ACM-W NA Profiles: Wendy Powley

Wendy Powley is an Associate Professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.  She worked for 24 years as a Research Associate at Queen’s from 1992-2016 with a focus on autonomic systems and workload management for database systems.  She teaches undergraduate courses in Database Management Systems, Web Development, Ethics and Introduction to Programming courses.  She is also the founder of the ACM Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing event and served as ACM-W Celebrations Chair for 5 years.

How did you end up in tech? 

Like many women, I found my way to tech by following the long and winding road.  I went to University with plans to study math. When I had trouble understanding my Algebra prof, I [thought I] wasn’t smart enough to be a math major so I turned to psychology. I finished my undergraduate degree in Psychology and then decided to go to Teacher’s College. It was there that I discovered that I was not cut out to spend my days teaching ABC’s. 

I got a job as a research assistant for a Psychology/Urology research project. I was then tasked with analyzing and storing the stream of data that was emitted from a fancy piece of medical equipment. That required programming skills.
I had taken one programming course in my undergraduate degree (it was called “Programming for Poets”) which I loved, but I never made the connection between reversing strings and printing “Hello World” with a lucrative, fulfilling career.  

As luck would have it, my boyfriend was a computing graduate and he walked me through developing the programs. With that, I fell in love with programming (and I suppose with him too since we’ve been together for 37 years now). Being slightly competitive in nature, I was bothered by the fact that he knew so much about this mysterious world of computing and I wanted to learn more. 

I began taking undergraduate courses in my spare time and eventually, when the research project came to an end, I applied for graduate school. The rest is history, and I am so thankful to have found a career field that has made me truly happy and has given me a life filled with opportunity. 

What is your proudest career accomplishment?

Although I have won best paper awards for my research and several teaching awards for my teaching, my proudest accomplishment is my establishment of the ACM Canadian Celebration of Women in Computing (CAN-CWIC) event. In 2010, I learned about ACM Celebrations and, with the encouragement of some friends and the ACM Celebrations chairs, Gloria Childress Townsend and Elaine Weyuker, I started the Ontario Celebration of Women in Computing, an ACM Celebration. This conference has grown and flourished and is now a Canada-wide event which draws more than 750 participants. It is so incredibly satisfying to hear from past attendees, now well into their careers, about the impact that the conference had on their lives. 

What are the personal benefits of working with ACM-W?

For me personally, organizing CAN-CWIC boosted my self-confidence, broadened my network, brought me recognition at a departmental, university and national level, and increased my credibility when applying for promotions, awards and grants. The best part of all of this has been the lasting friendships that I have made along the way.

Serving as the Celebrations Chair provided me with opportunities to work more closely with the ACM Chairs and the council and to meet individuals doing amazing work all across the world. Through ACM-W, I have partnered with other organizations such as National Center for Women in Technology (NCWIT) where we bridged the NCWIT Aspirations in Computing awards with ACM Celebrations. 

What advice would you give to a young student in computing to be successful?

My first piece of advice would be to take all opportunities that come your way. My gut reaction when I get asked to do pretty much anything outside my comfort zone (which covers a lot), is to politely respond to say thank you, but I am unavailable on that day. However, accepting opportunities generally leads to more opportunities. When you pass up an opportunity, it dries up. 

My second piece of advice is to consciously build your network. Opportunities come via your connections. Attend conferences, workshops, join clubs, get involved in professional groups, form an informal support group of colleagues, organize events. You will find yourself calling on these people throughout your career. We all need a network to lean on.

Lastly, learn about the Impostor Syndrome, recognize that you are probably amongst those of us who suffer, and learn to deal with it.  This is something that I have battled all my life – the feeling that one is successful only because of lucky breaks not because of your own talents or hard work.  These feelings can hold you back and cause unnecessary stress in your life. Take measures to combat these feelings and get on with doing fabulous things – we need your contributions!  


Interested in learning more about ACM Celebrations in North America? Read more about how you can get involved: