Career Planning

Kaya Thomas: Senior Software Engineer, Founder of We Read Too

A software engineer working for a meditation and sleep app company, this innovative female doesn't just use her STEM talents for work. Hear how she's making a novel impact on the reading world.

Shawna Newman

March 22, 2021

Kaya Thomas: Senior Software Engineer, Founder of We Read Too
Writing code requires time, thoughtfulness and creative problem solving.
There are success stories, and then there are the amazing success stories that speak to your soul. Currently a senior software engineer at Calm—a top-rate app for meditation and sleep—Kaya Thomas is the strong female protagonist in the Woman in STEM adventure we’re about to tell. She’s proof that a do-better spirit can serve as a positive influence for others. Before we reveal her accomplishments as a female software engineer, you need to witness how success can be and IS much more than achieving a job title. Ultimate success is using your knowledge and skills to make the world a better place. An avid reader, Thomas reflected on her teen years and recalled the lack of influence from authors of color. She felt like as a teen of color, she had missed out on the beauty of diversity in storytelling (In fact, young ladies, of all races were missing out). Thomas added, “Many of the books I was being exposed to at school, in my library and that were front and center in the bookstores rarely every had characters of color.” Pre-teen and teenager years are important—a time when self-identity and confidence are pivotal.
Here’s where Thomas unselfishly took her software engineering talents to the next level—to a place that serves others and demonstrates how being the best version of yourself can light the way for others, too. She did something about it. It was her chance to make it easier for parents, guardians, educators, librarians and teens to find books by authors of color, that also featured main characters of color too. Thomas, the founder of the We Read Too app, turned this sad realization into an opportunity to better serve young readers in the United States. Thomas said, “Once I learned how to program, I figured I could make a resource to make books by authors of color with main characters of color, easier to find.” Today, students of all ages have access to meaningful and diverse book titles via a phone app. Thomas is a strong, leading-female character herself. A Dartmouth College graduate, she holds her Bachelor of Arts degree in Computer Science. She’s an exceptional female in the engineering field—a protagonist drafting her own story, and we had the chance to get to know her. We’re honored to share her Woman in STEM story!
  1. What does a software engineer do, and what’s a typical day like for you?
  2. A software engineer writes code to make features for users to interact with in an app or website. Typically, I start the day with a short meeting with my team which consists of mobile engineers, backend engineers, quality assurance engineers, a product manager and an engineering manager. We go over what we completed the previous day, what we plan to work on today and if there’s anything that we are blocked from working on which we need input or help from another team member. During the day I’ll spend a portion of it coding working on new feature or bug fixes for existing features. Another portion of my day would be in team meetings to plan, scope and discuss upcoming work we want to accomplish.
  3. When did your interest in STEM begin?
  4. My interest in STEM began in middle school, when I realized I enjoyed and was really good at science and math. In the 7th grade, I took a career aptitude test, and it said I would make a good engineer.
  5. Growing up, who was your most influential STEM role model?
  6. I didn’t have STEM role models until I was in college. Before then, I wasn’t really aware of what kind of careers were possible within STEM, and I didn’t know anyone personally who worked in a STEM field. I learned about software engineering and the tech industry from Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code. She’s been one of my most influential role models since then, and I’m lucky to have her as a mentor. She studied electrical engineering and worked as an engineer for several years, and when her daughter showed an interest in gaming, it led her to found, Black Girls Code. This program exposes young girls of color to STEM topics and careers early.
  7. What’s a misconception about software engineers?
  8. I think a big misconception is that software engineers are anti-social. In my opinion, in order to be a great engineer you have to have good communication and writing skills as well. A lot of the job is collaborating with other engineers and folks in other disciplines throughout the company. You need to be able to explain technical topics for everyone to understand and write documentation around your technical decisions.
  9. How much creativity goes into software engineering and how do you fuel new ideas?
  10. I think software engineering is highly creative. Writing code requires time, thoughtfulness and creative problem solving. New ideas for me are fueled by how I can make a system more efficient, reusable and easy to understand.
  11. Are there any other scholarships you earned or applied for throughout your undergraduate journey? How did these help you?
  12. I was grateful to receive most of my funding from Federal student aid, or direct financial aid and scholarships from my college. I was granted some small, local scholarships when I graduated high school as well. The culmination of all the aid were great in helping me reduce the amount of student loans I graduated with.
  13. Why should students be looking and applying for scholarships throughout high school and college?
  14. Being able to easily find scholarships to apply to as a student is incredibly important. Student loans can be incredibly burdensome—sourcing scholarships that are specific to your experience, location and interests is really helpful.
  15. Besides being a leading female software engineer, what’s something people should know about you?
  16. I love to teach! I first became a tutor in high school and realized I really loved making seemingly difficult topics easier to understand for anyone. I continued tutoring in college and after graduating college, too. Later, I started doing technical public speaking because it gave me some of that same feeling of being able to tutor and talk to folks, but on a larger scale.
  17. Did you have any internships as college student?
  18. I completed three internships as a college student—one every summer and I learned a lot from each experience. All of my internships were at larger companies, but each company was vastly difference. I interned at a media company, Time Inc; a financial software company, Intuit; and then Apple. I learned the product development and lifecycle as well as how product teams collaborate with engineers, designers, product managers, QA, etc.
  19. What do you wish you would have done more of/asked as an intern?
  20. I wished I asked even more questions as an intern! Sometimes I’d be hesitant to ask too many questions, because I didn’t want to bother folks or seem too lacking in knowledge—but the whole purpose of an internship is to learn.
  21. What would you tell your high-school self as you were preparing to go to college?
  22. No matter which school you attend, you can create a path for success for yourself. Don’t hinge your identity or self-worth based on which college you get accepted, or not accepted to.
  23. What’s a tip you’d give to young women looking for inspiration or courage?
  24. Don’t let anyone discourage or doubt you. You are capable of achieving your goals and anyone who keeps you from doing so, probably doesn't deserve to be in your life!
  25. What’s your favorite part about software engineering? What do you love the most about your job? What’s your least favorite part?
  26. I love the ability to create interactive features and build architecture systems that make creating features easier. My favorite part about my job is that I get to make things that real people use. My least favorite part about software engineering is probably debugging.
  27. Please tell me one thing you’ve learned from your volunteer experiences?
  28. Sharing knowledge with others is incredibly powerful. It can lead to an impact exponentially greater than if you just kept the knowledge to/for yourself.
  29. Why does the world need more women software engineers?
  30. Technology and software engineering is shaping the future more and more every day. Women should be a part of shaping that future too. If we want a future where everyone is included, represented and able to benefit from the positive effects of technology, we need women building that too.
  31. Looking back, what would you tell the college-student Kaya?
  32. I would tell my high-school and college self to be more present. I’ve always been a very future focused person, so even when I started college, I was thinking four years out. I would tell her to enjoy the moment and not over-worry about the future because she will be fine.
  33. Are there any STEM causes/organizations you’re passionate about?
  34. For young girls, Black Girls Code is an organization I’m deeply passionate about. For adult women and non-binary folks, Girl Develop It (GDI) is an organization I’m passionate about. GDI is teaching adult women (All around the world now because: virtual courses!) technology skills they can use to change careers or enhance their current careers. For National Women’s History Month, all GDI courses are free in March!
  35. What’s your favorite thing to in your free time?
  36. This past year I’ve gotten really into cycling! I love indoor cycling and outdoor road biking.
  37. Just for fun, you only get to have one type of cuisine from this day forward, what do you choose?
  38. I’d choose Jamaican food!
  39. What quote do you live by?
  40. Lately the quote I’ve been trying to live by is from Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. 
  41. When do you get your best ideas?
  42. I’m a night owl; I usually get great ideas late at night or sometimes right before falling asleep (which doesn’t help me get to sleep!).

Kaya Thomas is My Woman in STEM Inspiration!

College-bound high school students or current college students, if Kaya’s Women STEM story spoke to you, be sure to check out the resources below: SCHOLARSHIPS Scholarships for Computer Engineering Majors College Scholarships for Women College Scholarships for Women in STEM Majors College Scholarships for African American Students Minority Scholarships to Help You Pay for College INTERNSHIPS Apple, Inc. Software Engineering Intern- Core OS Apple, Inc. Software Engineering Intern- Web Dev Google, Software Engineering Internship Reddit, Software Engineering Intern Pinterest, Software Engineering Intern Get your own customized list of scholarship suggestions and notifications. Sign up and create your own FREE Fastweb account to simplify your scholarship search! Stay up to date with We Read Too by downloading the app in the App Store or Google Play Store. Follow @WeReadTooApp on Twitter or visit the website, . You can follow Kaya on Instagram and Twitter, too!

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