#WomeninSTEM · #WomeninTech · women who reign

Women Who Reign: Mackenna Lees

“Challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.” Joshua Marine

Tell us about yourself along with a fun fact!
I’m a 20-year-old designer and developer in Seattle. I’m studying Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington, and I’m a woman of many interests, most of which don’t go together.

I’m a violinist and a cyclist and a photographer. I’ve always been an artsy kid, mainly because I didn’t have videogames growing up. I had play-doh, paper and pencils, legos, and paint to play with. I also remember having a bin of old plastic packaging, tubes, and wood to build with. Now that I’m adult, I can reflect on how much I loved creating, building, and designing as a kid. But I always thought I was going to go into medicine.

When I went off to college, everyone knew I wanted to be a doctor; a neurosurgeon, actually. I soon realized I wasn’t cut out for the profession. I did design and advertising work on campus for free, and would stay up for hours doing it. I loved it – but I was still grinding away at chemistry and calculus homework. Then it finally happened: after my calculus TA yelled at me for solving a problem differently than we had learned to solve it in class, I just knew. I wasn’t meant for following the rules, and going into medicine meant lots of rules. I had always tried to cut that part of my personality out of me, like chopping off a limb. I wanted to be like everyone else, solve the problems the way I was taught, and follow the rules. I thought that was being a good student, and a good human. When I realized I was really meant to go against the grain, a whole new world opened for me.

Human Centered Design and Engineering is a very complex program that really allows a person to spread themselves through everything UX-related, but also realize individual potential in programming or design. I’m a designer through and through, but code is incredibly similar to the building processes I enjoy the most in Illustrator. Seeing the pieces work together after you’ve just built it all is one of the best feelings. I live for those moments, feeling like you’ve gone full circle.

What # would define your life journey?


Favorite website / app:
I love Slack. I love coding emojis, and I love random gifs from giphy. It makes teamwork so much fun, and the ease of use makes me love the application even more.

Someone who inspires you and knowledge they have imparted:
My mentor, Lucas Colusso, inspires me to be confidently assertive. Lucas has taught me to go with my gut and to be 110% confident of my work in front of others. The pride you exude is visible, and it even enhances your work. Never downplay what you have created: your work is worth it, and it is your job to make sure others view your work in a positive light. I remember Lucas’ words, and remind myself to be confident but still humble when presenting my efforts to others. Your confidence will let your personality shine, while your humbleness grounds you. It’s all in mediation.

Song that makes you want to dance:
The Buzz – Hermitude
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Challenge you’ve faced and how you overcame it:
My mother passed away after a 12-year battle with Leukemia during spring quarter of my freshman year. I was 6 weeks into the quarter when she passed, taking intro to computer science and just dipping my toe into it all. I took a week off school to help my family plan and execute the funeral service, then I went right back. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Once I got back to school, I chose to hardship withdraw from CS in order to stay afloat with my academics and get a handle on my grief. I realize now that withdrawing from the class under my circumstance wasn’t admitting weakness; it was being human. It was survival. That quarter was the very first time I made the Dean’s list with a cumulative GPA of 3.5 or higher. I channeled all my grief, anger, and sadness towards my studies, and I am incredibly proud to not only have made it, but to have kicked ass while doing so.

Dealing with grief and depression is an ongoing battle, even now, a year and a half later. I wish my mom had been around to see me get into the college of engineering at my university. All I wanted was to call her and hear her voice, and cry with her. It’s a challenge I’m still overcoming, every single day. But normalizing mental health is so necessary, and I’m hoping to spread my story and my courage on to others.

Ideal Job:
I need to dabble in a few professions before I find my niche. Right now, I’m striving to become a UX/Visual Designer for a big brand like Google. Someday, I want to be the CEO of my own startup. I love being down in the trenches with a design team, and I’d love to build my way up the ladder and experience the workload of a few careers. Whether I’m writing code, or designing mockups in Illustrator, I’m challenged, and I’m happy. I want to continue to be challenged in whatever career I step foot in.

What knowledge would you impart to women in order for them to REIGN their lives?
You are your best self when you are being yourself. As a woman in tech, it’s so easy to feel small in the field, especially when you are surrounded by men. You are just as good as the male developers around you, maybe even better. Talk yourself up, be confident about what you build, because no one else is going to do it for you. Realize that self-confidence is more important than confidence in your skills. If you’re not able to exude pride in yourself, the other things fall short. You are a beautiful and strong woman with fire in your heart. Show others that flame as much as possible.

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