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How to Be Successful in Computer Science

When I tell people what I’m studying in college, the first question that I always get is: “Why Computer Science?” I usually respond to that question with something along the lines of: “Because I love it!”, or “Because technology touches everything around us and I want to help be part of how it evolves.” I wake up every morning and actively decide to study computer science. I say that I actively decide to study this field because I genuinely do. My journey to become a computer scientist, a woman in STEM, a valued contributor at a tech company, to the person I am writing this blog has not been easy and is far from complete. I find myself talking to a lot of other young women about the challenges of the path I’ve chosen. This is what I’ve learned so far.


My Journey…

In middle school, I started singing and studying music. It started with a solo in a cheesy Christmas song and quickly led to the North Carolina state-wide honors chorus, Governor’s School East for Choral Music, leads in musicals, and performing in at least two choirs at a time. In what felt like the blink of an eye, music became my life and my first true love. Music seeped into every part of my life and made me feel calm and complete. I knew from around the age of 12 that I wanted to have music in my life as long as I lived. Everything I did in high school was preparing me to go to a music conservatory and to continue my passion of music. Studying STEM was not something I even considered because my path felt set and solidified in music.

When my plans to be a singer started to get closer to materializing, my dad encouraged me to consider technology as a possible path for my future. My dad worked at Microsoft when I was very young and seeing his success in technology was very influential in my initial attraction to computer science. He was an English major in college, but technology opened unexpected doors for him and created a world of opportunity that he took advantage of. I was curious about what CS might offer, so in my senior year of high school, I studied HTML, CSS and created my first website. I was the only student in my high school that expressed interest in studying programming, so I created an “independent study” to learn these topics on my own. There was something exhilarating about being the first to do something, and since then, I never looked back.

My decision to pursue computer science over music was not because of a lack of passion for music, but rather a desire to do something that many people thought was impossible. I wanted to be a woman in technology—daring to try what was uncomfortable and forging a path for myself where there might not have been one. Though I started school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a music major, I found my passion for CS grew with each class I took and, finally, I switched my major to computer science. Since then, I’ve looked for ways to help others follow the path to CS, teaching for Girls Who Code, helping start a CS + Social Good organization for my university, working as a front-end developer at SAS Institute, and now preparing to intern with Disney as a Software Engineer for Park Operations this summer. Sometimes I look at myself in the mirror and feel overwhelmed. I never thought I’d be strong enough to make it to where I am today. I haven’t completed this part of the journey yet, but I have come so much further than I ever imagined I could.


What I’ve Learned…

There are countless things that this journey has taught me so far, but here are five of the most important lessons I believe we should all apply to our lives:


  • Never take “no” for an answer. In the tech industry, there are countless jobs and just as many applicants. Living and competing in such a high intensity world means that, inevitably, we are bound to face failure and rejection over and over again. Failure stinks. It hurts and can bring a cloud of self-doubt, but the lessons that come with it are the keys to future success. From failure, we learn gaps in our skills and knowledge, we learn humility, perseverance and empathy. It inspires resourcefulness and forces us to look inside ourselves, examine why were are doing this, then dig down deep for assurance. These are the trials that make us stronger and prepare us for the real world where setbacks and failures are always part of the path to success. When we are faced with the pain of rejection, it is absolutely essential to not take no for an answer. This doesn’t mean to call a recruiter seven times until they give you the job, but rather to not give up on what you genuinely want. Even if you can’t seem to find your open door, don’t settle for a job you don’t want. Ask questions: “What can I do to be a better candidate?”, “Where was I weak in my interview skills?”, “What will you be looking for when I interview with you next time?” Being young adults, and women, in this industry means that we are working with people who have more experience than us in many ways. We are working with other students who seem to have been coding since they started walking. We are surrounded by people who might tell us that we aren’t enough, but we must always listen to ourselves and remember that we are strong, capable, brave, resilient, and valuable. Set your goal. Commit to it. Every obstacle is a lesson disguised as failure.When you get discouraged, reflect on what you are trying to do any why, then rededicate yourself to the goal and find a solution to the problem.


  • Push yourself further than others think you can go. People often sell themselves short. We put ourselves in boxes, either falling into one box or another. “I am either tall or short, not both.” “I am either smart or not, but not both.” “I am capable or I am not.Binary thinking like this is a trap. Real life is almost never binary. By putting ourselves into such absolute categories, we fail to recognize the breadth of qualities that make us unique. Qualities that might someday, in a different situation, be the difference between success or failure. We can be both mothers and engineers. We can be both managers and strong developers. It doesn’t all need to be 1 or 0, and by not limiting yourself, you put yourself in a better position to see the opportunities that lie between and go beyond where anyone thinks you can.


  • Make the most of every opportunity. Mike Tyson said that “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.” It is absolutely critical to have a plan to give structure and direction to your efforts. But, don’t fall in love with your plan so much that you become blinded to opportunities on the edges of your vision. Sometimes, the value of a plan is that it leads you to something completely different that you didn’t know was there.


  • Learn constantly.Once you stop learning, you start dying” –Albert Einstein. There is a lesson to learn from everything. Make the most of it and never stop pushing yourself to be better. Computer science is a world of solving one problem after another. Technology changes constantly, so that should make Mr. Einstein happy, but each new problem we solve informs the way we think and break down problems. No matter how much change we face, we are getting better and stronger.


  • Never forget the answer to the question: “Why?” Why did you decide to get into Computer Science? Everyone has a different reason. Some want to create things, some like to help people, some are interested in how technology impacts a specific part of their lives, like music or video, health research or online shopping. Maybe it was financial stability? For many of us, we see how technology opens doors, pays the bills, and is nowhere close to going out of style. Why wouldn’t we study it? It can be all of those things, or just one. There is no wrong answer. Even if technology isn’t the exact thing that you are passionate about, find what you care about and figure out how technology fits into it. Finding that passion will give you the strength to keep pushing forward when things look bleak. Setbacks, “impossible” problems, rejection. Ask yourself why and remind yourself of the reason you started down this path. The tools provided by technology today can make Anything possible and put that power in your hands. It can change the world. It IS changing the world. Einstein told us we would constantly face new challenges, and Tyson told us that our plans would often fail. Your passion will carry you through these trials further than anything else, and will make every part of the journey worth it.


Where Do I Go From Here?

We are in this amazing part of our lives where we can explore, be confused and not know where we want to go or who we want to be. Although this can be an extremely unsettling feeling, being in this place allows us to grow and to find ourselves while still forging our futures. If we are lucky, we have many years after this to continue to grow and mold into what we want to be. We have one of the most precious things that we will ever have: Time. Right now, we have more of it than we ever will and that’s amazing. This time can be overwhelming, depressing, exhilarating, scary and basically every adjective in the book. But for times when it gets to be too much, trust in yourself and do what Sylvia Plath did: “I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am.

-Cassidy Soutter, 2019 RTC Fellow

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