Shirley Jiang on Friendship and Teamwork

Xueqing “Shirley” Jiang, now a senior double major in CS and Linguistics, arrived at Rice University as a Chinese international student intent on pursuing a degree in Electrical Engineering. “Both my mom and my dad are ELECs and told me if I chose that major, they could give me advice,” she said.

But she took COMP 140 her first semester and was immediately captivated by the computer science course. Jiang said, “We were learning how to see a problem and make it solvable by a computer, to save time and improve efficiency. I’d never done anything like that before and it was so exciting!” She said she fell instantly in love with the unique computational way of thinking and was amazed that programs she wrote could solve real-life problems.

The course was challenging, particularly for a student with no programming experience. Jiang said, “A lot of people in the class had taken AP computer science in high school and seemed to be doing well, but I was struggling. I went to most of the TA sessions, and my teammates were really helpful.”

In her second semester at Rice, Jiang took COMP 182 because she wanted to see if she could do the algorithms. She said, “I had imposter syndrome, but I learned I could do it.” Jiang stuck through what many CS students consider one of the most difficult classes at Rice by continuing to attend most of the TA sessions and by getting help from friends.

Instead of giving her their solutions, her friends provided a safe place for Jiang to think out loud. “I realized that when I struggled, I could actually discuss the problems and talk through them, and that made me realize I could come up with the answers on my own,” said Jiang. “But, without my friends, I never would have been able to stay in this major.”

Many of her friends were other Chinese internationals who had first met at an international student orientation. Jiang said, “I discovered a lot of us were in the same COMP class. Even though the learning curve was extremely steep at first, some of us had already had a lot of experience in programming, and those student had given a lot of help to us who had less experience.”

Shirley Jiang, second from left, and other CSters pose during the Fall 2015 “Picture Yourself” campaign.

She had also made a lot of friends in the CSters (a club supporting women in computer science) and was paired with a big sister who shared Jiang’s interest in language and was double-majoring in CS and Linguistics. “The CSters had study breaks, meetings, lunch talks and other opportunities to get to know other women in CS,” said Jiang. “Then we went on an Austin trip to shadow women working in the tech industry there.”

During the overnight trip, Jiang heard other CSters talking about their struggles with COMP 182 and she realized that she was not alone in having imposture syndrome. She said, “We ALL found the assignments challenging, so the camaraderie and the feeling of ‘not being alone’ was the most valuable thing about that trip. The CSters in that group continued helping each other, discussing the class materials and assignments over our next three years.”

By her third course, Jiang had shed most of her imposter syndrome. “That’s when I began to believe ‘I can do this’ and was able to program on my own and make it do what I wanted,” she said. So she headed to the Career Expo and went up to the Microsoft recruiters to inquire about the Explorer program.

Shirley Jiang, second from left, joined other summer interns at an event organized by Microsoft.

The Explorer program is for freshmen and sophomores with little programming experience. Explorers spend about a third of the internship in product management and the rest of the time in software development. After Jiang talked with the Microsoft recruiters and other Rice students that night over dinner, she applied for the program.

A month later, she was invited for first round interview. “I was pretty scared,” she said, “but it went well and they flew three Rice students to Seattle for campus interviews as prospective Explorers. Each round was 45 minutes, one-on-one with an engineer, and I ended up coding through each of them.”

Jiang accepted their offer, completed her summer as an Explorer, then went back for a second Microsoft internship. She said, “That summer, I focused more on the dev side, and I’m going back for the third time this summer.” Not surprisingly, Jiang is headed back to Microsoft as a Software Engineer when she graduates.

Whether in a Rice course, in an internship, or in a new hire role, Jiang advises other CS students to find a group of friends that are comfortable sharing discussions about how to solve CS problems. She said the ability to communicate effectively was a very important skill to have as an employee.

“Also, find mentors who can offer advice as you planning your CS career, and don’t forget to give back to the community,” she said. “Asking for help and giving help is the most valuable thing I’ve learned as a CS major.”

In fact, Jiang’s appreciation for the help and encouragement she received at Rice led her to roles where she could ensure other students have the same opportunities. She has worked as a teaching assistant for COMP 130 since her second semester, served as a CSters officer for two years, and mentors students in programs like CSters and the DREAM Outreach Program.