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How My Love of Programming Took Me to Microsoft, the White House, a Mile-High Hackathon, and My Dream Job: A Student’s Story

Cassidy Williams, a computer science major at Iowa State Univesity, talks about how she got interested in programming and her journey to Silicon Valley, the White House, and multiple job offers.
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My name is Cassidy Williams, and I’m a computer science major at Iowa State University.  I just picked out my full time job for after graduation out of the ten offers I had.  All I can think is:  how the heck did I get here?

How I First Got Interested in Technology

It all started when I was in eighth grade.  I didn’t know anything about computer science, and my parents didn’t either.  In fact, nobody in my family did.  I was walking home from school, when a neighbor of mine said, “Check out my website!”

And then the switch was flipped.  “You can have one of those?” I thought.  As soon as I got home I started researching.  How do you make a website?  What do you need to know?  I used one of those free hosting websites and I had to come up with a username. That’s when “superandomness” was born.  To this day, that’s my username for nearly everything.

I started looking into both sides of making a website: the design side and the coding side.  I loved both.  It was exhilarating to create something and realize that anyone could see my website.  Anyone!  I played with the GIMP at home and with Photoshop at school, following tutorials endlessly until I learned the tools.  I looked at the source code of pretty much every website I went to so I could learn how HTML and CSS worked.  

Making Room for Programming in High School

When I went to high school, I was so excited to start taking more classes related to computers.  Unfortunately, with honors classes and my Spanish and band electives, I wasn’t able to fit them in.  So, I improvised.  In my biology class, my teacher mentioned the possibility of creating a wiki website for the class for everyone to share their notes and collaborate on concepts.  I took his idea and ran very, very far with it.  Our website (we called it, “BioPedia”) had notes and diagrams and a full layout for every page.  We even had a chatroom that we used when our school’s system went down.  The site got so big that other classes used it as well, and my teacher sent me and another student to an educational tech conference to speak about our work and how it impacted the classroom!  It was so fun.

My sophomore year, I continued with a personal project.  It was a forum-based website I started at the end of eighth grade, and I worked on it more throughout freshman year.  Keep in mind, this was before any of my friends and I were on Facebook, so we used it as our own social networking tool.  We’d talk after school about homework, games, and other cool websites we found.  It was a blast constantly editing the layouts and themes for the forum.  It was during this time that I started teaching myself more JavaScript so I could further edit the features.  By the end of sophomore year, we had over 100 members.  But alas, that next summer was the summer that Facebook became popular with all my friends, and we migrated over.

In my junior year of high school, I was finally eligible to take AP Computer Science.  I had to drop band to take the class, much to my dismay, but I was already pretty sure that computer science was the field for me.  I entered the classroom on the first day, and for the first time in my life I was the only girl.  I had friends in the class, so it didn’t sway me, but I had been completely unaware that girls didn’t typically go into computer science and engineering until that moment (I have to thank my parents for that; always having my sister and I play with LEGOs rather than Barbies proved to work out well for us).  Throughout the class I loved learning Java.  I would go home and play with the code, learning how to make simple game programs.

NCWIT Award for Aspirations in Computing

One day in class, I finished the in-class activities early and started looking up scholarship applications.  I came upon the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) and got excited.  It was a program for girls just like me, girls who wanted to be involved with technology.  I applied right away, and eventually found out that I had won the Illinois Affiliate award!  That fall of my senior year, I went to the small awards ceremony at DePaul University, where I officially joined the ranks of “Aspirations” girls in NCWIT.  I didn’t know then just how much the award would affect me.

I finished out senior year with a few more computer classes under my belt and an awesome scholarship to Iowa State University.  I was so excited to be able to take computer courses at a more advanced level and work with a lot more people who were interested in the same things as I was.

Getting Even More Involved in College

My freshman year of college was a culture shock, because I knew nobody at Iowa State and I was very used to my home in Chicago, but it was good for me.   I told myself that in order to make friends and be successful, I had to be as involved as possible.  I joined every club from the computer science clubs to the board of my hall to the Rubik’s Cube club to the TV station to the Hockey Pep Band.  I had so little free time that I rarely procrastinated and I got to meet a bunch of awesome people.  I started blogging for the university (and I still do it to this day).  Going into the career fair that fall with my club-heavy resume, I was able to snag a part-time job at a nearby startup, Priority 5, and a summer internship with General Mills.  I felt on top of the world!

Being exposed to a real workplace was eye-opening in that I’d never seen a really huge company before, and I loved it.  The culture of General Mills that summer was better than I had imagined!  Everyone was incredibly friendly and willing to help me learn.  I joined every company organization that I could and participated in as many events as possible.  My intern friends and I became close, and I got exposed to technologies and practices that I couldn’t have learned just on my own, like their web development practices and building large programs to scale.

When I went back to school  my sophomore year, I had plans to do two big things:  Go to the Grace Hopper conference, and study abroad.  For those of you who haven’t been to Grace Hopper or who don’t know what it is, it’s an annual, traveling conference for women in computing where you can visit the career fair, check out awesome sessions, and meet women (and some men) from all over the country who are also interested in technology and computing.  Saying that I loved going to that conference would be a huge understatement.  I got to see old friends from General Mills, check out Portland, and meet companies face-to-face that I wouldn’t have gotten to meet otherwise.  Right after that week away at Grace Hopper, I accepted an internship at Microsoft for the following summer!

Study Abroad and More Internships

Before I was to head over to Microsoft, I traveled across the Atlantic to study abroad in Spain.  While there, I took Spanish classes to finish my minor, I joined an ultimate Frisbee team and hung out with all kinds of locals, I traveled a lot, and I interned remotely for NCWIT. While there I also decided to visit some computer science classrooms, just to see how it differed.  And boy, was it different!  Nobody brought laptops to class, and everyone hand-wrote their code on worksheets.  It was so interesting to see how differently they learned computing, and yet I definitely saw benefits to it.  Everyone in that classroom could hand-write nearly any data structure you threw at them in a very short amount of time.

By the end of my semester abroad, I was ready to make the fast turnaround back home and then over to Seattle for my Microsoft internship.  I joined the BingAds team there and learned a ton, both in and out of the workplace.  That summer, in addition to joining the company salsa dancing club and being an active participant in intern activities, I got exposed to my first hackathon.  I was hooked.  The concept of making something out of nothing, focusing solely on that project for a given amount of time, was a thrill.  I participated in hackathons both in and out of Microsoft, and even won one of them (my team got to present to the president of Microsoft’s Online Services Division, Qi Lu)!  By the end of my summer, I had discovered that front-end development, especially web, was exactly what I wanted to do with my career.

My junior year I went to the Grace Hopper conference again, and ended up interviewing and accepting a summer internship offer there at Intuit in Silicon Valley.  I was so excited about that concept.  Everyone knows that Silicon Valley is the place for tech in the country, and I was going to be a part of it.

The White House Tech Inclusion Summit

Before the school year ended, my sister (who is also an NCWIT award recipient) and I were invited to attend the White House Tech Inclusion Summit and give our perspective on being female students in computer science.  We were so ecstatic!  We were two of ten girls who got to attend the event and meet important tech leaders from around the country, such as CTO Todd Park, Mitch Kapor of the Kapor Foundation, and Rane Johnson-Stempson of Microsoft.

Hackathon in the Sky

During my last summer--this past summer--of college, I was determined to make it the most professionally beneficial time I’ve ever had (I called it my “Summer of Networking”).  I participated in hackathons, I spoke at two conferences (the NCWIT Summit in Tuscon, AZ, and a Dept. of Labor Diversity in Tech conference), I got a Google Glass, and, perhaps most importantly, I participated in the British Airways’ UnGrounded Hackathon.  This hackathon was like no other.  You may have guessed it from its title: It was a hackathon in the sky!  On the flight from San Francisco to London, British Airways hosted 100 of the leading entrepreneurial minds in the country.  I was honored to be included with them, thanks to NCWIT, as the only undergraduate student on the flight. 

We called our team for UnGrounded “AdvisHer” and our mission was to advise, advocate, and accelerate women in STEM.  We built out a webpage on which people could sign up for our online community, we pitched our idea to other teams on the flight, and by the end, my team had won!  We landed at Heathrow and our idea was presented at the G8 Innovation Conference and the Decide Now Act Summit.  We got to visit the House of Lords and the Royal Academy of Arts, and we hardly slept a wink!  My team eventually got invited to present our idea to the United Nations in September.  Who could say no to that?

When I got back to Intuit from the flight, I continued my truly enjoyable internship doing front-end development, which was exactly what I wanted to do.  When my internship ended, I realized that I had to decide on a full-time position soon.

Senior Year and Picking a Job

And so, senior year began and here I am!  I’m president of the Computer Science/Software Engineering club here at Iowa State, and we have more members and retention than ever.  I’ve joined in on hackathons like PennApps and even helped plan them here on campus, and I’ve spoken at several events on and off campus.  I decided early this school year that I wanted to continue planning things and speaking at conferences in my future full-time role, as well as the engineering side of things.

So, after much interviewing and deciding between big companies and startups, locations and so many different job titles, I finally landed on Venmo in New York City as a Front End UI/UX Engineer and Developer Evangelist.  It’s the perfect role for what I want to do; I get to do my coding on their product, as well as plan for hackathons and speak for them at conferences.  I couldn’t have done all of this without my fantastic, supportive, and patient parents, my advisor Gloria Cain at Iowa State, my mentors Ruthe Farmer and Rane Johnson who I met through NCWIT, Jennifer Arguello who helped me learn the networking ropes out in Silicon Valley, and Kelly Hoey of Women Innovate Mobile, who was on my AdvisHer team and who has become such a good friend to me.

Advice for Getting the Job You Want

In summary, here are some things that I did that eventually led to my job offer at Venmo. I hope they help you, too!

  1. Explore and learn languages on your own time.  Whether they are actual spoken languages or programming languages, they’re marketable skills that’ll help you in the long run.  I can’t wait to use my Spanish skills to help Venmo grow internationally, and obviously the more programming languages you know, the more products you can make effectively.  I know it’s tough to find the time to learn these things, but if you make the time, it’ll be worth it.
  2. Get involved with extracurricular activities that you love – including programming.  Extracurricular activities show your passions.  Companies want to see well-rounded people who will bring more than just coding to the table.  They want to see that you don’t just go to school and then go home and play video games; they want to see you compete and participate and show that you like what you do.  If you do those things in school, maybe you’ll do them at work and make your future workplace even better, right?
  3. Apply for internships early and often.  There’s no such thing as too much experience.  Job application experience, interview experience, and most of all, work experience are the most important things for you to show for your future full-time applications.
  4. Find a mentor.  Having someone advise you and encourage you is one of the best things you can do to further yourself in your field.  Mentors can give you advice on classes and work experiences, they can introduce you to professional and academic contacts, and they are just good to talk to in general when you need to rant about that tough test.
  5. Get involved with tech-related activities such as conferences, hackathons, and meetups.  These events are the best for you to find professional contacts and just get some great resume material.  Some of the best side projects are started at hackathons, and the best relationships at conferences and meetups.  And they’re also just really fun!

I don’t think my neighbor in eighth grade knew what they had done when they told me all those years ago to check out their website.  I hope that I can be that small, motivating inspiration to another young person, just as my neighbor was to me.  Until then, I look forward to what’ll be on my timeline next.

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