- Gabriela de Queiroz, senior engineering and data science manager at IBM, leads a team of data scientists and software engineers to contribute to open source artificial intelligence projects.
- Outside of her day job, she is the co-founder of R-Ladies, a worldwide group that teaches women how to program in R – a programming language usually used in data science and statistics.
- de Queiroz says that even though she learned to code much later in life and faced language barriers, she says it’s never too late to get started.
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Gabriela de Queiroz, senior engineering and data science manager at IBM, never even began to learn about AI programming until she moved from Brazil to the United States.
Nowadays, she’s leading a team of data scientists and software engineers at IBM who create and contribute to open source AI projects like TensorFlow, the popular AI framework created by Google.
And that’s just her day job. In her free time, she’s the founder and organiser of a global meetup called R-Ladies – a group for women to learn the programming language R, commonly used in statistics. While she’s recently come into the AI field, she’s been a data scientist and statistician at heart for much longer than that.
“I’m an R person,” de Queiroz told Business Insider. “I’ve been using R for 12 years now. R is a big part of who I am. I’m very involved in the R community. R is the thing I’m most passionate about.”
de Queiroz now makes it her mission to make AI in general, and R programming in particular, more accessible to larger groups. At IBM, her team is focused on making AI better and more useful for any developer, even if they don’t have a background specifically in the field. With R-Ladies, she works to make women feel welcome in the tech industry and get them comfortable learning new skills.
“It’s important to have a community and a safe place where you can be yourself and ask questions without judgment,” de Queiroz said.
A non-traditional path
de Queiroz says she had a non-traditional path to tech. Back in Brazil, she studied epidemiology and conducted research on how air pollution affects people’s health. She then spent some time working as a music producer.
In 2012, though, de Queiroz moved to San Francisco, where she obtained a masters degree in statistics. After that, she worked at startups doing data science, until she joined IBM last year, where her love for data lent itself well to her newfound interest in AI.
With Portugeuse as her first language, de Queiroz recalls that it took her a while to get up to speed in programming due to language barriers. When she was studying programming in school, she had to record her classes, listening to them over and over again to understand what her teacher was saying.
Most of the world’s programming languages are in English, which can make it more difficult for people who are not native English speakers.
“When you want to learn how to program, you need to learn how to program, and you need to learn English,” de Queiroz said. “I would write something, and I would not get what was going on.”
‘Like going to Disneyland’
de Queiroz first learned R when she was still doing air pollution analysis in Brazil, and continued to study the field when she moved to San Francisco. Soon after she moved, she discovered the meetup scene and started going to meetups everyday.
“When I moved here in 2012, it was kind of like going to Disneyland,” de Queiroz said. “When you’re a kid, you go to Disneyland and think, wow, there’s so much I can learn here and go and do. I felt wow, there’s this meetup thing and you can go to a meetup and you can learn for free and get food for free. That’s perfect. It’s free knowledge and free food.”
Soon, she decided to start a meetup of her own to teach R to others. However, she noticed pretty quickly that these spaces were dominated by men. She says she would usually stay in a corner and not feel safe about asking questions. It was a similar situation in Brazil, de Queiroz recalls, but no less frustrating.
“It’s a very male-dominant culture so we don’t have much voice. You can say something, but they will not listen to whatever you have to say or you have to be careful about the things you talk about or the way you say things,” de Queiroz said.
So, she decided to create a meetup focused on women, and she launched the first R-Ladies meetup in October 2012.
It wasn’t a complete hit at first. At the first meetup, there were only eight people. de Queiroz says she felt disappointed, until someone told her that there likely weren’t that many people at the meetup that day because it was Halloween.
“Regardless, I got very good feedback, and I decided to keep learning and going,” de Queiroz said.
‘Hey, there’s no competition here’
Since then, R-Ladies has grown to become a worldwide organisation with more than 100 chapters in 40 countries. As for de Queiroz, she became the first Latino invited to join the R Foundation, where she serves today. And nowadays, IBM, her employer, sponsors R-Ladies, making it more than just her side project.
She recalls that at an R-Ladies event in Indonesia, the women were sitting at the front learning, while their husbands were in the back taking care of their children.
“I thought that was so fantastic because in some cultures, the women have to stay with the child and they cannot learn, but they have their husbands there being so supportive and taking care of the children in the corner while their wives were learning,” de Queiroz said. “That picture amazed me. I was like, wow, that’s so amazing to see this kind of thing in this community.”
For people who have never learned to program, de Queiroz says it’s never too late.
“When you talk to people in tech, they say, ‘I’ve been programming since I was 9. I made my first robot when I was 7,'” de Queiroz said. “I learned not to compare myself with others. I’ve been programming for maybe 10 years, and they have been programming for 20 to 30 years…I’ve allowed myself to say hey, there’s no competition here. I bring a lot of things to the table.”