Allison Farris, a Microsoft employee in D.C., will compete in the Miss America pageant in September.
In a couple weeks, Allison Farris will take a short break from her day job — coding at Microsoft — to play the piano for millions of people watching on TV. She’ll be competing for a scholarship, one she hopes will pay for her MBA, as part of this year’s Miss America competition.
The nearly 100-year-old pageant is in the midst of a transformation that organizers hope will make it more relevant, and the 2018 show will implement the biggest change so far.
In an attempt to catch up with the times, Miss America has eliminated its strutting swimsuit competition. The jury’s still out on whether that will help or hurt ratings and the pageant’s overall image.
Farris has a slightly less visible goal for the pageant. She wants to encourage more women to enter STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — and show that software developers aren’t one-dimensional people, she said.
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In a lot of ways, Farris is not the typical Miss America contestant. At least, not the one she remembers seeing while watching the pageant as she grew up.
Farris, 25, is half-Taiwanese half-Caucasian, a concert pianist and she works as a software developer for Microsoft in Washington, D.C., building cloud and other apps for customers. She’s also the reigning Miss D.C.
“I never could truly relate to her,” she said of seeing Miss Americas crowned when she was young. Perhaps partly because of that, Farris never competed in pageants growing up. It wasn’t until her sophomore year at the University of Alabama that she began to entertain the idea.
She needed money to help pay for school, plus she missed performing the piano in front of crowds, so she gave it a try. Farris went on to win more than $10,000 in prizes, which she used to help pay for her undergrad and graduate degrees in management information systems.
In her first computer-science class in school, she looked out over the crowd of 100 people and saw maybe 12 women. “It was the first time I witnessed and experienced the lack of women within the tech field,” she said.
Women often make up less than a quarter of technical workforces at big tech companies, and the number continues dropping among tech leadership ranks.
Farris is encouraged by Miss America’s pledge to focus more on contestants’ service work and how each winner plans to spend her year with the title.
Farris now works with Microsoft’s DigiGirlz program, which teaches science and tech to school-age girls. If she wins the Miss America competition Sept. 9, she plans to spend her reigning year teaching girls math and coding skills in schools across the country.