Aubrey Sirtautas’ Favorite Problems

CS alumna Aubrey SirtautasAs she settles into her new role at Vermont’s longest-running professional theatre, Aubrey Sirtautas smiles over the reactions of her computer science (CS) friends and professors when she announced she was headed to graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University.

“Everyone automatically assumed I was going to pursue robotics or CS,” said the Rice alumna, who earned a B.A. in both CS and Theatre in 2014.

“I arrived at Rice intent on anthropology, but in my first semester I realized I loved solving problems in COMP 140 a lot more than the work I was doing in my pre-req course for Anthro, and before the semester was out, I had declared CS. I don’t think any of my CS professors suspected I hadn’t come in as a CS major.”

In her sophomore year, Sirtautas discovered she also had a knack for solving the kinds of problems associated with working in theatrical management. Most of the visual and dramatic arts (VADA) design classes that interested her were upper-level, so she quickly collected the credits she needed to double major.

She pursued both majors with a passion and split her summer internships between the two fields. After interning in the research lab of a computer science professor one summer, she began to realize her career goals might not include sitting at a computer most of the day.

“By my senior year, I recognized that the traditional tech company jobs and research labs would drive me crazy. I want a lot more people interaction than computer interaction, I want a flexible schedule that can include evening hours and the ability to choose vacation times and duration. And when I finish my work early, I want to be able to leave – not look for another project to fill my eight hours,” she said.

“So when one of my VADA professors prodded me to consider grad school, I decided to apply. Getting into grad school for theatre is a lot harder than getting into Rice. There are only a few schools, and they take only a few students. Some don’t even take students every year, so I didn’t have high hopes. But I was one of the three students CMU School of Drama admitted in 2014 for Stage & Production Management, and that’s what led me there. Not robotics,” she said with a laugh.

While at Rice, Sirtautas learned to build stages, program lights, work on deck crews, and build costumes, but she excelled at managing people and resources.

“The first time I helped run a deck crew, I stumbled my way through it, but I loved every moment. For every show, there is a group of people who run things back stage. And there is a person that manages all those people. That’s what I was doing. You have to know what all the different backstage people do and when they do it, and your job is to make sure all of the pieces fit together.”

The problem-solving skills she learned in CS have served Sirtautas well in her various jobs in entertainment management. She said the two fields are actually much more closely related than most people think.

“There are two aspects of entertainment management, managing resources and managing people,” said Sirtautas. “Most managers create systems or personal methodologies to answer both resources and people problems.”

She said the first aspect, managing resources, requires an approach she learned in CS. “When I look at resources and calculate how much I need – from money and labor to scheduling and materials – I use the same approaches we used in CS. You look at a problem and determine a solution by either creating an algorithm or putting your numbers through an existing program. In a situation where I need to budget for items, I consider how that item might be built and its different components, what kind of materials it might require, and start from there, the same way you do when you create an algorithm.”

The second aspect of her job, managing people, also benefits from an engineer’s perspective. She said, “An engineer sees both the machine and the individual components that make it work. I use that perspective to analyze people and how to relate to them in any given situation. And then, when I need to encourage someone, ask them a question, or tell them something difficult, I use that knowledge to get the best help that person.

“In CS, you may consider the tradeoff between accuracy and runtime. The same is true with people; you should negotiate the urgency of the question with the desire to get the most accurate solution possible. If you need an answer right now, you will likely get an approximation, and if you are able to wait for answer, your team member will likely have something more specific. In either scenario, you must be willing to compromise.”

Although she has some highly-regarded brands on her CV, Sirtautas says work in the entertainment industry is usually short-term. “I’m a freelancer; I am working for four different companies right now. It just takes practice to balance everything.”

It also takes a high tolerance for uncertainty, but Sirtautas feels confident about always finding work when she wants it. “My training in both CS and theatre is applicable to everything! I’ve used my math skills, computer skills, and people management skills to move forward relatively quickly in my career.

“The same things that make me a great candidate for CS or the entertainment industry also makes me good in retail, IT, or even the service industry. I am good with people, numbers, products, and memorization and I can follow existing systems or imagine new ones to solve persistent problems and talk to management about how to make things better. These competencies are highly applicable, no matter what you do.”

Her advice to current and prospective students is to approach everything with an open mind, even the distribution requirements at Rice. She encourages students to choose be open to all distribution courses, rather than just picking the ‘easiest’ class to meet a requirement.

She said, “Be willing to change your mind, and be willing to admit when something isn’t working. In high school, we are exposed to such a narrow view of what exists in the world. College opens up whole new doors, and you can be surprised not only by what you find interesting but you can also surprise yourself by how much you can accomplish.”