Liliana Liu: Perfecting ‘Plan B’

Liliana Liu, MCS alumna“My friends at other universities were graduating early and heading straight for the workplace, but my experience at Rice was so enjoyable, I stayed on for a master’s degree,” said Liliana Liu.

The Computer Science alumna (B.A. ’98, M.C.S. ’99) said her professors as well as lab assistants (labbies) inspired her to continue developing her skills.

“My labbies were terrific, and I wanted to keep learning and working on projects with people like them. The MCS program allowed me to do that while improving my career options. One of my interviewers for my first job pointed out that they looked more closely at my application because of the master’s degree. In addition to helping me land the interviews, I believe the offers I received were also better because of my MCS degree,” she said.

Liu’s career benefited from both engineering and non-technical skills she acquired through the MCS program. She said Alan Cox’s distributed computing course required students to work in groups, reading papers and presenting their findings in class.

“That type of team-based, research- and presentation-oriented work made me a more viable candidate,” she said. “It was apparent in my interviews that I was ready to step into a team and be productive in the industry environment without a big learning curve.

“Whether you are headed to industry, academia, the public sector, or areas tangential to programming, you will have a definite edge if you develop the ability to present your ideas effectively and answer tough questions in the middle of a presentation. During several interviews, I was asked to give a 20-30 minute presentation on the topic of my choice. Those presentations were given to panels of four or five engineers, which could be intimidating. But working at Rice on various projects had helped me learn and practice those key skills.”

Liu believes much of an employee’s success in the work place is determined by how well they work together on a team and how they learn from others and teach others — practical exercises incorporated throughout the MCS program. But she first honed her skills to share knowledge with others when she worked as an undergraduate lab assistant for CS professor Corky Cartwright.

“I had just taken intermediate programming and I was one of the last students to take that intro course in C++. I went to work as a labby for Corky just as the course was switching over to Java, so I was learning and helping others learn at the same time.”

Having lab assistants like Dan Grossman and Jesse Rothstein during her introductory course motivated her to become one herself.

“It was one of the best things I did at Rice because Corky spent time with his labbies and talked to us at the meta level. He would explain why he was teaching it this way, how the concepts were applied, how to think about them at a higher level, and to consider what motivations would prompt us and the students to take it further.”

The experience was so satisfying that Liu worked as a labby for Cartwright’s introductory course for three more semesters. She said interacting with the students forced her to continue reviewing and expanding her knowledge of Java and programming languages because students asked different questions and brought in new perspectives each semester.

“Sometimes the students stump you, and you have to rethink it – why do we design it this way or what is so important about this principle of programming? You don’t really know your material until you try to explain it to someone else,” said Liu.

Although her work as Cartwright’s labby would end up being highly applicable at IBM’s JVM division during her first job out of Rice, Liu said the database course taught by CS professor Devika Subramanian was the most applicable for her day to day job. She added that Subramanian’s artificial intelligence (AI) course translated well to current hot topics like machine learning and natural language processing.

“Most importantly, Devika was unique in that she made us love computer science and want to learn even more. She’s one of the most energizing teachers I’ve ever had. Period. She loves to get you thinking, sparking your interest, and her enthusiasm is contagious.

“In Devika’s AI class, we applied our lessons through a competition called PacWar. Everyone was writing genetic algorithms to train their bugs on how to move, which paths or patterns to follow to battle other bugs and conquer the bugs of other teams. It was so fun!”

A few years after graduating from Rice, Liu’s own pattern began emerging. She worked for IBM and enjoyed the opportunity to learn from her colleagues in a global corporation, then joined a startup as their eighth employee. The startup continued to experience success until it was acquired by a larger company, and Liu found herself surrounded by thousands of co-workers again.

“Some people are attracted to large companies,” she said. “It was informative for me to have experience in both. I picked up different aspects of the same skills – from security and hiring processes to how to get large groups of people to work with each other.

“But at the same time, I felt fatigued by the inefficiencies of a large organization. I wanted to see more impact from my efforts and to have a broader capacity to effect change. So I headed to a different startup, this time as the fourth employee.”

Liu feels invigorated by the chance to take what she knows and is willing to learn and apply it to every aspect of a company, including customer support, business development, and recruiting.

She said, “In a startup, you keep iterating what you learn and applying it. Even if you make mistakes, you learn and move on. Then you make the next mistake and try again. Eventually you will find a path that works for you.”

Her advice to current CS students is simple: take your time, and try different things. Liu said that while focusing on the next milestone has merit, exploring other interests is just as important.

“Step back from the map and look around. What activities have you not yet tried? Join a club, work as a labby. The ability to pull back and reevaluate is a key skill that will help you later at work.

“When you try something new and interesting, it doesn’t always turn out the way you expect, but you still learn something from the experience. Or you meet someone who later offers you an opportunity you never expected. That happens a lot in the workplace. So try to step back and look at the long term picture of your career goals. Try something new, something different — even if it doesn’t seem to contribute to your original plan.”