Introducing – Vivian Chandra

Tell us about yourself, and your journey into tech/STEM.

My initial degree was in physics, but I never ended up doing anything in physics. I got a job as a computer technician at a high school, which was actually my old high school, because I bumped into my old teacher at the supermarket. 

I am an Education Professional Development Lead at OMGTech, run by the Pam Fergusson Charitable Trust.

Why did you choose to go into tech/STEM?

I’ve always been interested in tech, and I got my first computer in Year 12. My parents would argue about whether it was appropriate, or if it was just a toy. My most recent job is teaching digital technologies to school teachers, and I hear that the concerns from parents are still the same, which is a little bit of a shame. So I guess I’ve always been super interested in tech, and getting my first computer really allowed me to learn more about it. That was my first proper desktop computer, and before then my mum bought me a toy computer when I was little. It was called the VTech PreComputer 1000 – I’m sure we just got it from Farmers or The Warehouse or something, and it teaches you type and had words games. The screen was like a calculator screen – that’s how old it was – and you could type one line of text. But the cool thing was it also taught you how to program and code, which you don’t really see anymore. So that’s how I learnt to code. 

In either Year 12 or 13 my maths teacher was also enthusiastic about tech, but there wasn’t that much support from the school at the time. There were computer labs, but they were for the students doing typing classes. So my maths teacher had built computers in one of the basement rooms that weren’t being used, and he took what you’d call a ‘coding club’ now I suppose, and so a few of us did that because we were interested. Then he found this competition at Unitec so my friend and I went along, and I just remember being really shocked because we were the only pair of girls

We didn’t get anywhere because we didn’t have the experience that some of the other guys had, I’d only just got my computer and the others had had theirs for a few years or so. It was a big wake-up call for me, and I guess I could’ve been all “this is not for me” which would’ve been a completely valid response – but I’m very stroppy, so I was like “nah, I need to do better.” So fast forward a few months later when we had to choose our subjects, I tried out for computer science, and it was the first time the University of Auckland was offering a degree in computer electronics or something like that. It was a cross faculty degree, so you had to do really well in your first year in order to get into second year. I unfortunately didn’t do well enough in one of my papers which meant I couldn’t go ahead with it, so that’s how I ended up with a physics degree. I did end up going back, and now I’ve got two postgraduate degrees and a Master’s degree in sociology and arts, so you gotta find what you like I guess!

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in tech?

I guess all the common gender stuff you find, although I didn’t experience it that much myself, because I sort of fell into my last couple of jobs. It was amazing being able to mentor young girls when teaching at my old high school, and they got to see that a computer technician could be a woman. I actually went to a SheSharp event a few years ago and one of the attendees said they remembered me from high school, which was really cool, because I ended up running coding clubs. I didn’t have many career holdbacks in that respect, and similarly my second major job was with Amnesty International, and again, I had friends that I knew both casually and professionally, so I used networking skills to get that far. From there, I built quite an interesting program at Amnesty International in terms of tech and social that we use, and so it ended up being a really cool thing to do for ten years. So those were not so much challenges that held me back, but I noticed interesting things. My role at Amnesty International was pretty much the head of tech, and I was in charge of both operational and strategic use of tech. It was a massive role, and I was talking to providers and stuff, they weren’t overly nice; it sometimes only occurred to me afterwards that they were being weird because of my gender, over explaining things and dumbing stuff down when I clearly understood everything because of my position.

Tell us about a highlight from your career and why it is significant to you.

There’s a few, but one of the big ones was when I was at Amnesty International, we were one of the first sections in the world to do automated email petitions, which sounds really weird now because everyone’s doing it. In 2011, there was a guy called Troy Davis who was on death row, and had been on death row since 1989 in Georgia. He was accused of murder, and in 2011 when he was up for the death penalty, people around the world were campaigning on his behalf. It was a bit dodgy back then and there was a reasonable chance it wasn’t him. At Amnesty International, our policy was always and still is, that the death penalty is against human rights, and it shouldn’t be relevant regardless of whether someone is guilty or not. In this case it was worse, because there were still questions lingering around whether he was actually guilty or not.  As one of the first organisations to have automated emails, we had set ours up earlier than everyone else, and one of the advantages of living in Aotearoa is our time difference, and so when we’re up and about, there’s several hours before anyone else is awake. Because of that, we managed to crash Georgia’s Corrections Department’s service. Basically, it was a denial service attack, like what hackers do today. We were ridiculously proud of it, because we were a little team of two people in Aotearoa and we managed to pull off something like that. We got media interest from all the wrong places, because it was the tech media that was interested, not the human rights and the news media. But it was really amazing to see that Aotearoa “can do” attitude. Unfortunately, the story has a sad ending and regardless of what we did and the worldwide attention on the case, Troy was still executed in 2011, the week we did all that work. It’s one of my most bittersweet career moments – we did all the right things, but it still didn’t work.

What are you working on now?

My job now is with the Pam Fergusson Charitable Trust, and I’m their Head of Professional Development, so the head of their education team. My team go out to kura and schools nationwide and we teach the teachers digital technologies. So in 2018, there was a new curriculum being put forward by the government and by 2020 it was meant to be in place. So we’re supporting schools that are either putting it in place or already have it in place to come up with new ways to do things. I find it really fun, and it’s cool when I get to show people who think their jobs don’t involve tech at all. Our amazing Kaiako, our teachers nationwide, are really good at their jobs, and have been doing their jobs the same way for many years. So when we introduce technology, that’s what we call digital fluency – that idea that you know how to use tech to do things. Last year with COVID-19, it means even more that we’re doing this today. In March last year, with the first lockdown, a lot of schools just weren’t ready. And the really sad thing, which is why I work with the Pam Fergusson Charitable Trust instead of with a company or corporate, is because we seek to democratise tech, so a lot of the schools that were ready couldn’t go ahead, because the teachers that were ready had students that didn’t have access to anything at home. For us, it’s part of this ‘we think technology is amazing’ and the reason I’m still involved in things like SheSharp is because democratising tech and the idea of who is allowed to do tech is really important for me. I recently heard on the Guilty Feminist podcast, the best quote about this. “We see so much stuff from white middle aged straight men, and if you think about it, they’re actually a minority in the world, so it’s really great that we’re showing minorities on our screens and represented on our boards, but if only they would give other minorities a chance, that’d be great.” The thing is, everyone is unique in different ways and most people are minorities, and there are only so many ways you can group things, but we need to ensure that we reach equity and not just look at a box-ticking exercise of ‘equality’. If there have been multiple generations of a marginalised community not represented, then trying to reach equal numbers today is not redressing that inequity. As a society, we need to understand the difference between everything being the same and people having equity and justice. 

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