“Let’s put it this way. I don’t judge a male engineer based on whether he wears a suit or jeans. That’s just silly. So why should girls have to ‘blend in’ with the guys in these tech jobs? I want to show people, yes, okay, I’m a girl. I wear makeup and I like shoes and bags and nice clothes, but I’m also a computer scientist and I have a brain.”
Anna-Chiara Bellini talks with me via Skype. It’s about 10:00 pm in London, where she’ll spend a couple more weeks before she hops over to Brazil for an extended stay. Her job at Toptal, an entirely distributed tech company, allows her to work from anywhere in the world, provided she has a reliable internet connection at all times.
As a female software engineer, Anna-Chiara says she’s constantly aware of the critical lack of women in her industry. In fact, you could call her an expert on the subject—she was a featured speaker at this year’s GirlDevWeek in San Francisco. But through her work and her passion for helping people improve their lives, she hopes to serve as an example for girls not to fear engineering jobs.
“I actually started programming when I was eight years old. Honestly, looking back, I don’t want to brag, but it was a little impressive—I was an eight year old girl, in Italy! That was unheard of back then. And not exactly common today.”
So begins the story of Anna-Chiara’s lifelong love affair with computers. As a female programmer with limited access to the Promised Land that is Silicon Valley, her journey has been circuitous at best. But now, as a Director of Engineering at Toptal, she says she is able to look back and relish each moment that led her to where she is now.
“If you had told me ten years ago that I’d have the job at Toptal and the life I do now, I would have said you were crazy. But here I am. I’ve been very lucky.”
Part of this luck, she says, comes from being raised in a household that fostered a love for math and science.
“My mom was a math teacher and my dad knew some programming, so I learned to love mathematics and other sciences early on. They bought a Commodore 64 computer—for my brother, actually—when I was very young, so computers have been in my life for as long as I can remember.”
What began as a household hobby developed into a more concrete passion thanks to computer programming courses offered in high school, and while as a teenager Anna-Chiara always preferred hard mathematics, she quickly realized it was through programming and development that her career could really go places.
“In college, I realized that studying math couldn’t take me anywhere unless I wanted to be in academia, which I didn’t, so I studied computer engineering.”
Compared to Silicon Valley, the career path for a computer engineer is much less clear-cut in Europe. Anna-Chiara has experienced this phenomenon firsthand, ever since she started taking tech consulting jobs while working on her college degree.
“My university experience is a little bit unconventional, because I started working in tech jobs while studying. That drew out the process, but I worked lots of jobs, big ones, small ones, I’ve seen a little bit of everything. It had its ups and downs.”
Upon finishing her degree, Anna-Chiara came to a crossroads, one that she knew would have a profound impact not only on her career but on her personal life as well.
“I could have gone to the States, but that would have meant quitting everything, home, my family, et cetera. It was tough. I did interviews with big tech companies, but I just wasn’t sure I wanted to leave my life behind and take everything to America. In the meantime, I thought to myself, ‘Okay, I’ll go back and get my Ph.D.’ I’d always wanted to do that, and this was a good time.”
So she turned her back on Silicon Valley and set out to get her Ph.D. and find more work as a tech consultant. She knew she would have to be flexible in her work demands, but there was one stipulation she had in her job hunt.
“I really hate the corporate culture. I never liked having to punch the clock, didn’t like being told when I had to take my holidays and for how long. I am not a company girl.”
It was this outlook that led Anna-Chiara to pursue a freelance career. She enjoyed the flexibility of the work, but the inconsistency of the freelance services she used meant unsteady income, which put her Ph.D. work at risk. Luckily for her, it was in the midst of this struggle that Toptal entered her life, by sheer happenstance.
“I had seen on Business Insider where this company called Toptal had been banned from advertising on LinkedIn for posting ads that LinkedIn called ‘sexist’ because Toptal had a pretty girl in a picture for an advertisement about hiring freelance engineers. Toptal’s CEO [Taso Du Val] had written a blog post on their website defending the ads, saying they were not sexist, and that in fact LinkedIn was being sexist by assuming that a pretty girl can’t be a software engineer. And I thought to myself, this is me. An engineer, a woman, I want to do this! So I applied to Toptal, and a few weeks later they asked me to join their core team. I never finished my Ph.D., but since I joined Toptal, I’ve never felt the need to.”
That Anna-Chiara felt a kinship with Toptal’s outlook on female engineers seemed serendipitous in the moment, but looking back, she believes it was fate that brought her to a company that felt as strongly about this workplace crisis as she does.
“Toptal is still mostly men, but I know that the company is thinking properly. I’ve never experienced sexism in the workplace. Within my team, there’s been nothing but respect and consideration from day one. It’s very comforting knowing we’re all on the same page. We care for each other, and we do good work. Gender just doesn’t enter into the equation.”
For Anna-Chiara, the crisis of sexism in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) industries and the dearth of female engineers across the globe is a long way from being solved, but she is encouraged by the progress she sees.
“There’s a famous study concerning girls in industries involving math and sciences. Basically, a group of women were all given the same programming test. Half were told to write their own names on the test, and the other half were told to write men’s names on the tests. Generally speaking, girls performed better if they used a fake name than if they took the test in their own names. It’s like they were disconnecting themselves from the implicit expectation that girls don’t do well in those fields. So there’s clearly an implicit bias against girls, but there is also self-bias among girls, and that is obviously very harmful. But there is progress. The first female winner of the Fields Medal was recently announced, and there are other encouraging examples.”
Anna-Chiara is quick to point out that she is lucky regarding how little sexism she personally has experienced in her working career, but she is also incredibly passionate about serving as an example that women have no reason to fear the STEM industries. And she’s done a pretty good job so far. Just to list a few accomplishments from her many years of experience in a great variety of tech companies, she has worked on and developed numerous innovative programs (a swarm intelligence-based algorithm to optimize road traffic flow, a 3D drone flight simulator and an algorithm to plan and control the flight of a drone, to name a few), spoken about issues facing female engineers at tech conferences in Silicon Valley (including as a featured speaker at DeveloperWeek 2014), and continues to regularly turn down job offers from the giants of the tech world.
“I want to show girls that they don’t have to be afraid! I’m an example of a kid who had a shitty teenage experience. I was bullied. I was made fun of for being not cool. But I’m now a rockstar! I travel the world and am a Director of Engineering at Toptal, a great tech company. A lot of kids, especially girls, struggle with thinking, ‘I’m not cool enough, I’m not pretty enough, I’m not funny enough,’ but you can grow! I love being an example of that for girls.”
Anna-Chiara’s role at Toptal—according to her own playful business card, it’s “Everything Is Awesome Engineer”—allows her every opportunity to help others improve themselves and their conditions. Working on the company’s core team, she hand-picks members of Toptal’s network of engineers to take on software development projects with Toptal’s clients.
“Every day I realize how much I love my job, how proud I am. People say, ‘Why aren’t you working in hard tech anymore? You’ll get left behind.’ Well, this job is better. I am leveraging my very diverse background so I can speak on equal terms with many different kinds of people—CEOs of large companies, very young entrepreneurs and developers, et cetera—and understand their requirements on so many levels, be it architecture, image recognition, hardware integration, standard web development, whatever. It’s a very technical job that requires very strong skills to do it right. And while I’m doing all that, I am getting more skilled at things I wouldn’t be learning if I were just developing, soft skills and people skills which make me a much better engineer every day. This is the best job I’ve ever had. I feel good doing this job. In Europe, there is a startup scene growing, but it’s still no Silicon Valley. And all the way over here, trying to get access to the States is like looking at the Earth from space—you only see the giants, the Facebooks and Googles. You don’t have access to that very fertile startup culture. Toptal gives amazingly smart developers from all over the world access to those luxuries.”
Anna-Chiara got to see the quantifiable social good this newfound access was creating for Toptal employees while traveling in the Balkans with coworkers.
“I went to Sarajevo. I have colleagues in that area of course, but being there in person, it was crazy. There are cars there that are at least 30 years old, cars you aren’t even allowed to drive in the rest of Europe anymore. The buildings that were bombed out from years of war, the shells of those buildings are still sitting there. The cost of living there, though, is such that most people, even smart, successful people, can’t afford the things we take for granted. A smart, educated person in Sarajevo would have to use two months’ pay to buy an iPhone. That’s crazy. And it made me realize that Toptal is really changing these developers’ lives. Because they get paid what they deserve. They’re incredibly smart, well-educated, speaking perfect English, and now they have the life they deserve.”
Anna-Chiara says she loves seeing her passion for promoting social and economic growth played out every day in her job, and she considers it a gift to be able to travel the world and meet up with her coworkers, who share similar goals and outlooks on life.
“I’ll always remember when I first started screening new applicants to Toptal, I suddenly realized, wow, I really feel like I’m part of a team! It was a weird feeling at first. But I really, really care about these people, about the company. It’s weird, because, yes, we don’t have an office, and most of the people I care about, I’ve never seen in real person in my life. But it’s still an incredibly close bunch. You have friends all over the world, it’s amazing.”
Of course, every new phase of life comes with its growing pains and adjustments, but Anna-Chiara says it’s all a part of the experience she loves and craves.
“Yes, it’s a different life. I’m still figuring it out a little bit. It’s a lot of new good things, but at the same time, you need to figure out a few things that aren’t evident. When I’m home for six weeks, I start itching, like, can I go? And that feels a little weird. The balance, though, is totally positive. I have best friends all over the world, doing real good for people in their communities. And I’m even a people person now! I never thought that was going to happen. But here I am.”