Software Development
Data / Federal government / Software / volunteering / Women in tech

How I Got Here: Sarah Withee went from young computer whiz to software developer who teaches others

For as long as she can remember, the Pittsburgh technologist has loved computers. Now, she works as a consulting software engineer and leads open-source dev project Code Thesaurus: "I think I have a heart for making good software and for helping people out."

Sarah Withee. (Courtesy photo)

This is How I Got Here, a series where we chart the career journeys of technologists. Want to tell your story? Get in touch.

Sometimes you fall in love with things as a kid and never quite let them go. For some people, that means baking or chess or collections that grow through the years. In the case of Sarah Withee, she remembers being a little girl who loved computers.

Withee learned to program on her family’s Commodore 64, a popular home computer in the 1980s. The Commodore would be discontinued in 1994, but Withee honed her programming skills through the years as her parents upgraded their personal tech and turned her childhood fascination into a decades-long career as a software engineer.

Withee, a 2022 RealLIST Engineers honoree for Pittsburgh, has since been a software developer for institutions and companies such as Stowers Institute for Medical Research, Commerce Bank and Acadia. Now, she works as a full-time consultant for 18F, a technology and design consultancy within the federal government.

“People [within federal agencies] come to us when they need help with their software projects,” Withee told Technical.ly. Her org helps them “figure out the appropriate needs for whatever their problem is, and then we help them either build or buy technology they need to solve those problems.”

Withee had applied to 18F before she finally got the job in 2021, but hadn’t previously progressed past the high volume of applications the entity gets. At the beginning of her career, she didn’t picture herself working for the government, but after a string of “unsatisfying” tech jobs, she now enjoys that 18F’s goals align with one of the things she cares about most: helping others.

I think I have a heart for making good software and for helping people out.

“They [18F] do care about the users on the products, they care about the people working at the company,” Withee said. “They spend a lot of time thinking through what’s best for everybody and the stuff they make and the people they work with.”

18F isn’t the only way Withee tries to use her programming abilities for good. Have you ever needed a crash course in a new programming language? Then you might’ve heard of (or you may need to hear of) Code Thesaurus, a “polyglot developer reference” that Withee created.

The reason? Through the years when Withee changed positions, she found that her new job would come with a new programming language to understand. While there were many skills she could pick up quickly, sometimes she wished she had the ability to pull up two programming languages side by side to compare what she knew with what she didn’t. Unfortunately, no such resource existed — so she made one.

Now, three years after launch, programmers can contribute their own knowledge to Code Thesaurus as well as learn from others.

“So many people have said, ‘This is such a great idea,’ [and] I can periodically check the stats and see that a bunch of people are using it,” Withee said. “It’s also really cool in that it’s an open-source community and I think we’re up to over 100 unique individuals who have contributed at this point. It’s really awesome.”

In addition to Code Thesaurus, Withee acts as the lead of local software community Code & Supply’s conduct team and volunteers as a mentor at tech education nonprofit Girls of Steel. Whether she’s consulting, creating resources for her fellow developers, or helping kids learn to build robots, Withee likes to feel like she’s giving back.

Looking back, she feels like her career has taken her down some unexpected paths, but in the present day, she’s glad it led her to what she’s currently doing.

“I think I have a heart for making good software and for helping people out, and that’s a lot of what 18F does,” Withee said. “We care a lot about accessibility and inclusion and making sure our work is available to everybody, and as modern and inclusive as possible.”

Atiya Irvin-Mitchell is a 2022-2023 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supportedby the Heinz Endowments.
Companies: Code & Supply / 18F / Girls Who Code / U.S. Government
Series: How I Got Here
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