio than C++. When I switched the subject I had missed 5-6 classes and struggled a little to cover up the course but soon I started enjoying the subject and became the highest scorer in all tests. The best part of my CS journey in school was my project.

I built this application called Schoolpedia which had features like Homework Planner, Calculator, Resource section, etc.

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I had put in a lot of efforts so I was happy and satisfied with my work. I was so confident in the subject that I finished my informatics practices board exam in just 1 hour. And guess what I scored full marks and also received a certificate from CBSE for being in the top 0.1%. Credit also goes to my Computer Science teacher who taught us so well that all concepts were crystal clear and we never felt the need to use our books.

After this, I knew what I wanted to study in college. I joined Indraprastha College for Women for my Bachelor's in Computer Science. I was excited to study my favorite subject. I spent the first semester exploring the subject and my other interest areas like quizzing. At that time I used to watch a lot of TED talks especially on topics like science, tech, and entrepreneurship. I had 1-2 random ideas in mind and I came across this opportunity by IIT Delhi called WEE (Women Entrepreneurship Empowerment) Program. I applied for it and got shortlisted among the top 40 out of 2000 applicants but sadly I wasn't able to fulfill some requirements needed for the next phase. Though I didn't make it to the next phase, the 18-year-old me was kinda happy with this achievement.

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Then came the second semester. Even semesters for DU students are all about fests and lots of fun events. Most of these fests also organized inter-college quizzes and I started attending them. Being a newbie in college quizzing in Delhi I faced a few problems. There were very few women in the quizzing circle. It was difficult to find quiz partners. So I used to take someone from the quiz club or one of my classmates to these quizzes. In the beginning, I didn't make it to finals in many but I still used to sit in the audience till the end to enjoy the whole quiz and attempt questions by myself and check how much I knew. Soon Quizzing became a significant part of my life. I was going to lots of quizzes (sometimes 4-5 quizzes in one week) I was making questions, asking them on quizzing forums. The thrill of working out a question or getting the answer from nowhere just that gut feeling is what I liked the most about quizzes. I was way too immersed in this activity that I ignored my studies a lot and suffered the consequences for the same. Grades were still decent but not the ones that my parents expected from me. I kept juggling between quizzing and studies for the next 2 years. I won many quizzes, led the quiz society in college, conducted quizzes, introduced juniors to the world of quizzing

Finally, this beautiful journey came to an end and I was ready for the next phase of my life. I managed to get decent grades. And decided to pursue Master's in Computer Applications at Indira Gandhi Delhi Technical University for Women. The main reason I joined masters was to improve my tech skills which I slightly ignored during my bachelor's because of quizzing. I still love quizzing as much as I love coding but now I have shifted my focus to the latter one. I'm working hard on honing my skills, looking for opportunities to help myself and others in the world of tech. I always had an interest in teaching so I also looked for teaching/mentoring opportunities. During my undergrad, I mentored a student in the third edition of Learn IT Girl, an international program that helps women learn a new programming language by doing a project. Currently, I am mentoring students under the Girlscript summer of code program.

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I didn't like the fact that both these activities i.e. quizzing and coding which I enjoy the most always had fewer women. I still remember being the only girl on the stage in quiz finals sometimes. To change this I made efforts to inculcate quizzing culture in my college by organizing Intra- college quiz sessions and encouraged the members to attend as many quizzes as they can. It feels nice when my juniors say that they started quizzing because of me.

The situation is a little different in tech communities. There are more women and many are doing some amazing things. But there's still a lot of work that needs to be done. Few problems that I found after doing my undergrad from an all-women college in Delhi University is a lack of awareness about different opportunities, programming culture, and guidance from experienced mentors. I wanted to do something to change this situation. So I started a community called Sisgrammers. I aim to reach out to more female students especially the ones who are from underprivileged areas and help them by teaching them relevant tech skills.

I am trying to help students by sharing opportunities in tech like scholarships, internships, travel grants, etc via a newsletter and social media platforms.

I strongly believe in the quote, "When women support each other, incredible things happen" and I am hoping to help and support women in technology by my initiative.

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As a student, you excelled in quiz competitions. Looking back, how important were those events which may have shaped your life in one way other?

Looking at it now I feel quizzing has helped me in a lot of ways. It has not only made me aware of things going on in my surroundings but also developed in me a desire to always look for answers and interesting stories behind everything that I come across. It has also improved my research and presentation skills which help me in studies as well. Quizzing also helped me in gaining a broad perspective of my traits which in turn helps me in making well-informed decisions about my life. It has turned me into someone who is constantly learning, reading and is curious about almost everything under the sun.

Thanks to the programmes taught at school/college, at a young age, you have built Schoolpedia. How did you manage to pull off that?

I worked on Schoolpedia when I was in class 12. The idea was inspired by some of the softwares that I had used earlier for studies. I wanted to create something useful for students of class 9-12. The application had features like HomeWork Planner which reminded students of upcoming deadlines, a basic calculator, resource section which had tons of learning resources and a quiz section to test knowledge in various subjects. While building this project I used pretty much everything that I had learned in my classes and also pushed myself to do research and learn new things which I later applied in my project. This process helped me in understanding the concepts and taught me ways to use them in real-life projects.

Do you believe introducing students to such programming languages at such a young age is better? Tell us about Learn IT girl, an international programme? Also about Currently, Girlscript summer of code programme, under which you are mentoring students?

Just like learning how to read and write, learning how to code is easier when you are young. Your learning ability, focus and grasping power is far much better when you are young. Coding improves your logical thinking and problem-solving skills which even if you don't pursue a career in tech, will benefit you in some or the other way. There are many online resources to help kids learn how to code so I feel students should be introduced to coding at a young age as it will benefit them in many ways. Learn It Girl is an International Program which started as a project by the Romanian and Polish recipients of the Google Anita Borg Scholarship in 2014 as a way to help realize Anita Borg's vision of 50% women in computing by 2020. It is a 3 Months 1:1 mentorship program in which mentees learn a programming language by building a project. I helped my mentee in learning Java and building a music player application. GirlScript Summer of Code is also a 3 months program that helps students in getting started with open source. Throughout the program, participants contribute to different projects under the guidance of admins and mentors. Top participants get exciting goodies and opportunities like internships.

While mentoring students, how was the feedback? What do you think are the biggest pluses -- and minuses- about the emerging students?

Mentoring has been a great experience for me so far. Some pluses and minuses that I noticed are lack of constant motivation, determination, and focus. Sometimes in order to do a lot of things, some students are not able to focus on one thing and it is one of the reasons they quit in the middle of these programs. These traits vary from student to student and there are students who make full use of such opportunities and learn new skills via these programs which is a nice thing. Though organizations and mentors try their best to help all the students but it totally depends on a student how they want to use these opportunities.

Looks like you are determined about training or empowering young female students. Is it because the tech field is not properly represented by women?

Not having a good enough representation is surely a motivating factor for me to work towards training and empowering young female students. Coding has empowered me. The idea that something I create can impact someones life and make it easier is what drives my passion for technology and I want to embark the same in others. Being a woman I understand problems that hinder female participation in the tech field and I think proper guidance, constant support from fellow females in tech will surely help them. As Maria Klawe once said Coding is today's language of creativity. All our children deserve a chance to become creators instead of consumers of computer science. I feel everyone must learn how to code and teach others.

What are your career plans?

I see my future in the software and computing field where I will be working on projects which simplify and make people's life easier. And also building communities to help young students in getting started with coding and other related fields.

Finally, tell us five of your habits of which you are proud of?

  • Reading books
  • Listening to podcasts
  • Planning my day every morning
  • Walking/Exercising for at least 30 mins daily
  • Competing with yourself

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