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August 15, 2011 / TechFemme

Melissa Bugai is Helping Put Grand Rapids, MI on the Tech Startup Map

Melissa Bugai, Co-Founder, Booker

Admittedly, I’m one of those startup techies who suffers from Valley Envy from time to time.  Oh to have access to those financing resources and face-to-face mentorships.  It must be awesome to stand in a bar, throw a stone and hit someone that has a startup idea brewing or in full force.   Having said that, I also love to see tech startup communities growing and thriving outside of the Bay Area.  Much respect to that tech powerhouse on the Cali West Coast, but I’ll always keep a special eye on those startups that are born elsewhere.  So when I got the chance to speak to Melissa Bugai, Co-Founder, Booker, I was already a fan even before we connected on Skype.  Booker is a beautiful, easy-to-use appointment booking application that should be used by everyone who has customers that book appointments.  But besides her awesome startup, she has some interesting insights on why there aren’t more women in tech.

Women generally go after collaborative, mentor-oriented work.  Most job ads for developers use language that doesn’t appeal to women in this way.

I found her on Quora when I read her answer to the question:  How do I get a more diverse developer applicant pool?  And I found myself nodding my head at what she wrote.

TechFemme:  How did you get interested in technology?

Melissa Bugai:  My dad is an Electrical Engineer so I got a lot of tech as a kid.  We talked a lot about tech, spent time fixing TVs, talking about radio, as in wireless communications.  We had computers when I was very young.  I had two computers even before my Commodore.  We have a fairly technology-centric family, but my parents aren’t necessarily savvy.  They’re not huge technologists but they gave me a start.

TF:  How did your programming career start?

MB:  I came to find out when I signed up for my first computer class in middle school, the counselors talked to my mom and asked her “Are you sure you want her to do that?  That’s a boy class.”  I was oblivious to it.  I went to Grand Valley State University and majored in Computer Science.  There were two other American girls in my graduating class of several hundred.  There were also a few female foreign exchange students.  That ratio was very common and it’s still common.  I went into the industry as a software developer and then my career led me to software testing, which I enjoyed and I’m still part of that community.  I worked at a wonderful company called Atomic Object and got a good start there.  It was probably the best place I’ve ever worked.  I worked there for three years. 

TF:  How did you go from there to Booker?

MB:  I used to do ski instruction on nights and weekends.  It was frustrating because I couldn’t see my lessons during the day on my computer, while I was at work.  I had all this pain around lessons and appointments, so I started Booker.  And you’re really an entrepreneur from birth.  It’s really ingrained in you.  You want to change the world and it’s really hard to work for other people.   So in December last year, I left my job to work on Booker full time.

TF:  What were the first steps in starting Booker?  How did you go from idea to an actual product and business?

MB:  We started product development last summer and got into Momentum, an accelerator program in our area. We operate in the lean startup way and focus on customer development. We talk to at least one customer every week.  We talk to them about what problems we can solve for them.

TF:  What is the tech community like in Grand Rapids, MI?

MB:  It’s is awesome and growing. There’s an immense amount of talent here.  We have 22 universities and colleges so we’re graduating tons of computer science individuals.  People talk to us about moving to Silicon Valley or Boulder but we want to put Michigan on the map.  We’re sticking it out here.  The community support here is in some ways more valuable than venture capital.  The community helps each other out with time and energy.  Besides Atomic Object, we have Mutually Human Software and Collective Idea and they’re all doing awesome things.

TF:  What would you tell girls who are considering going into a Tech Career?

MB:  Don’t let your parents or anyone tell you that all the computer science jobs are going overseas because that’s just not true.  Don’t buy into it.  In college, there are so many other kinds of computer science fields that they don’t teach you about.  You can either go into IT or you can go into programming, and that’s it.  Unfortunately, others are underrepresented.  People are making a lot of money in other computer science areas like software design, interaction design, and software testing.  And if you’re looking to start programming, look into the programming language ruby.  It’s an extremely easy language to read and to write.  Ruby also has a web framework called Rails.  Ruby on Rails enables coding web apps to happen quickly in a very straightforward way.  Ruby favors convention over configuration.  Python is also another beginner – friendly language.  

It’s clear that Melissa and the rest of her Booker crew are benefiting from and contributing to the growing Grand Rapids, MI tech community.  I can’t wait to hear more great things about them in the future.

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One Comment

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  1. Carl Erickson (@carl_erickson) / Aug 16 2011 2:34 pm

    Fun to read your story here, Melissa. And it’s great to see people spreading the word about the many excellent opportunities in software technology.

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