Cassidy Williams was the only girl in her AP computer science class at Downers Grove South High School.
Now, she is one of only five women majoring in computer science, along with 57 men, in the 2014 graduating class at Iowa State University.
It's a trend the 21-year-old Downers Grove native hopes to help change for future girls studying computer science.
“If we don't have women in computer science, we're only seeing half the picture,” Cassidy said. “We need to have women in the computing workforce to bring their diverse perspectives to a development team, thus creating the best products.”
These days, Cassidy — who wears a pendant and a “unit circle” watch — finds herself in rarefied air when it comes to up-and-coming talent in the tech industry.
She was the only student to participate in “UnGrounded,” a midair innovation lab involving 100 tech pioneers aboard a private British Airways flight from San Francisco to London in June. Fellow participants included Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, English computer scientist Sue Black and representatives of Zappos, The Webby Awards, CrowdTilt and more.
Cassidy was part of a team that earned a spot in the lab by conceptualizing AdviseHer, a platform designed to encourage women to go into the fields of science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM.
"We wanted it to be a place where middle school girls can talk to high school girls about how they can pursue STEM, for high school girls to talk to college girls about things like 'Should I go to this college?' and college girls to talk to women in the workplace and say, 'Hey, I need a mentor,'” Cassidy said. “It's also for women in the workplace, who tend to drop off when they have kids.”
Cassidy was among those who presented the group's conclusions at the Decide Now Act Summit in London and will do so again tomorrow before the United Nations Broadband Commission in New York City.
Cassidy also serves as a peer role model for middle and high school girls across the country through the National Center for Women & Information Technology.
“We are building a very strong pipeline of girls that are interested in technology to move forward,” she said.
She was a recipient of NCWIT's Illinois Affiliate Award for Aspirations in Computing in 2010, which honors female high school students.
“Cassidy is spectacular. She's a fantastic example of how young women kind of break the mold when it comes to computing,” said Ruthe Farmer, NCWIT director of strategic initiatives. “There's the stereotype of the anti-social, no-style basement dweller. Cassidy is none of those things. She's vibrant, pretty outgoing, very social, and she's also fantastic at programming and technology.”
She also shows that promising talent in technology doesn't come only from prestigious schools like Stanford, Harvard and MIT, Farmer said.
“She's a perfect example of someone who has mastered the concept of being your own chief marketing officer,” Farmer said. “She has a fearlessness that's really serving her very well.”
Cassidy already has racked up plenty of practical work experience. This summer, she had an internship in iOS development with Intuit in the Silicon Valley. In past years, she interned at Microsoft, General Mills, Priority 5 and NCWIT.
Almost everywhere, women were outnumbered by men.
“It's not necessarily a negative (experience), but you have to expect it,” she said.
Out of all undergraduates earning computer science degrees, only 18 percent are women, down from 35 percent in 1985, according to data on the Microsoft website.
There are a few reasons why there are aren't as many women as men in computer science, Cassidy says. For one, they lack peers to support them.
“That's what's great about the NCWIT community. We don't want to make people stay (in computer science). We want them to want to stay.”
And some may feel discouraged if they dive into difficult subjects and don't get stellar grades right away.
“I fall into this, too,” Cassidy said. “If I am getting a B-, I think, 'It's almost a C. I'm not cut out for this.' You have to have someone tell you that you won't get 100 percent of everything.”
Cassidy's younger sister Camryn, 19, also studies computer science at Iowa State, where she's a sophomore. Like her sister, Camryn is a recipient of NCWIT's Illinois Affiliate Award.
“We kind of discovered making websites together, but I was a lot younger and I forgot about it until high school,” Camryn said. “I always liked design. Cassidy told me to combine that with AP computer science, and I continued to do more. Cassidy has been a really good mentor for me.”
Genelle Williams described both her daughters as hardworking.
“I think that they are a really wonderful combination of the right and left brain,” she said. “They're analytic and they're crazy creative. They are able to present difficult ideas well enough to be able to be understood by anybody.”
Cassidy first became interested in programming in the eighth grade.
“I was walking home and I heard someone say, 'Hey, check out my website!' And I was like, 'Hey, you can have one of those?' I got home and I started researching.”
Later, she built what ended up becoming a mini-social network for her friends. As a freshman in high school, she came up with the concept of “Biopedia,” a sort of Wikipedia for biology students comprising of classmates' notes.
One of her hobbies is to take part in hackathons, during which programmers work collaboratively on a project for up to several days at a stretch.
“I do them almost too often, but I've only ever won two (UnGrounded in June and Microsoft's online services division hackathon last summer),” she said.
Cassidy hopes to make a decision next month about where to work after graduation. She already has offers from Intuit, Intel and General Mills, and has interviewed with Microsoft, LinkedIn, Dropbox, AT&T, Facebook, Twilio, and Google Chicago.
Her ideal role would be as a front-end web developer, she said.
“That basically means you're working on everything that is making the pretty side of things,” she said. “Building user interface, how the page will look on browser and mobile, also doing usability testing. A lot of the customer-facing, people-facing that I like to do.”
Long term, Cassidy wants to find a way to integrate all her skills — not just coding, but also organization, communication and public speaking.
Cassidy is an inspiration for lots of young women, said Rane Johnson-Stempson, principal research director at Microsoft.
“There's very few young people today who know exactly their career path and how to go about it,” she said. “Cassidy has a great balance of passion, energy, brilliance, and kind of a magnetic personality. People want to be around her. And she has the niceness of being so caring and thoughtful.”
Cassidy helped Johnson-Stempson organize an international women-only hackathon in seven countries in February and is helping with the next one in April.
“It makes me proud that there's this generation coming that will make a difference,” she said. “I hope she can be an example.”