Get to Know: Holly Xu

There's a recurring theme in these interviews—taking risks. Overcoming self-esteem issues is a huge part of being a woman in computing. This week I sat down with Holly Xu, a fourth year student, to talk about her transition into CS from accounting, how a robotics club boosted her confidence, and the importance of independence.

Photo of Holly Xu

Holly had a difficult decision to make when it came to applying to university. She had always been interested in computers, but she faced familial pressure to apply for accounting, an industry with a traditionally secure job market.

In high school, she was a website and t-shirt designer for the robotics club. She had always declined offers from her teammates to learn how to solder and cut metal. Despite her experience in web development, Holly felt like she was not cut out for computer science because of her inexperience with writing algorithms. She believed her interest in web development was more of an artistic hobby.

Despite receiving multiple offers to engineering programs, Holly settled on the Mathematics/Chartered Professional Accountancy program at the University of Waterloo. Between her first and second year, she realized she had no passion whatsoever for accounting. She envied her engineering friends who worked on exciting software projects.

"Dude—why am I not like you?!" she recalls thinking.

Holly's interests in computer science grew during a first year summer job in IT. She asserted her new-found confidence and switched programs before seeking approval from her parents. As an existing student in the Math faculty, the process was straightforward.

"I realized any form that I sign at the university doesn't need parental consent. All you need is determination—visit the CS advisors."

As a CS student, Holly faced low self-esteem. In high school, she was accustomed to excelling with little effort. School was a "big kick in the face" because it felt like she was competing with all the "smart people" who had impressive grades and résumés. She didn't believe she was "smart enough," relying heavily on her family and friends for reassurance.

"Everyone here is smart—don't let that discourage you. Learn to think more independently," Holly advises.

At school, Holly had no mentors she could turn to for advice on self-esteem. Holly had peers she admired but never reached out to, which she regrets.

The mentorships she had during co-op helped her to develop more confidence. Holly's mentors have supported her growth as a software engineer without patronizing her for being a woman. One of her first mentors, Leith Abdulla, encouraged her to ask more questions that were intimidating to ask.

"He's a great communicator," she recalls. "Whenever I had problems, he would try to approach it from my perspective. It was really helpful."

In addition to achieving career goals during co-op, Holly is grateful for being able to travel and meet new people. She enjoys working at companies with many interns. Last term, she had a blast working with her close friend Jackie Baek in Venice Beach.

Jackie spent an entire term convincing Holly to join her in the same co-op placement. "To get me to go to a different city—it was her complete doing."

Holly describes Venice Beach as a touristy, sunny, and laid-back rural area tucked away in Los Angeles. The fact that it was not a technological hub like Silicon Valley encouraged her to go outside and try activities like surfing.

"In Silicon Valley, Waterloo interns tend to just hang out with other Waterloo interns," she observes. "Travel to new places like Seattle or Austin! Meet new people who can offer new perspectives."

"Living it out" is what Holly describes her attitude towards having new experiences. This attitude has made her more self-reliant—making her more comfortable with offering support to others. Based on her experiences mentoring high school students in robotics club, she believes that mentorships should be treated as friendships.

"I wish I was part of more opportunities to help women gain confidence in STEM. If you have any questions and would like to talk, I would love to help! I didn't realize how much young Holly needed it."


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Get to Know is a series of interviews with women in computing at the University of Waterloo. They showcase women in our community with inspiring stories. If you're interested in sharing your story or nominating someone else, please email with the subject line "Get to Know".