Digital “coffee” with Cate Huston

1 10 2010

So I had the pleasure of meeting Cate Huston.  Normally, I will be doing these in video chat, but we had some tech issues and I really wanted to carry on the talk!  So here is a transcript our chat! 

Cate Huston – Amazing [Human] Computer Programmer – Strong Woman (Inspirational) – Part Time Ninja? – located in Ottawa, ON

Note: This is kind of long  – so here is a summary:

  • Cate is a [human] computer programmer, emphasis on human and interactions
  • developed and implemented curricula while teaching
  • studied martial arts with monks in China
  • Really smart and fun! Had a great chat online!  Looking forward to get know her more!

Today I have the pleasure of having digital “coffee” with Cate Huston.  I’m very excited to get the conversation going!  I’d like to start out by asking you to tell me a little bit about yourself both professionally and personally.  Maybe some fun facts that not a lot of people know about you.

[9/26/10 8:24:43 PM] Cate: I’m a grad student at uOttawa with about a semester to go, and I just finished a summer in Extreme Blue at IBM. I’m a programmer, and a technologist and – unfortunately in my profession it’s necessary to specify this – a human. I’ve developed programming curriculum that has been taught across the US, and in China, and my most recent is an open sources curriculum developed for uOttawa. I’m an Editor at the recently launched CompSci Woman (http://compsciwoman.com) and Instigator of Awesome at Awesome Ottawa (http://awesomeottawa.ca).

[9/26/10 8:25:44 PM] Cate: Fun facts? I’ve met a Meiko and stayed in a traditional ryokan. I’m a CSIA Level 2 ski instructor, and I spent two months training in martial arts in China.

[9/26/10 8:27:34 PM] chris: Wow! You have accomplished and participated in some pretty incredible things!  Before I dive a bit further with some of your professional work (with I really like that you put an emphasis on “human”), I have some questions about your fun facts.

[9/26/10 8:27:47 PM] Cate: Sure

[9/26/10 8:28:21 PM] chris: Firstly, can you tell me a bit more about Meiko and what a traditional ryokan is?

[9/26/10 8:29:22 PM] Cate: It’s very Japanese! A Meiko is a trainee Geisha. They dress more ornately than Geishas and a younger. The one I met was just 17 or 18 and she was super cute! We talked about shopping in Hong Kong and snowboarding!

[9/26/10 8:30:56 PM] Cate: The Ryokan is a traditional Japanese place to stay, I think. You have “beds” that get rolled out every night and a little table that is brought out for meals. There’s a wikipedia article here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ryokan_(Japanese_inn)

[9/26/10 8:31:11 PM] chris: That is amazing!  I’m glad to start out my series of coffee talks with someone so interesting!  I can only imagine how interesting it was to really gain a first hand experience of the life and culture involving Geisha.

[9/26/10 8:32:08 PM] Cate: You know, she didn’t talk about that much which was disappointing! We played traditional drinking games. It’s cool in Kyoto though, if you wonder about at the right time of day you see them going to the tea houses.

[9/26/10 8:32:36 PM] chris: That’s really cool!

[9/26/10 8:33:11 PM] Cate: Yeah, strawberry sake is so tasty 🙂

[9/26/10 8:33:25 PM] chris: Ha! That sounds good!

[9/26/10 8:33:52 PM] chris: Now, you also mentioned studying martial arts in China?  Can you tell me more about that?

[9/26/10 8:35:23 PM] Cate: I went to this academy in northern China, Yantai. My master was a Shaolin monk who had trained in Shaolin itself. It was for westerners, so we got to eat meat (well, chicken)but still pretty hardcore! We trained for about 6 hours a day, 5 days a week.

[9/26/10 8:36:07 PM] chris: Did you stay (overnight) with them? Or did you stay somewhere else?

[9/26/10 8:36:27 PM] Cate: In the mornings I would work on shaolin – the forms – I learned to spin a staff. That’s kinda neat. In the afternoons I would do do chinese kickboxing.

[9/26/10 8:36:41 PM] Cate: Yes! It was pretty basic. At the weekends I would go into the city to explore.

[9/26/10 8:37:00 PM] Cate: Only one proper shower for everyone!

[9/26/10 8:37:14 PM] chris: Wow!

[9/26/10 8:37:38 PM] Cate: Yeah! Don’t ask about the toilets!

[9/26/10 8:38:13 PM] chris: LOL!   Maybe we can save some of that for a conversation over “digital” martini’s next time hehe.

[9/26/10 8:38:52 PM] Cate: Nono I’ve been trying to block it out ever since. Also, after chicken 2 meals a day every day… yeah…

[9/26/10 8:39:06 PM] chris: Oh! I understand!

[9/26/10 8:39:31 PM] Cate: After that long my body started rejecting chicken – like, noooo we can’t eat any more of that. Another guy told me that was normal but eventually you could just live on chicken and be fine. He stayed a year! I was not that hardcore.

[9/26/10 8:40:05 PM] chris: I can only imagine!

[9/26/10 8:41:11 PM] Cate: But you know, you do something that bonkers and you prove you can. When you feel like you can’t go on and someone hits you with a stick… you learn where your limits really are.

[9/26/10 8:41:35 PM] chris: I bet the feeling was pretty incredible once you finished.

[9/26/10 8:42:50 PM] Cate: I think the best feeling I had was when I spent a day running up and down these steps. Well – towards the end, I wasn’t running up!! It took me 3 hours or something but I did it my first week there.

[9/26/10 8:43:35 PM] Cate: Walking back, really exhausted and sore, last person – that felt great! I pushed myself and I didn’t give up. Friday afternoons became my favourite part of the week.

[9/26/10 8:43:48 PM] chris: Wow! Three hours?

[9/26/10 8:44:17 PM] chris: That’s really amazing, and pretty inspirational at the same time.  Do you feel after accomplishing such a great challenge that it helped you with your professional work?

[9/26/10 8:44:27 PM] Cate: We would do Qui Gong (meditation) but that never makes me calm – just cold! For me, being up at the top of a hill looking across the country… that is the most peaceful I get.

[9/26/10 8:45:12 PM] Cate: I think in the West, we’re too quick to say “I can’t” – it changed my approach to that.

[9/26/10 8:46:46 PM] chris: That’s very true.  I sometimes have to force myself out of that habit.  When I’m feeling overwhelmed or overburdened and feel the urge to say “I can’t”, I have to shift my thoughts and figure out ways to quite often, “creatively” accomplishing my tasks.

[9/26/10 8:47:37 PM] Cate: Exactly.

[9/26/10 8:48:50 PM] chris: I’d like to talk now about your professional work.   It seems we have very common professional interests.   My background is in digital media, with more an emphasis on art, design, and social media.  Yours seems to be more of the back-end programming side of things.  However, I suspect you are much more than a background programmer, given your experiences and accomplishments.  Can you talk about some of you professional work designing coursework?

[9/26/10 8:50:31 PM] Cate: Sure. I started as an instructor at iD Tech, and would create things for my students and share them with the other instructors. After two summers instructing, the invited me to apply to be a developer for the programming curriculum and I expanded what I’d already done to give the curriculum a more visual focus.

[9/26/10 8:51:17 PM] chris: That’s amazing!

[9/26/10 8:51:26 PM] chris: What is iD Tech?

[9/26/10 8:51:32 PM] Cate: I’ve taken this to the next level in my latest curriculum (http://catehuston.com/workshop) which is entirely visual, and what I would describe as “activity based”. I.e. I’m not saying, learn this construct and here is a contrived example – it’s here’s something you might want to do, and he’s how you do it.

[9/26/10 8:52:39 PM] chris: That’s amazing!

[9/26/10 8:52:42 PM] Cate: iD Tech runs technology camps across the US.

[9/26/10 8:53:51 PM] Cate: Honestly, I just think programming is taught really badly. But I was lucky enough to get my undergrad from Edinburgh and the way they taught things – using frameworks (some of the code is written) was so helpful I started by taking that concept and applying it to the kind of things 12-17 year olds might want to make.

[9/26/10 8:54:21 PM] chris: That sounds really good – a more innovative approach that is engaging to youth.

[9/26/10 8:54:35 PM] Cate: The lastest curriculum uses Processing, which is built on Java and I love it. So it’s a little more fun than straight up Java and much easier to make visual applets, and has a very simple IDE. That makes it great for the one day workshops we run as outreach.

[9/26/10 8:55:20 PM] Cate: With this workshop, we’re trying to get more kids wanting to do computer science or software engineering at university, and I’ve really tried to make it accessible and more interesting to people with a more artistic bent, and to girls.

[9/26/10 8:55:45 PM] chris: That’s really cool.  I’ve always felt that programming is much more than math equations – it’s art.  To truely structure it, write it out, and design something that you have specific intentions for really parallels a lot of my own creative process.

[9/26/10 8:55:47 PM] Cate: The focus is what can we make, not tinkering.

[9/26/10 8:56:15 PM] Cate: Definitely, I describe myself as a “software artiste”!

[9/26/10 8:56:16 PM] chris: That’s incredible!  It actually brings me to my next question, about your work with CompSci Woman.

[9/26/10 8:56:30 PM] chris: That’s a great title!

[9/26/10 8:56:56 PM] Cate: Haha our tagline is “Technology is Women’s Work” – our mutal friend Tammy helped me come up with that.

[9/26/10 8:57:19 PM] chris: That’s awesome!  Tammy is a pretty rad woman! I really enjoyed her company.

[9/26/10 8:57:48 PM] Cate: I love Tammy, she’s so awesome and such an inspiration to me.

[9/26/10 8:58:15 PM] chris: Your work with women and technology.. what inspired you to work in that direction?

[9/26/10 8:58:44 PM] chris: I mean, I personally think it sounds great and very empowering to women working in a somewhat (from what i’ve seen anyway) male dominated profession.

[9/26/10 8:58:59 PM] Cate: Well it sucks to be a minority! And there’s only one way to fix it.

[9/26/10 8:59:59 PM] Cate: Yes, definitely – very male dominated. Women need role models, and a support network, and mentors – it’s really important. Because not only are women not coming into the tech sector, but they are leaving at a higher rate.

[9/26/10 9:00:49 PM] chris: That’s definately something that I am interested in.  Because I think it’s sad that that’s the case.

[9/26/10 9:00:51 PM] Cate: I was president of the women in science and engineering society last year, and we had a very community building focus. For me, coming from abroad and not knowing many people it was great to meet other women this way.

[9/26/10 9:01:28 PM] Cate: That’s actually how I ended up in Extreme Blue – I helped run an event promoting it on campus and the recruiter convinced me to apply.

[9/26/10 9:01:42 PM] chris: That’s awesome!  Empowering women and networking at the same time!

[9/26/10 9:02:13 PM] Cate: Extreme Blue actually had a lot of girls this year – the people that run the program at IBM really worked hard for that. IBM is an amazing company for diversity, and no longer being a minority really brought it home to me how hard it was to be one.

[9/26/10 9:02:43 PM] Cate: One of my friends in EB – Maggie – and I had tons of great conversations about this (and everything else!) and in the end CompSci Woman was born.

[9/26/10 9:02:56 PM] chris: Awesome!

[9/26/10 9:03:11 PM] Cate: This is our first month, but we have a real variety of people submitting content, and our traffic stats are surpassing even my crazy expectations. It’s great!

[9/26/10 9:03:52 PM] chris: As a strong and professional women in computer science, what kind of challenges have you faced (or anticipate facing) with your work regarding your minority status?

[9/26/10 9:05:46 PM] Cate: It was harder in the UK, I think – the guys in my undergrad often seemed to be pretty sexist. It was mostly that they would assume you were less competent. I was working in the lab helping first years and one guy actually said to me “why would they hire you?”

[9/26/10 9:06:47 PM] Cate: I like Canada because it’s less sexist. Then there are little things – the boys will grab beers and talk about football or F1 or whatever it is they’re interested in.

[9/26/10 9:07:06 PM] Cate: I just don’t know anything about football or F1 – and care less!!

[9/26/10 9:07:24 PM] Cate: [by football, I mean the british use of the word – soccer]

[9/26/10 9:07:38 PM] chris: Yeah.  That’s horrible. I can’t believe someone would say that to you!

[9/26/10 9:07:46 PM] chris: Well, I suppose I can, but still.

[9/26/10 9:07:55 PM] chris: How did you respond?

[9/26/10 9:08:20 PM] Cate: You know, it was just pervasive. We had a project and there were 10 students in each team – AI, business students, and girls were doled out one per team

[9/26/10 9:09:22 PM] Cate: That sent a message that I didn’t think was good – and I said so. the guy running that course was really great though – I just don’t think it had occurred to him that made it look like.

[9/26/10 9:09:57 PM] Cate: I don’t remember what I said to that idiot! I think something about functional programming – which they’d started teaching in first year and not many people were any good at, but I was really interested in.

[9/26/10 9:09:58 PM] chris: Ah, yeah, sounds like he tried.. but missed the mark a bit.

[9/26/10 9:10:35 PM] Cate: I hope it’s changed now. It’s less the people that will come and outright be a jerk, and more the lower expectations, and thoughtless things like that.

[9/26/10 9:10:57 PM] chris: Yeah

[9/26/10 9:11:06 PM] Cate: As an instructor, what I see is girls have less confidence. Guys will hack and eventually make it (kind of) work – girls worry more about breaking things and don’t want to take the leap until they know.

[9/26/10 9:11:39 PM] Cate: I was like that, but what’s always helped me is great mentors! One of my friends was a PhD student and he was awesome, taught me way more than any of the profs!

[9/26/10 9:12:41 PM] chris: That’s great! It’s funny how that works out sometimes.

[9/26/10 9:12:54 PM] Cate: For me, I don’t put myself forward for things – someone noticed what I was doing as an instructor, and that was how I ended up developing them. I was invited to apply to EB because I was running that event! And my friend bugged me for like, 2 years before I eventually let him refer me to Google!

[9/26/10 9:14:04 PM] Cate: It’s been proved that women are much more likely to underestimate themselves – mentoring is such a crucial part of fixing this imbalance.

[9/26/10 9:14:16 PM] chris: Yeah, that makes sense.

[9/26/10 9:14:55 PM] chris: I’m curious to know, what women would you say have inspired you to get to the point where you are now?  For perhaps any young aspiring female technologists that might be reading this.

[9/26/10 9:15:20 PM] chris: Or really, any age.  Inspiration is inspiration 🙂

[9/26/10 9:15:43 PM] Cate: Tammy. Definitely! And Maggie this summer – she is so amazing.

[9/26/10 9:16:05 PM] Cate: But when I was at in my undergrad… there was really no-one.

[9/26/10 9:17:05 PM] Cate: Now there are more people I stalk from afar on Twitter! Hilary Mason (bit.ly), Julia Grace (IBM), danah boyd (MSFT Research) and Marissa Mayer (Google). And I just have a wider network of other women and that’s great.

[9/26/10 9:17:24 PM] chris: Thank you for sharing!

[9/26/10 9:18:02 PM] chris: Hopefully this isn’t putting you on the spot.. However, if you had any quick advice for women embarking on a career in technology, what would you say?

[9/26/10 9:18:45 PM] Cate: Most of the boys that think they’re so great actually aren’t, so stop comparing yourself to their arrogance!

[9/26/10 9:18:53 PM] Cate: And find a mentor!

[9/26/10 9:19:15 PM] chris: Thank you! I’ll make sure to highlight some of that!

[9/26/10 9:19:58 PM] chris: So Cate, I hate to wrap things up here.  Quite honestly, I think we could probably go on for hours! I’ve really, REALLY enjoyed our conversation.  Thank you so much for giving me some of your time.

[9/26/10 9:20:23 PM] Cate: My pleasure! It’s been great talking to you.

[9/26/10 9:20:26 PM] chris: Do you have any thing else you would like to talk about or ask me before we finish our “drinks”?

[9/26/10 9:21:01 PM] Cate: Who’s been your biggest inspiration in your career?

[9/26/10 9:21:21 PM] chris: Wow! What a great question!

[9/26/10 9:25:21 PM] chris: My inspiration has come from really interesting things and at times random events.  What I mean is sometimes seeing a quote, overhearing a conversation, or meeting a new “connection”.  However, if I had to choose.. I would say my collegues, friends, and family.   I have a great group of friends  who have shared their stories and wisdom with me which often gives me the inspiration to wake up early when I’m tired, to stay after 5pm at work, and to follow my goals and ambiitions.  Even today, after I talked to you I feel inspired with one of own personal goals of getting into shape.

[9/26/10 9:25:43 PM] chris: So while I don’t have a small specific group of people, I have a large audience that I often draw inspiration from.

[9/26/10 9:26:30 PM] Cate: Yeah, definitely! Different people inspire me with different things too.

[9/26/10 9:26:45 PM] chris: Exactly. =)

[9/26/10 9:27:15 PM] Cate: And like, reverse inspiration – when someone’s behaviour is bothering me, it’s a reminder of what my values are and to make sure I’m living by them myself.

[9/26/10 9:28:11 PM] chris: Yes! I can’t agree more.  Often when I see people who parrallel my professional work and are doing things I disagree with, I note it and make a mental decision not to participate in that.

[9/26/10 9:28:34 PM] chris: Well, Cate, thanks again for your time.  This has been a very refreshing conversation.  I’d like to end our chat with this question:  If we were in each other’s neck of the woods, would you meet me for a cup of coffee?

[9/26/10 9:29:00 PM] Cate: Always!

[9/26/10 9:29:39 PM] chris: Thanks! I am very flattered!  I look forward to our continual relationship, and please make sure to stay in touch with me!

[9/26/10 9:30:07 PM] Cate: Definitely! Thanks to you too – have a great evening!

[9/26/10 9:30:25 PM] chris: You as well!

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