Every month we ask one individual in our network a few questions about their way into tech, their motivation and their lessons learned.
Julia Chatain was born in Tours, a city along the Loire, in France, later on, she moved to Switzerland where she completed her studies and now is working at the Game Technology Center of ETH Zurich in the field of AR and education. Her passion for mathematics sparked her first interest in technology. Julia recounts that early in her life she experienced the exhilarating feeling that technology is what makes everything possible: Computer science feels like a bridge to bring the power of mathematics to the world, and let people discover new topics, live new experiences, trigger curiosity (…)
Let’s start from the beginning: tell us about where you’re from!
I come from Tours, a beautiful city along the Loire, in France. My parents had a bit of a rough start in life, coming from modest families with little access to education, but they worked very hard to build us a safer home. I started my studies at École Polytechnique (Paris, France), focusing on mathematics and computer science, and then moved to Lausanne (Switzerland) to study computer science at EPFL. Later on, I moved to Zurich to join the Game Technology Center of ETH.
What valuable advice did you get from your parents?
My parents often told me, in various ways, to always give my best. That way even if I did not reach my goal I would still learn the most possible. As a kid, when I would not succeed at something that mattered to me, they would help me focus on what I learnt so these experiences never really felt like a failure.
Another point that was very important to them is to be kind to others. I saw my parents working very hard to keep us afloat and growing, even while they were juggling studies and work, and later on, raising my brothers and me. I always admired their courage and dedication, but in particular, the fact that they did it with kindness and generosity.
How did you become interested in tech?
For as long as I can remember, I have always been passionate about mathematics. Maths felt like building blocks that I could assemble to build new things, and I had a lot of fun playing around with these building blocks. When my brother Keny and I were children, we came up with this idea of creating a website to share the stories we were writing with our friends. We found resources online on how to achieve our goal and started building a website from scratch. During the whole process, I had this exhilarating feeling that everything was possible: if I lacked a necessary building block, I could look online and read hints that kind people took the time to share. To me, computer science feels like one bridge to bring the power of mathematics to the world, and, to some extent, connect people.
What aspects of your work are you proudest of?
The first reason that makes me proud to work at the Game Technology Center of ETH Zurich is the fact that our team values the importance of outreach and communication and invests significant effort in fulfilling these missions. This is primordial to me as many people are still intimidated by new technologies or shy to make use of them while living in a world where they are omnipresent. As we build these tools, it is our responsibility to help people get more familiar with them. I am currently working on creating my own structure to expand these activities, and the Game Technology Center is strongly supporting me.
Furthermore, I am grateful to work in a multidisciplinary team of very talented people. I appreciate how we can collaborate and manage to build tools mixing various expertise, from software engineering to HCI (Human-Computer Interaction, the study of how we interact with technology) and art. I believe we could not achieve such relevant results without involving all these fields.
What drives you at work?
The main things that drive me forward are learning and building to empower people. I want to create tools that let people discover new topics and live new experiences; tools that trigger their curiosity, that make them think, and smile from their accomplishments. I was lucky enough to have a family teaching me how to think and learn on my own and find intrinsic excitement in this. I would like to share this experience with other people. Everybody should have access to education, and with technology being more and more available, I believe we can help build towards this goal. Facilitating access to education also was an important focus of my efforts in my previous team at Inria Bordeaux, an important research center in France with a focus on computer science, and at the Game Technology Center. To me, the most important moments at GTC are the opportunities we have to let children try out our tools and create something they did not know they could create. The smile on their faces when they realise what they achieved always keeps me moving forward.
What has been your toughest challenge you faced while working in tech?
I usually find tech challenges exciting and thrilling. For me, the toughest challenges are more personal. When I started working, it was particularly difficult to accept that as a woman I am just as entitled to a spot in this field as a man. I started focusing my studies on mathematics and engineering at fifteen years old, and since then my classes never included more than 10% of women. I was 25 years old the first time I met a woman in my field that I could identify with. She helped me build confidence and trust in what I was doing, but it is always an ongoing process!
What advice would you give other women in tech?
If you are a senior in the field: speak out. Go to younger women, tell them about
your work, about what you love about it, about what you find exciting about it.
Tell them that it is ok to be interested in these things and that we are making
space for them.
If you are new to the field: follow what you love, follow what you are excited
about, and never stop learning. Your ideas are as valuable as the ones of
your colleagues. And you have the right to ask questions as much as they do.