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'Hackathons test, not just technical, all your skills'

Aarshi Chourasia had an early stint with technology which helped her later in her career development. Having opted for C++ programming in the last two years of high school helped her later in college, where a lot of people ran into several hurdles. Befittingly, she became a Mentor at Learn IT Girl, an international mentor-mentee programme. Google India Challenge Scholarship was the next. That does not mean she has had no time for other things in life: she has been a volleyball player and sports too has been part of her life.

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“Every day is a new opportunity. You can build on yesterday's success or put its failures behind and start over again. That's the way life is.” This Bob Feller quote always encouraged me to try new things in life. Well, if it's about what I aspire to be then that inspiration came from the time I first started exploring computer fundamentals in the school. Having opted C++ programming in my last two years of high school helped me later in college, where a lot of people faced problems. Studying C-programming became a piece of cake for me while others struggled. From there, my journey started in the field of computer science. Since I belonged to the field of ECE, I had to devote extra time to learn computer fundamentals, but that made me realize what I wanted to pursue and what I did not in my life.

I started learning new technologies and developed my interest in the field of web development. Because of my learning, I was able to land a work-from-home internship in the summer break after freshman year. Getting an intern at that point of time boosted my confidence and made me go deeper into the concepts of development. I explored more technologies and learned new programming languages to compare what was best for me to pursue as my career. The idea of seizing every opportunity and exploring new things made me apply to be a Mentor at Learn IT Girl, an international mentor-mentee program started by Anita Borg recipients which focuses on empowering women in technology by helping them learn new languages while doing a project. I was amongst the 126 mentors selected amid applicants from all over the world. Being an ECE student, I experienced a lack of guidance and information, but through this program, I was able to walk my mentee to the right path by giving her the links and resources that I thought was best to learn from scratch. The sense of fulfillment of helping a woman start her career in the field of computer science was incredible.

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Receiving Google India Challenge Scholarship helped me improve my existing skills. Later, I spent the summer break after my sophomore year as a Software Development Intern at a Home Health Care Company in Bangalore. It was my first industry exposure and a very different experience than working on a project.

The outlook of learning from my failures and work for success is what I have learned from sports. Winning medals in intra-school competitions to represent my school in inter-school volleyball tournaments, sports has always been a part of my life. Continuing my hobby in college by not just playing volleyball for the college team, but from being a coordinator of volleyball to be the General Secretary of Sports became a huge responsibility.

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It was a terrific experience to be the General Secretary of Sports and Head of Desportivos, one of the largest sports fests in Rajasthan. Being timid to going confident on the stage, the course of my tenure changed my personality and my point of view to a great extend. The responsibility of taking the fest forward into breaking new grounds and expanding its horizons was no small coup, but we knew that with the right mix of perseverance, dedication and will, we would be able to bring the great ideas we had for the event to fruition. Having toiled with the bare minimum sleep that could keep my eyes open, to the blissful sleep of success after the event concluded, it was a journey that made me, in equal parts, internally kick myself, yet also give the satisfaction that was something that I'd never experienced before. We collectively saw desperation and delight, accomplishment and anxiety, hard work and fun.

Sports taught me one important thing, i.e. to continuously challenge myself, and that is why I started participating in Hackathons, which helped me discern that hackathons are the best place to analyze your learning and to interact with people from different backgrounds. Hackathon is not just a platform to judge your technical skills but also to work with short deadlines, team-work, presentation, networking and many more. But, whether it was college Hackathons or brainwaves by Societe Generale, I felt the lack of women participation and the ability to show their skills. But SheHack a hackathon by Gojek, being a woman-only Hackathon and open to any technology, the energy of all the women working and competing with each other was astounding.

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The persistence and my contribution to different platforms again paid off when I got selected in the Get Ahead program by Google. I was one of the 170 people who got selected in Asia-Pacific. Through the program, we got insights into a lot of things related to Google interviews and what all things we should take care of when we are giving a technical interview. The weekly challenges provided by them not only helped me prepare better for the placements but, getting mail for one of the best solutions for the past week challenge encouraged me to work harder.

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My preparation and dedication helped me in getting placed at Samsung and now when I look back, I recollect that college is the best time to examine yourself and make the most out of it. We should not only work on our career but also on our hobbies, which you can enjoy when you are stressed or worried about your life. But never forget to have fun, as said by Gordon B. Hinckley, "Life is to be enjoyed, not just endured".

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Having studied programming at the school level must have helped you at a later stage. But sadly most of our schools still don’t provide any decent technical education, infrastructure, or tutors as a part of their curriculum. What is your take?

Yes, studying programming at the school level did help me in the initial years at college, but it is not the prerequisite if one wishes to pursue a career in this field. Today, many non-profit organizations are helping students in learning basic concepts of computer science, which is indeed helpful for institutes that cannot provide a decent technical education, infrastructure, or tutors as a part of their curriculum. Also, numerous organizations are working towards helping students to start their career in the field of technology. I believe that sometimes, we have to go the extra mile to get closer to our aim and, if people are enthusiastic, then in today's digital world there are a lot of modes through which people can learn from the comfort of their home. All they need is access to the internet, which is now accessible even in very remote areas. There are many such distant learning courses as well as people who are willing to help. Technology has now covered almost all the areas of life and, even in rural areas, tech education will become very common in the coming future.

Tell us about your role as a mentor at Learn IT Girl. How can aspirational women apply or be part of the programme?

Learn IT Girl is a three-month-long mentor-mentee program where a mentee learns a new programming language by building a project. A lot of women, some even not from a technical background, who wish to start with the basics of any particular technology apply to this program. I helped one such woman from Poland by helping her learn HTML, CSS and Javascript. I guided her during the learning process by providing her resources to read, solving her doubts and helped her to apply those concepts by implementing it in a project. We used to make a weekly plan, which helped us keep track of the progress. Since my mentee was a quick learner, we were able to go the extra mile by implementing some more concepts than formerly decided. One can apply to be a mentor/mentee at Learn IT Girl in the next edition. If anyone wishes to be a part of the program, one can keep an eye on Learn IT Girl Twitter or Facebook page where they keep posting updates regarding the program. The process includes a form with multiple questions, based on which selection is done. It was an incredible experience for me to help a woman learn something new and complete the project.

Your stint at sports too has had a great role in your life and career. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?

Sport has always been an integral part of my life. There are many lessons that I have learned from sports and which helped me in my life and career -

1. Not every match is the same, and so are the challenges in life, but one must face them with the same determination.
2. When you are working in a team, then team-work is one of the most significant factors. One must trust their teammates while giving their best.
3. Success boosts our confidence, but failure helps us understand our mistakes and weak points. And, it is okay to make mistakes because we learn more from our mistakes which helps us improve ourselves.
4. One must know their Strengths and Weaknesses. Some of our weakness is someone's strength. In a team, you can use everyone's strength to build a strong team. On the other hand, if we know our weaknesses, then we can work on them in our spare time.
5. Focus more on learning than winning, because the process matters more than the result.

Tell us about the effect hackathons have had on you and others you might know.

Hackathon has always been a great way to enhance your skills and to learn from your peers. The two main factors which make hackathons very valuable are the limited-time which makes you think, design and implement the best you can in the stipulated time and the vast number of people who participate, which allows you to connect with them and learn from their ideas and its solutions. In hackathons, we need to take care of a lot of things while developing a product, which includes feasibility, future value, innovation, social value, etc. It has not just helped me challenge myself but also make me think out of the box.

It is a great platform to grow your network and, connect with people from different background and when you listen to their presentations, there are a lot of different ideas, that are born in your mind from a simple innovation that a person has done. I believe everyone should participate in hackathons, even if you are a beginner, it helps you have a clear picture of the trends going on in the industry and, it allows you to grow your skills and connections.

You had a stint with Get Ahead Programme @ Google. How was the selection process and what was it all about?

Get Ahead is a Google’s exclusive, invite-only, summer development program. It is a virtual self-study program for female-identifying students interested in both developing their skill set and future employment opportunities at Google. It included YouTube live events, Google Hangout meets and weekly coding challenges. Being a member of Connect with Google, I got an invitation to register for the program following which I received a mail two weeks later regarding my selection in the Get Ahead program. The session during the program covered topics like- Code Health, Mock Interview, Imposter Syndrome, Resume Training, etc. They also encouraged us to participate in KickStart and provided us with resources to prepare well. We received weekly email updates and material to complete by the end of the week. The program, not only helped me improve my technical skills but, I also got an opportunity to connect with selected applicants as well as the professionals working at Google. I felt amazing to be a part of such an exclusive program by Google.

Your advice to women/girls who want to pursue a career in tech?

To the women/girls who want to pursue a career in tech, I would like to say that don't be hesitant while choosing a stream of your choice. Many organizations are helping women in tech, learn new technology and support them to start a career in tech. Don't hesitate while asking even the basic questions, because that not only clear up your concepts but also boost up your confidence. I remember attending seminars of different genres to understand what I wanted to pursue. It is always the first step that takes all your energy, but after that, there is no stopping. There are multiple communities for women that one can join, where women support each other to polish their skills. If you are a beginner and you don't have any direction, then be a part of these communities, contribute what you can, and anyone in the group will be happy to help you.

“The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” -Mark Twain

Finally, pick five habits of yours which you are proud of?

  • Devoting time to physical exercise.
  • Challenging myself to push my limitation barriers.
  • Not giving up easily.
  • Planning my next day.
  • Always eager to learn new things.

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