Q&A: App Development Entrepreneur Weighs in on Women in STEM

Three years ago, Alexandrea Mellen founded her software development company, Terrapin Computing. A 2015 Boston University computer engineering graduate, Mellen splits her time between her company and Blasè, an agency that designs and develops apps. I spoke with Mellen about how she developed her interest in computer engineering, the challenges women face in technology and how technology is discussed in politics.

Olivia Deng: How did you become interested in technology?
Alexandrea Mellen: I grew up working at my father's company for pretty much my entire life...They built furnaces for [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and Stanford and a bunch of different companies that needed them. I started working there in high school, just doing CAD drawings of different parts that he needed and then kind of expanded my role into assembly and inspection and building out furnaces.

Did you always know that you wanted to go into a science field?
My mom's a writer and an artist so I spent a lot of time just doing art things with her. Painting and drawing and all that stuff. We had a great time and I loved doing that. That's helped me now because I've expanded my skillset into design...But even then, I was really uncertain about whether I wanted to go into a technical field...I really enjoyed some of my language classes and writing classes.

Were there any groups at BU that were influential in developing your interest in technology?
I was the vice president of Make BU my senior year which was a ton of fun. We held two hackathons while I was involved and had a weekly hack night. I was a part of [Global App Initiative] which was so much fun. I loved teaching other students.

What have you been working on since graduating from BU?
I split my time between my company making iOS apps focused in education. Right now, I do chemistry and engineering apps. I have three out in the store. And then I take the other half of my time and work at a company called Blasè as a partner there doing mobile app development and website app development for the entertainment industry, artists and businesses.

Mellen's app, Lewis Dot, helps students learn chemistry

Have you encountered any challenges as a woman in STEM?
BU is great because it was really inclusive for women...It wasn't like I felt ostracized or anything like that. The biggest challenges I faced in that area are people being silly. I've been emailing with this guy, we never met, and he was shocked when I walked in and he said, 'I was expecting a man.' That kind of thing. It wasn't anything like people have put me down for being a woman in tech. It's been more just people being surprised that I'm a woman.

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about women in tech?
I think that the most frustrating one I found is people who can be a little mean at times and I tell them I make education apps and they're like, 'I expected that.' It's probably the worst misconception I've seen, [the notion that] even women in tech are only going to be in education. Besides that, I'll talk to someone and tell them I'm a hacker and they're like, 'You don't look like a hacker.' People not understanding that hackers don't have to conform to a certain look, that a woman can easily be [a hacker] too.

How do you think tech has been addressed in politics?
I think they [2016 presidential candidates] misunderstand it completely. I watched the debates and kept up very closely with the election and one thing that's constant is they do not understand what cybersecurity is and that can be very frustrating. [But] I know people who work in government who are technical and do an amazing job.

What about tech do they [2016 presidential candidates] misunderstand?
I don't think that they understand exactly what hacking is or who is behind hacking or the types of groups that come together to hack. That's a huge issue. Oftentimes they think they understand things about technology that just don't exist the way they want them to exist. They try to put tech in this box that's simplified.

What do you think a Trump presidency will mean for women in technology?
I don't know. That's a big scary question at this point. I'm hoping that since he has a daughter who is in a high position at his company, that sways him to be more appreciative of women. But so far, his campaign rhetoric has not been that way, which is really unfortunate.

Going forward, what do you hope to work on more?
I'd like to look more into cybersecurity, definitely. I've been doing a little bit of research...but at this point, I'm focusing strongly on my company and Blasé, so we'll see. Maybe if I get some free time.

This interview has been condensed and edited.