According to Girls Who Code, 74% of young girls express interest in STEM fields but only 26% of computing jobs are held by women. In our Women in Tech series, we dig into what drives some of our most driven employees to lead successful tech careers.
Clad in the typical CallRail uniform of a hoodie and jeans, Crystal Thornton flashes a bright smile as she sits for our interview. Her informal dress and demeanor suggests long days behind a computer screen, but her road to working as a QA Engineer has been anything but typical.
“Initially, I thought I was going to follow in my mother’s footsteps and become a teacher. She taught special needs children, and went on to become the principal of Kimberly Elementary School,” she tells me.
A tornado watch has been issued for Atlanta’s surrounding counties, and rain is pounding the windows of the Equitable Building downtown, where CallRail’s office spans the 27th floor.
“I’ve always loved literature and writing. I’m kind of a wordsmith. As a junior in college, I took a technical writing course, which I wasn’t familiar with at the time, and I decided I wanted to pursue that,” Crystal continues.
She explains that for entry level technical writers, it’s difficult to break into the field and land your first job. Most companies are looking for seasoned technical writers, and many junior-level jobs are only available if you’re willing to work as a contractor. When she graduated from the University of West Georgia with degrees in English and Technical Writing, Crystal decided to put experience over salary and dive into the tech industry, in spite of these obstacles.
“I got my first entry level job in technical writing in 2008 at Obvient Strategies, and it was there that I was introduced to quality assurance and testing because as a technical writer I had to know the ins and outs of the product that I was writing about. It was then that I discovered that I liked breaking things, or finding bugs within applications.”
About a year after starting her job in technical writing with Obvient Strategies, Crystal began focusing on testing the application, which was a dispatching interface for utilities companies, as well as training customers on how to use the application. After her time with Obvient Strategies, things moved quickly as she became a QA tester for T-Mobile, moving up soon after to Senior QA Tester.
Despite her success, Crystal points out that she needed to be persistent to get where she is today. “Sometimes being a woman of color can make it difficult to get jobs you’re qualified to do. Being a woman, period, we can be looked at as overly emotional in a male dominated industry, when we’re really just trying to do the best job we can do like everybody else. I’ve learned that to be successful in this industry, you need to be consistent and confident.”
Her voice grows warm as we talk about who has influenced her most throughout her career. Crystal met her husband while they were both employed as QA representatives with Nextel in 2006, which later became Sprint. “He has a degree in Psychology and a minor in Spanish. He took a chance and got a job as a bilingual tester at T-Mobile as a contractor. He’s been there ever since, won so many awards and has been a great mentor to me.”
Leaving her first job at Obvient to take the position at T-mobile, Crystal says her former IT manager gave her one piece of advice that sticks with her to this day: “Whatever you decide to do, you need to be confident. Don’t ever let people make you feel like you can’t shine.” Calling those words a pivotal moment in her career, Crystal adds her own advice, “Always believe in yourself. Be passionate about what you want to do in life. Be curious. Be courageous. And most importantly, be confident. I can’t say that enough. There will often be obstacles. I was once passed over for a job at a company, that I had been with for a long time, even though I been consistently recognized for doing a great job. It really got to me for awhile. The day before I left that company, the manager later told me that she made the wrong choice and apologized. If people don’t see your worth or your value that’s not the place for you. Sometimes you have to move on and you should always keep pushing on. I know my worth, and that’s really important. It’s all about knowing your worth.”
Now, as QA Engineer at CallRail, Crystal has come full circle to the passion she discovered in her first tech role: Testing for bugs and breaking things. “I really like that CallRail is so diverse. Having women in tech goes hand in hand with changing the way we do things and interact with each other. When I started at CallRail, I wanted to get into automation testing. I don’t have a coding background, but my colleague and friend, Megan, told me about Rails Girls Atlanta, a group geared toward women in tech, and I have kept in touch with those women to bounce ideas off of them. To anyone looking to get into tech, I would advise you to look for mentors and networking groups. Ask questions, never stop learning, and never stop being curious.”
“There are so many women out there who are great in technology,” she says. “It’s mind blowing to me to hear about so many women who don’t have a technical background who are taking over. It will create a lot of diversity and reshape some of the culture. We all have ideas and they need to be shared equally.” Her words echo the sentiments outlined in Hidden Figures, the recent Oscar-nominated film highlighting three African American women’s integral contribution to NASA’s mission to put men in space.
Fog shrouds the window of our meeting room overlooking the Atlanta skyline as thunderstorms continue to roll across the region. Before we leave, I ask Crystal one last question. When you started your career in tech, what do you wish you knew then that you know now?
She pauses, considering before she speaks. “Don’t be afraid to speak up. Don’t settle for just anything. Don’t be afraid to take a chance even if you make a mistake. It’s ok to make mistakes, and even to fail. The key is to learn from them and grow.”
Her answer combines everything that makes Crystal great at her job, and an inspiration for those coming after her in the tech industry. Be confident, know your worth, and break things – sometimes on purpose.