Stories of Women in STEM | Cynthia Kiser, Caltech

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Lisa Ballam

Marketing Manager 16 Sep 2021 3 min read

For this month’s Women in STEM story we’re taking it stateside to sunny California to meet Cynthia Kiser, Senior Applications Developer at Caltech and member of the core Wagtail team. It was great to chat to Cynthia again and to hear more about her journey so far.

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Cynthia Kiser

Take us back to the early days - what were your interests at school?

Math and science - at least in part because they didn’t require writing essays! I played a little bit with computers but found it took too much effort to make anything useful - too much boiler plate ‘check all your inputs’, etc. I had always been interested in molecular biology so majored in that and worked in a lab for my work/study job in college.

You studied at Cambridge, how did you find living in Blighty!?

I have always been an Anglophile. My high school was part of the English Speaking Union exchange program. So I got to take a gap year between high school and college at Moreton Hall, Shropshire. People were so lovely and welcoming.

I didn’t find Cambridge quite as welcoming but it was the rainiest year in ages - 40+ days straight! So even though my Herchel Smith fellowship was for 2 years, I decided to do my Part II Genetics and then apply to graduate school. I might have saved myself an entire PhD if I had stayed for the then 1 year course in computers that was being offered.

When did you segue into application development?

One day I was browsing in a bookstore and bought a book called “Database Backed Web Sites”. I loved it. The author had founded a company, ArsDigita and I found out they were running a bootcamp. So I flew out to Boston for what was a combination study group / protracted interview. I had less experience than most but I talked myself into a job and then spent the next 6 months trying not to let my boss know how much I didn’t know!

Fortunately the internet was young and most people didn’t know much - so we made it up as we went along. In the dot.com crash I was hired by a previous client, Caltech, and have been there ever since.

I try to help them think through how to do things - but also emphasize that everyone is always learning.

Cynthia Kiser, Caltech

How do you think we can encourage more women to get into web/app development?

Offering more opportunities to get started working on the web, via initiatives such as Rails Bridge and Django Girls. Hack for LA, a civic hacking group here in Los Angeles that I volunteer for, gets a lot of folks fresh out of various boot camps (or self-taught) and I try to help them think through how to do things - but also emphasize that everyone is always learning.

What do you love about your job?

I love being able to help groups at Caltech communicate to internal or external audiences. I get to interact with a good mix of people, find out what they need - and then I get to write code to help make that easier.

“Always be the worst guy in every band you’re in.”

Chad Fowler, The Passionate Programmer

What’s your one piece of advice?

I am going to steal a quote from Chad Fowler’s “The Passionate Programmer”: “Always be the worst guy in every band you’re in.” It isn’t always comfortable, but it’s the best way to learn. I am having to remind myself of this now that I am on the Wagtail core team. My first feature has gone through several revisions - including a couple that turned out to be dead-ends. But the code is now much cleaner than my initial pull request thanks to reviews from the rest of the team.

You can watch our webinar featuring Cynthia, looking at how Caltech has overcome the challenge of Website proliferation.

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Lisa Ballam

Marketing Manager 16 Sep 2021 3 min read

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