Last winter, Elisa Lou wrapped up her undergraduate career at the University of Waterloo. In this edition of Get to Know, Elisa shares with us the valuable lessons she learned as a software engineering student, a co-op student, and a woman in computing.
Elisa's journey with computer science education started in the 10th grade.
"I had a great computer science teacher. He supported everyone in the class and encouraged everyone to pursue the field. In fact, he encouraged everyone to apply to Waterloo!"
In most universities around the world, computer science programs are more common than software engineering programs. In the industry, people use the terms programmer, developer, and software engineer interchangeably. In Canada, we differentiate between computer science and software engineering. Software engineering has a professional engineer designation, and computer science is considered a math or science discipline. If you see a Canadian engineer sporting a tiny silver ring on their pinky (it usually can't fit on other fingers), that's probably an iron ring!
Like the other engineering programs at UW, software engineering has the cohort class system, which means everyone takes the same classes at the same time. Though the lines between the computer science and software engineering undergraduate programs are blurred, the course requirements for SE are less flexible than CS. SE students are required to take general engineering courses and more science courses. CS students can opt to take more math courses and can hold minors from any faculty.
Despite not being particularly interested in physics or chemistry, Elisa ultimately chose software engineering over computer science because she thought it would be more of a challenge. Her mother, an accountant, also persuaded her to apply to the accounting program, which Elisa had a high school credit for.
Elisa describes her time at UW as a "crazy ride". The curriculum, in her opinion, was the most intense for the first few years. When she could finally select electives (in her final years), she opted for courses outside the engineering and math faculties to meet new people and learn new disciplines.
In the 2019 cohort for software engineering, the class is around 20% women, an all-time high. In Elisa's class, there are only 11 women out of 105 students. As a result of the low female numbers, Elisa grew accustomed to having male friends.
"I am more comfortable talking to guys than girls. But I still wish I had a close female companion in my class. I'm always conscious about posting photos or being tagged in photos with a bunch of guys, as I don't want my other friends to see me with only guy friends. Even though they are great people, I still think about these things at the back of my mind," Elisa explains.
Elisa is grateful for the cohort system because it allowed her to forge long-lasting friendships and made it easier to study. Each class has a Facebook page for students to assist each with school work and support one another. Each class also has academic reps that meet monthly with professors to discuss ways to improve the program.
"It skews your view of the real world," Elisa observes.
"You're constantly surrounded by engineers taking the same courses as you and getting the same jobs. People develop a sense of ignorance of the world around them."
Students also develop arrogance. Reddit and OMGUW are among the online communities filled with UW engineering and math students bragging about their co-op placements and asserting superiority over students in the arts and humanities.
"We have such great opportunities for co-op, especially in engineering and math. People take it for granted. I think this ignorance is common for first and second year students. You start to lose your ignorance as you progress in your academic career."
The co-op program helped to expose Elisa to the real world and allowed her to reflect on what she describes as the "bubble", the ignorant culture perpetuated by the engineering and math faculties.
Elisa was a QA analyst in her first co-op term. Like many of her classmates, she yearned for a developer position. Quality assurance is an integral part of the software engineering process, which isn't glamorized like being a developer. Despite the negativity associated with QA positions, Elisa took advantage of the position in order to land a developer position in the future.
She asked her supervisors to get more involved in automated testing, which requires more programming.
"A lot of people think of manual testing when they think of QA. It's important to clarify that in an interview. Automation testing is a lot more challenging. You gain can skills with for instance, white-box testing," she explains.
"It's fair to say that you don't like testing, but to say that being a developer is better than being in QA is not a fair thing to say."
In order to prepare for future developer positions, Elisa enrolled in free online courses for web development.
"People always recommend side projects, but it's always hard to get started on them. There are other ways to make yourself stand out too."
Elisa took advantage of the resources available. She applied for scholarships, in particular, women in tech scholarships offered by Microsoft and the Grace Hopper Conference.
"Many students don't know about these opportunities. Ambitiously find them yourself and take advantage of what's out there," she recommends.
"If you want to succeed in your career, you shouldn't let people make your decisions for you."
This is a valuable lesson Elisa has been taught time and time again. During her second co-op term, she struggled to maintain a long distance relationship.
"I felt controlled. It was hard to enjoy the city I was working in without having to constantly check in with the other person. I even applied for jobs just to be closer to them."
After the midpoint of her academic career, Elisa debated switching into CS because she wanted a more flexible schedule and a chance to graduate sooner to work full-time at Instagram. At Instagram, her mentors Tyler and Sarp provided her with insights on whether she should work full-time earlier or explore career options more through co-op. Overall, her mother has been the most supportive.
"My mother helped me out throughout university. She would check Jobmine regularly for me and help me schedule interviews. She ultimately convinced me to finish what I started."
Today, Elisa is proud of her decision and learning how to put herself first. In the past, she was timid and afraid of people who seemed more knowledgeable.
"There are always people who are smarter than you, but it doesn't mean you should bog yourself down. There are still ways to succeed. If you enjoy what you're doing, you should stick with it."
"Ask the right questions during interviews, get a better of idea of company culture and what the team dynamic will be like. Your decisions should not be based solely on money or location. I remember accepting a job just to be in San Francisco."
"Be grateful for your opportunities and support your classmates. Take advantage of the resources that are available. The industry is growing so much and there will be a point where things will not be as prosperous, so we have to prepare ourselves for that."
Follow Elisa at aimango.me!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line "Get to Know".