When it came to high school senior superlatives, Kelsey Hrubes was not in the running for "most likely to succeed." She wasn't a terrible student, but for the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, native, school was relatively easy, which made it easy to slack off.
She knew she wanted to go to college at Iowa State University, but her career interests were not clear. While her friends jumped into marketing and business majors, Hrubes enrolled as a computer science student on a whim, assuming she would switch to something else later. In Hrubes' mind, she would coast through college, make some new friends, earn good-enough grades, and secure a decent job after graduating.
But her outlook quickly changed.
Now a junior in computer science, Hrubes has completed internships at Google, Workiva, and Rockwell Collins. She founded and led a hackathon in Silicon Valley with 250 participants, then founded a Girls Code Camp in Iowa. This spring, she was one of 20 women selected for Square's College Code Camp in San Francisco. And this summer, she'll add an internship at Microsoft to her resume.
"During my freshman year, I wasn't trying to get an internship," she said. "I wasn't focused on becoming a 'young professional.' I just wanted to do what I liked doing and do it the best I could."
Hrubes discovered computer science was not just basic IT work, as she thought it would be. Actually, it was a lot more math-based programming. The major married her love of design and technology, and would lead to opportunities she had not even dreamed about — starting as early as her first semester of college.
“Many students who sign up for a computer science major have done a lot of video gaming or tinkering with computers and other gadgets and are exposed to programming that way,” Steve Kautz, a senior lecturer in computer science, said. “Kelsey decided to try a computer science major without any of that. I think she found herself in an entry level computer science course with 400 other students, mostly male, many of whom were coming into the course with previous programming experience, and a few of whom expressed skepticism to her for attempting the course without any previous background, and being female. Her reaction was, ‘I'll show you.’"
In October 2013, one of her professors suggested she attend the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) of Women in Computing Conference in Minneapolis, where more than 4,700 women from 53 countries talked tech at the multi-day event. With help from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Undergraduate Conference Fund, Hrubes was able to attend the conference at no cost to her, but the payoff was huge.
"Google was a sponsor at the conference and had a booth set up," Hrubes said. "I didn't have a story or a background in computer science or coding, but I went up and introduced myself anyway. I guess I made an impression, because they flew me to their New York City headquarters that March."
After a lengthy interview process that included building an app to present to Google executives, phone interviews, and solving coding problems on the spot, she earned an internship during the summer of 2015. During those months preparing for her Google gig, Hrubes was busy gaining more experiences. She spent the summer of 2014 as a software engineering intern at Workiva in Ames, Iowa, then interned at Rockwell Collins in Germany while also studying abroad in the fall of 2014.
“I was floored to hear that she was organizing a hackathon for the Bay Area interns,” Kautz said. “It's like she just picked up the phone and suddenly had a venue, sponsorship, and publicity. There were 300 people there when it happened.”
"Before I even realized what was happening, I had all of this professional experience," she said. "It's cliché to say, but I felt like I had transformed into a new person. All of a sudden I had built this great foundation for myself and realized it was time for me to start using my leverage to help more women get into the industry."
"It's cliché to say, but I felt like I had transformed into a new person. All of a sudden I had built this great foundation for myself and realized it was time for me to start using my leverage to help more women get into the industry."
Inspired to inspire
Nearly half of College of Liberal Arts and Sciences students are female, but only a handful major in technology. Hrubes wants to change that. Even at tech giants like Google, women are underrepresented (in a 2014 Google report, men claimed 83 percent of its technology jobs).
"The women I've met during my internships are super smart and their personalities are big and confident," she said. "There is a definite gender discrepancy in technology fields, but it's one I think we can change."
While at Google, Hrubes was inspired by - and envious of - the "girls code camps" other interns had attended while they were in high school. She had never heard of one in Iowa, and she knew it would be the perfect opportunity to give young women a chance to give coding a try.
"I wondered how many girls out there would pursue a career in technology if they weren't intimidated by the current gender inequality in the field," she said.
Kautz is not surprised so few women pursue careers in computer science. “There is absolutely nothing in popular culture that provides an accurate view of what computer scientists and software engineers do,” he said. “The associations in people's minds are portrayals on movies and TV of the lone guy with no social skills, hammering away at a keyboard to hack into computer systems for good or evil. What girl wants to be that?”
After her summer internship at Google, Hrubes spent her fall semester creating and organizing a Girls Code Camp in her hometown of Cedar Rapids. She covered everything from planning the schedule to recruiting staff to fundraising to - of course - creating a website. Sixty girls from eastern Iowa high schools registered for the Saturday event, which was held in February this year.
"The message for attendees was that being a girl in a technology field is 'normal and cool,'" she said. "People in these fields are well-rounded and smart, just like the girls who attended the camp that day."
Looking back, and looking ahead
Hrubes admits it has been a wild ride since she stepped foot on the ISU campus. "My journey started out pretty low key," she said. "What makes the computer science department at ISU so unique from other colleges and universities with strong programs is the support students have from professors and advisors, and the support students give to each other."
While collaborating on a project with other universities, one student from an Ivy League school described their program to Hrubes as being like "crabs in a bucket." Everyone is trying to get ahead (or, out of the bucket), but they pull each other down in the process. Hrubes said ISU provides an environment where people are building each other up.
"If my professor hadn't seen potential in me during my freshman year and encouraged me to go to that conference, I'd probably be a different person today," she said. "I would have loved to be able to go to a code camp in high school, and I want to help provide opportunities to younger students so they can get a head start on their careers."
Before she graduates in December 2017, Hrubes said she wants to expand her Girls Code Camp to more high schools across Iowa. She envisions a supportive environment with friendly competition between high school girls' code clubs across the state, which could lead them to big code camps hosted by ISU.
“It's crucial for someone like Kelsey to be out there and show that you can be smart and enjoy doing challenging, technical work, and still have a normal social life,” Kautz said. “And her own experience in college proves that you don't have to start programming back in the womb in order to be successful.”
"The opportunities I've had at Iowa State changed my life," Hrubes said. "Now I know I can achieve the things I want to achieve, and I would love for every girl in the state to have that same opportunity."
This fall, Kelsey is working with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and WiSE, Iowa State’s Program for Women in Science and Engineering, to organize a Girls Code Camp at ISU. The program would pair a student with a team to create an app or a website during the fall semester. Then, teams will present their work at ISU in the spring. If you are interested in becoming a sponsor of the Girls Code Camp, contact Lora Leigh Chrystal (email@example.com), director of the WiSE program.