Kathleen Foster: from Struggling CS Student to Scrum Master at GM

Kathleen Foster (B.A. ’13) applied early decision to Rice University after falling in love with the university during a campus visit. When the admission offer arrived, she walked the long path down her Mississippi driveway with a very large, unopened envelope in her hand. “I was crying tears of joy,” she said. “I knew the big envelope meant I was in.”

Computer science was not on her radar at the time. The CS alumna said, “Never in my wildest dreams would I have chosen it. I loved math and it was my favorite subject, so I knew I’d end up in some engineering field; I’d never even touched a computer other than to get on the Internet or play a game. Then in my freshman year, I basically took one of everything, like Economics, CAAM, and COMP 140.”

Foster said not many students in Mississippi apply to Rice, and there were only two other students from her state in that year’s freshman class. Because her high school was not as challenging, she was unprepared for its academic rigor. She adapted fairly well in every class except COMP 140.

“I hated that first class in CS,” she said, “because I felt like everyone around me had done some java programming in high school and learning Python seemed to come more easily to them. I couldn’t seem to bridge the gap between learning the new language and using it to accomplish what I was trying to do.”

Then, she said fate came into play. “Dr. Rixner was my number one support system. It is only because of Scott Rixner that I ended up a CS major,” Foster said.

Her first interaction with Rixner was after the third homework assignment. “I was this shy kid from Mississippi, struggling miserably and avoiding the professors, just asking my friends for help. But I wasn’t getting it and they didn’t know how to help me,” said Foster.

Then she hit a dead end with the cryptology assignment. She talked at length about the problem with friends, but made no progress on solving it. At the deadline, she turned in two sentences about how she thought she should approach the problem.

“Not surprisingly, Dr. Rixner asked me to come to his office and I was even more terrified,” she said. In his office, she told him that one friend had even offered to give her the cryptology answer just to get her to go away, but she just couldn’t accept it. Foster said, “He was impressed with my integrity, even though he was a bit irritated that I hadn’t come to him for help earlier.”

She did finish the course and – with her professor’s encouragement– took COMP 210 the next semester. “It went even worse,” she said. “It was half java. The more out-spoken students all knew java, and the class wasn’t nearly as hard for them as it was for me and a few others.”

Then Rixner offered her a summer job in his lab. Her primary task was writing the homework assignments for a robotics class he was creating and writing the corresponding Python and it started to make a little more sense.

Foster worked in the Rixner lab for two summers. She said, “The second summer is when I found my passion. I knew I wanted to pursue CS after my first summer working for Dr. Rixner, but it was that second summer when I knew this is what I needed to be doing with my career. I’d turned down a NASA internship in order to work in his lab the first summer. Sure, I’d love to say I’d interned at NASA, but having Scott right there, helping me when I got stuck, that was invaluable. I didn’t even consider applying for other jobs the second summer.”

She continued working for Rixner during parts of her junior and senior years. She focused on the same system throughout her years in the lab, working on both the robots and on the backend of the system. “Now my name is on a patent,” she said. “But what excites me most is when I can make something happen. You can click a button and something happens, and I did that. You can add those numbers because I wrote that code.”

Rixner remembers being impressed with Foster’s determination. He said, “Kathleen was an extremely dedicated student.  The first time I met her, I immediately recognized that she would be able to overcome obstacles and persevere in the face of adversity.  So, I hired her to work for me for three very productive years.”

After graduating from Rice, Foster accepted an offer to work as a software engineer with General Motors in Austin, Texas. “I didn’t want to work for a tech company per se. I have other interests outside CS and wanted work-life balance.  Also, GM does not have a reputation for annual layoffs.  I was looking for a growing organization that could offer a real career path.”

GM had outsourced programming for their enterprise systems to third party service providers. When a new CIO took over, GM decided to bring all software development in- and Foster got in on the ground floor.

“I worked on timekeeping as one of my early projects,” said Foster. “The individual plants all around the world used many different systems, and our goal was to switch the timekeeping off individual mainframes and into a global system. The third party service provider that initially began the implementation took two years to convert three plants, and a lot of those plant employees were unhappy with the results so none of them were successful transitions. We communicated more with the employees and managers and when the internal team took over the project, we deployed it to 12 plants in one year. Each one was a success.”

Now Foster is helping write a custom web-app front-end for the timekeeping system that retains all the system functionality but adds customized features that the supervisors and business desire. “Once again, I can say, ‘you hit that button and my XML API saves the data to the system’,” said Foster.

Shortly after turning 24, Foster purchased her own home in Austin, and she strongly recommends other Rice students consider working for GM. Foster said, “You start with an obscene amount of vacation days, you generally don’t work more than 40 hours a week, and there is a great 401K matching program. Work-wise, it’s a very supportive and creative atmosphere. My boss is letting me run our current project. I’m the scrum master, even though I’d never done that before. He said, ‘go for it’ and I figured it out. Plus, we’re remodeling, and our new offices are beautiful! It’s a good life.”

Kathleen Foster completed her B.A. in CS in 2013.