Heidi Hunter: from Dinosaurs to Diplomacy with CS

Heidi Hunter, Rice CS alumna and web master.“Dinosaurs did it for me. When I was twelve or thirteen and saw Jurassic Park, that movie made a huge impression on me because everything was created by computer-generated imagery (CGI). It was so beautifully rendered that I walked out thinking, ‘I need to know how that was done. That’s what I want to do.’”

At the time, Heidi Hunter’s family didn’t even own a computer. The Rice University alumna (B.A. ’01) was always good in math and science, and assumed she would pursue an engineering or science degree, but the movie solidified her plans.

“One of my cousins attended Rice, and the way he talked about the culture appealed to me. Rice was much more affordable than other schools on my list. I was looking for a place where curiosity and interest in science, engineering, math would be accepted. I loved Rice on sight. Everyone I met was interesting, smart, and fun, and totally free to express their own nerdiness. I was definitely attracted to that,” she said.

She had intended to major in computer science, but halfway into her first semester she began to have doubts. “To be perfectly honest,” she said, “I didn’t feel welcome in CS as a woman and as someone without a background in CS. My high school didn’t even offer CS, just keyboarding and basic office software, and suddenly I was up against peers who had been early adopters and had been tinkering on computers for years at home.”

Hunter felt disadvantaged by her limited exposure to computers and spent a lot of energy catching up, with limited support from classmates.

“If you weren’t part of that culture when you arrived, it was virtually impossible to break into it, especially being a woman in a male-dominated major,” she said. “Partly, I stuck with it because I was stubborn. I knew I could do it, but I often questioned if I wanted to.”

Her dissatisfaction with the culture was so great that she didn’t immediately pursue a software engineering job after graduation. Instead, she moved to Spain and worked as a language instructor, tutor, and functional analyst.

“Then I got my first software job in Madrid and I was nervous, afraid I wouldn’t like it because I hadn’t enjoyed the field of study at the university. Once I got into it, I loved it. There was a lot more collegiality in the work environment than in my college classrooms, and I discovered I loved solving concrete problems. Studying abstract problems in class had been frustrating. I wanted to solve problems for people, not machines.”

She thrived on the overlapping skills required to produce software solutions. Hunter was applying creativity, communication skills, and several types of analytical processes to solve a wide variety of problems.

“One of the my first projects was for a supermarket chain in Europe. It was a point-of-sale software product, which may sound dull, but the environment was so fun. I had a great mentor and learned a lot about the craft of developing software professionally. I owe my strong start to him, and to that talented group of people working with limited resources to connect products to people.”

While Hunter was working on back-end software in Madrid, she watched as the web grew and integrated into day-to-day activities. She paid attention because of her interest in human and computer interaction.

She said, “I was interested in how people use systems. If something isn’t working, don’t blame your users. Blame your system, and then fix it to better fit the users.”

Hunter moved to Sweden and found an agency working on web and user interfaces. “They were creating really attractive and usable web experiences, and I enjoyed diving into the nitty gritty. I was always asking, ‘What do people see and do when they open this window? What do they explore or expect in this platform?’

“When I decided to move back to the States, I asked for a transfer and headed to their New York office where I worked for another two years.”

Her years inside the European Union, with its constant flow of diverse nationalities traveling and working across borders, allowed her to observe how people relate to each other.

“International relations is just problem solving on a larger scale. There’s a whole school looking at relations from the systems perspective and asking ‘What institutions or structures allow us to work together?’ For example, the economy is a system that allows us to buy and sell things.

“By the same token, how do humans interact with these systems? Moving around created a natural step for me to take my ideas to the next level and look at how we solve human problems on a broader scale.”

As Hunter searched for her next opportunity, she found an opening with the United Nations. After a competitive examination, she was hired to work on web and online applications intended to facilitate engagement between different sectors of civil society and the U.N.

She said working in a multicultural environment requires each member of the web and online team to approach their medium as a global communications channel. “You must be culturally sensitive. Even small things can change how the message is received.

“With global websites, the design and layout must be understandable and easy to navigate, fully accessible across languages and abilities. Once, a colleague and I were working on an infographic and we needed an icon to represent saving money. We opted for a piggy bank, then realized our icon would be offensive in the Muslim world where pigs are unclean. We have the world as an audience for what we’re trying to achieve online, and we can never forget that.”

What Hunter most enjoys is her team’s diversity. “Across my team of 10, at least eight countries are represented, and we have a good balance of some technical and some non-technical people. We have to blend all our efforts and experience in order to keep things up and running.

“But I have to say, when someone finds a site I built easy to use, or says they quickly found what they were looking for, that’s a good day. When something we collaborated on was more successful because we worked on it together, that is what I find most satisfying.”

Watch for the future story on how Rice’s Computer Science department shifted its curriculum and increased student satisfaction.