Knowing what’s right

Johnnalee Kutzke, a master's student in computer science at UIC, in Lincoln Park, Chicago

This is part of Break Through Tech Chicago’s series of HOW columns, which tell how women in technology got where they are today and how we can increase the presence of women in technology tomorrow — in “her own words.”

Written By
Johnnalee Kutzke
  • Her Own Words (HOW) series

by Johnnalee Kutzke

“How did you end up in computer science?”

As a 30-year-old female grad student with a bachelor’s in creative writing, I face this question on a regular basis. It’s a question that frustrates me, so I’ll pose it in the way those who know me in a computer science-related context tend to do:

“Why did it take you so long to get into computer science?”

The truth is, my favorite subject was always math. As a child, you had to tear me away from puzzles and Legos. As a teen, chess and sudoku. During my stint as an art major, I would do my college algebra homework to relax (this is not a joke — that is a true, admittedly nerdy sentence). But as I struggled to settle on a career path, the only advice I got was “Follow your passion!” along with suggestions of creative fields I could get into. Over my agonizing, decade-long search, I tried my hand at theater, graphic design, creative writing … you name it. But instead of inspired and fulfilled, I was bored and discouraged.

I can’t help wondering: if I were a little boy doing multiplication problems in the sand at the beach (yes, I did this as a kid!), would things have been different? Would my teachers, counselors, and family have recommended that I go into a STEM field? This is not to say that artistic careers aren’t equally valuable, but I question why, when so many signs were pointing in one direction, did everyone push me so resolutely in the other?

Although I’m grateful for the guidance that I received, I wish that my love for problem-solving hadn’t been misdirected for so long. Turning your life upside-down to start a new career from scratch is much harder at 27 than at 18, and detailing the hoops I had to jump through to get where I am today could be a whole separate article. Anyway, to answer the original question, here is the less-than-thrilling tale of how I finally ended up in computer science:

One day, I was sitting at my dead-end desk job, daydreaming about what I’d rather be doing. I don’t think that part of the story is unfamiliar to many of us. This led me to google “careers for mathematics majors,” and I noticed that most were computer science-related. With some fancy footwork, I was lucky enough to be able to drop everything to go back to school for a computer science degree. Three years, multiple graduate assistantships, and a slew of computer science courses later, and I haven’t looked back.

I’ve learned a lot in this 10-year “journey to STEM,” but there’s one particular bit of advice I’d like to give. This is not just for women, but for anyone who is feeling misdirected and unfulfilled: what is right for you and what is expected of you are rarely the same thing. Instead of trying to find your passion or to fit someone’s narrative of what that means, know yourself, and follow what feels right.