Each spring, undergraduate women in the Computer Science department at Rice University head to Austin, Texas to learn how their sister software engineers are advancing their careers. Lauren Khoo and GaYoung Park, co-presidents of the CSters (pronounced “C-stirs”) recalled their January 2016 trip.
“We always go over the MLK holiday weekend,” said Khoo. “This year, it overlapped a bit with HackRice. One of our officers was helping run the hackathon and two of our members were participating, so they only slept for a few hours before heading to Austin.”
Park added, “We took 14 women in three cars, and stayed overnight Sunday so we could begin early Monday morning. After four hours at HomeAway and four at SpiceWorks, we headed back to Rice.”
Khoo picked up the story, “We try to cast a big net and include companies we haven’t yet seen. We line up a slate of different experiences for the CSters members, sometimes hitting two or three places in a single trip.” One year, the group attempted three corporate visits in eight hours. “We probably won’t try three in one day again,” said Khoo, “because there was always a chance of being late and that is not how we wanted to represent Rice. “
The tech companies who host the CSters for a morning or an afternoon are happy to meet potential interns and employees in a relaxed setting. “They want to meet us in person, show off their building and their spaces,” explained Khoo. “They can’t spend as much time with us during recruiting season, so we always try to go early in the year. But even if intern offers are already decided, we want to show the CSters what an average day might look like in this field.”
Park has attended four tech company trips and knows what to expect. “Usually, we learn the women’s day–to-day activities, meet the recruiters, and get the office tour. The people we shadow will probably arrive later and take us along as they talk with their manager, go to a meeting, work at their desk, or just show us where they hang out. And it’s pretty amazing to see spaces with pool tables, coffee bars, cool lunchrooms. That may seem misleading; these employees are not just laid back, but hard working developers. Then we usually get to meet a panel of recent graduates and young developers and talk with them about their challenges and how they are advancing in their careers.”
“We usually get a chance to connect with Rice alumni, if they work there,” said Khoo, “and also female engineers – who can help answer some tough questions specific to being a woman in the field. We also talk to interns who returned as employees. And we talk to engineers who have worked at the company for a long time.”
Park said, “At HomeAway, the recruiter set up 45-minutes to an hour where we could each shadow a specific engineer and learn more about their projects. There is an opportunity to sit in meetings with your engineer and listen to how they are actually dealing with frustrations, like quick fixes versus fixing a technical issue. It is good to learn that in the real world, you have to make hard decisions.”
“I was more interested in the product side of things,” said Khoo, “and was glad I could talk to the developer about how her work tied into the customer experience. I could also ask work-life balance questions like ‘what time do you get to work?’ and in some cases have even more personal conversations like how to be a mom and balance work.”
The CSters officers make sure the lineup is different every year so that the members who make the trip get a good range of experiences.
Park remembered her first tech company trip. “The biggest take away was how the trip changed my mind about what I thought I wanted to do. When I saw the list of companies for my freshman trip, I wasn’t really interested in two of the companies, companies I had not heard about. But when I met the people at the startups, I found that what I wanted to do was actually what they were doing and that was mind-blowing. The Austin trip really helped me understand it isn’t just about ‘Oh, I need to get a job,’ but more like ‘what do I like to do’ and is there a job that matches that?”
Khoo said the best part about being in a tech company on the Austin trip is that she gets to ask questions that are not answered on the company web sites. “Early on, at the end of my freshmen year, I knew that I wanted to work on the actual product,” she says. “When I heard about this role that was a combination of UX (the user experience), design, and engineering, I decided to explore that. I took an internship in their PM (program management) area, and ever since the questions I ask tech companies are all about that role. Being able to see the role of the PMs in the day to day work of those tech companies is very special for me.”
Park said she enjoys seeing CSters on their first Austin trip repeat her own eye-opening experience, with the added benefit of getting to know other club members. “It is always the same for the freshmen and sophomores we take,” Park said. “I love that Austin trip more than any other trip we take, even if some of what makes it so special is the social aspect. When you do things on campus, you can’t really turn off your other distractions. But when you are off-campus, that is actually when people bond and ask questions. Somehow [leaving the campus behind makes you] feel there is time to socialize and make strong connections between the club members. Those two reasons – the way the Austin trip opens up your mind about career opportunities and the social bonding that occurs there – were why I decided to run for club president.”
Begun in 2002, the CSters’ official name is the Women in Computer Science club and their faculty sponsor is Lydia Kavraki, the Noah Harding Professor of Computer Science and Bioengineering at Rice. The club’s purpose is four-fold:
- Foster a community around undergraduate, graduate, prospective student, alumni, and/or professional women interested in Computer Science;
- Create social events to connect community members;
- Organize opportunities to link students with experienced mentors;
- Partner with external organizations to create interactions with industry professionals.
Although the club was created to help promote and support women focused on careers in computer science, “We welcome male allies as well!” said Park.
For more information about the club and future events, see their web site, csters.rice.edu.