The University of Chicago Masters Program in Computer Science students push boundaries and innovate across many facets of industry. Whether it’s developing seamless UX interfaces, engineering software at Fortune 500 companies, working in big data or keeping networks secure, our students use their applied-skills education from the MPCS to problem-solve, create, and elevate the computer science field. Learn from their stories and discover how a CS background can prepare you for cutting-edge careers.
Current MPCS students Lauren Campbell, Yuchen Chen, Hannah Kim, and Beth Pater attended the Grace Hopper Celebration last month. They discussed the impact of being surrounded by women in the tech industry, their experiences at interviews and networking events, and how the MPCS and GHC complemented each other.
What drew you to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration and what were you hoping to achieve by attending?
Lauren Campbell: I had known about GHC and it was always something I wanted to go to, but I didn’t have a chance. When I got the email from the MPCS about attending, I knew I definitely wanted to go, especially because I wasn’t sure if I’d be recruiting in the fall. So I figured that even if I wasn’t recruiting, I’d still be able to meet a lot of people within the tech industry, especially meeting women within tech. My main goal was to look for job opportunities as I’m graduating in the spring, so I spent a lot of time at the career fair.
Yuchen Chen: I heard about GHC last year and the only thing I knew about it was that it’s a good place to secure internships or full-time jobs. So for me, getting some inspiring insights from outstanding women in tech or peers, building up my network, and getting job opportunities were all very attractive.
Hannah Kim: I heard a lot about the Grace Hopper Celebration, that it’s an amazing place to network with other women in this field and to listen to their stories and achievements. Majoring in mathematics in undergrad and studying computer science at UChicago, I was always one of a few women in my class. So, when I got the opportunity to attend GHC with sponsorship from MPCS, I was more than excited.
Beth Pater: As a high school computer science teacher, I’d heard of it before and I knew of a few college professors who took groups there every year, so I knew it existed and that attendees enjoyed it. So when MPCS told us about the opportunity, I knew I definitely wanted to do it. I was much more interested in the sessions than the career fair, though I didn’t realize how huge that would be.
I did bring a few resumes with me; I thought it would be good practice to at least stop and talk to a few companies. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
What events or workshops did you find interesting or inspiring?
LC:The first day I walked in and went past a line of 1000 women and it felt really good. You don’t see that often in tech. You’d talk to everyone, even in lines. At one point I said to the people standing with me, “Hey, why don’t we practice for interviews?” and so I was doing interview prep with a few undergrads. I thought it was really nice that I was able to practice and that we were able to help each other.
YC:The most impressive event for me was the “Climbing the Corporate Ladder” workshop. The core concept is: “Acceptance demands adaptability, tolerance and self-motivation, and most importantly, the freedom from fear of failure.” The workshop provided some thoughtful tips about how to face the potential challenges we would meet in the workplace.
We need to accept the reality that while we can’t change the past, we own the future. Take control of the event instead of being controlled by the event. Build a support system. A good way is to enjoy small victories to give ourselves more confidence and satisfaction. Always adapt to the challenges, as success and comfort can’t coexist.
HK: One of the most interesting speakers I attended talked about how AI and IoT can be used in agriculture to better detect and forecast plant diseases, microclimate, etc. and how this can improve yields and reduce farming costs in the long term. They discussed some of the technical challenges they face and what they’ve tried to overcome those challenges.
BP: What’s nice about GHC is before you even attend, they have an app that lists out different sessions. You can choose by time, by CS topic (cybersecurity, software development, etc.) or by people. So if you wanted to hear from someone from Groupon or Google specifically, you could do that.
I was interested in topics where we would open up our laptops and create something. I wanted to walk away with something actually made. I attended one for web sockets - basically implementing chat on a website. There was one where you could make your own Google Chrome extension and that was really neat.
There was also a session about using VR in non-traditional ways and I thought that was really neat. This conference gave me the opportunity to see what options exist, both in tech and also professionally. You hear a lot, but to actually see what the different companies are looking for and what the options are was very beneficial to me.
Lastly, every single person you talk to at this conference is so welcoming and encouraging - for all different levels. You meet people who are veterans at their jobs and do this every day, and you have conversations where you’re all on the same playing field. It was really awesome and great. It was empowering for me.
Did you have any interviews? What was that experience like?
LC: I had a few interviews with Comcast and others scheduled prior to the conference and I had one interview that was scheduled while there. I also got invited to separate networking events from a few companies, like Estee Lauder. A lot of the interviews were geared toward software engineering or internships. I was looking for a product management role for an experienced hire, so there were fewer companies hiring, but I did make a lot of contacts. From the conference, I ended up getting an interview with Microsoft, so that was exciting.
YC: I didn’t have any interviews during GHC, but I did talk to several companies at the career fair, learned about their products and culture, and shared my experiences. I also got some contacts from companies and I continued to follow up with them after GHC.
HK: I did not have any interviews during the conference, but I got contacts from many different companies both before and after GHC (through the resume database and networking during the career fair), which led to opportunities for interviews afterwards. I definitely felt that by attending GHC, I had a chance to talk to recruiters face-to-face and to learn more about what they were looking for from candidates.
BP: Before I went to the conference I was kind of on the fence - I wasn’t sure whether I was going to stay in teaching or do something in another tech field. But then there were 50 companies to go talk to (and by the way, they have the best swag ever!). When I was walking up and down the rows, I was looking for an opportunity to stay in Chicago. I stopped at seven companies; of those, five gave me an interview.
You have the opportunity to upload your resume before you arrive at the conference, and some companies would reach out beforehand. Some were very direct, saying, “When you get here, we want to talk to interview you at this time.” Others would say, “Hey, stop by our booth and see us.” It does pay to do the career fair early because they only have so many interview spots available.
The interviews take place in a totally separate location, so you’d basically get a time and a booth number. Some of them were a “whiteboard interview” where they asked you questions and you write code; others were behavioral interviews where they ask you about past projects and courses you’ve taken. They know that most people interviewing are students and not currently in the tech field. In a tech interview, there is a lot you can prove. They will ask you to do something on a whiteboard and either you can do it or you can’t. I was able to use what I’ve learned at the MPCS, which definitely prepared me well for the interview questions. You have to show you can do the job, which is different from other interviews where you talk about how you would do the job.
What were your favorite parts of the conference?
LC: IBM had 600 tickets to Harry Potter World and they rented out the space after it closed, so we had the whole place to ourselves with no lines. It was so fun! I actually met a lot of people there, too.
YC: The opportunities. There were so many companies attending the event, and I didn’t even know of some of them before. It was a pleasure to learn more about those companies and chat with engineers working there.
HK: Definitely the career fair. I have never had a chance to talk to so many different tech companies at one place. Almost all of the companies I was interested in were at the career fair, which was amazing. The companies seemed very eager to talk to candidates and share the opportunities present at those companies. Specifically, Microsoft had a booth set up so that a candidate could actually sit down with a recruiter one-on-one for around 15 minutes and talk about the opportunities there—like a quick interview.
Another favorite part of the conference was that I had a chance to meet many students from other schools. The career fair and the keynotes involved waiting in long lines, which meant that I inevitably had to talk to people around me. I talked to many students who have the same background as me. During my internship this summer, I was rather alarmed that there were significantly fewer women in this field, but at this conference it was different! It was a great experience to talk about our careers and internship experiences together.
BP: The vibe of the conference was one of my favorite parts - everyone was so happy to be there. To see 25,000 women in one room was fascinating. Everyone at the career fair was really great too. The experience of a women’s tech only career fair was really powerful.
How do you feel that attending the Grace Hopper Celebration added to your overall MPCS experience?
LC: I got to know some of my other classmates and it was so exciting to see all of these women being involved. It was a really great experience. I got to know a lot of companies that I wouldn’t have otherwise known or thought about and so it provided me with a great opportunity. For example, Estee Lauder was never on my radar and I interviewed with them. Microsoft was, and I interviewed with them, too. Being able to get contacts from these companies was pretty cool - and it would be awesome if wherever I ended up full-time was because of Grace Hopper.
YC: In the MPCS, we get academic training. Attending GHC was a great complement. We got to see what was happening in the industry and also how tech women thrive. GHC is not only about all tech things, but also about leadership. Through GHC, we got some important mentorship, which would help us go further in our career paths.
HK: It was an amazing experience and I really appreciate the opportunity I had to attend GHC with the MPCS. The MPCS brings many speakers and alumni from many different companies to campus, but GHC was a great place to meet hundreds of engineers in one place. Being able to network with female engineers from a variety of companies at GHC was one of the most valuable experiences I had as an aspiring engineer.
BP: At the MPCS, we’re learning a lot of theory and doing a lot of projects. Going to GHC made me have to use that knowledge. When I was doing interviews, I had to pull from parts of what I learned in algorithms, software development, core programming and databases and so on. It definitely enhanced that for me. I ended up getting an offer and accepting it, so GHC also made me realize which classes I want to focus on for the rest of my time at the MPCS, now that I have a directed career path. I was not expecting to leave the conference with a full-time job upon graduation, but now that I know that, I can pick classes for the last couple of quarters strategically.
What is a piece of advice you’d give someone considering applying to UChicago’s Masters Program in Computer Science?
LC: Know what you want to get out of it and make sure that the program aligns with it - the MPCS is perfect for product management, data analytics, and software engineering, for example. You have to really know that you want to commit to it and make sure that it aligns with your goals.
YC: MPCS is a very good program for students with different academic backgrounds. It especially provides an opportunity for many students who have zero experience in computer science. Course offerings are diverse, which can serve students with interests in different tracks. So as long as you know what you want to do and are prepared to study hard, the MPCS is a great choice and will give you the solid foundation for your future career.
HK: If you have no prior experience in computer science but you are interested in stepping into this field, I highly, highly recommend! I had no coding experience at all before the beginning of this program, but the MPCS has a good curriculum that helped me learn from scratch.
The MPCS has immersion programs that are very good for people who know nothing about programming, and even a UNIX bootcamp which is helpful for people who are new to this field.
MPCS offers all the core courses that are fundamental, but it also offers many electives that are very practical and work-related. I and all of my friends at the MPCS started off with zero experience, but we all managed to get summer internships and job offers as software engineers within a year and a half!
BP: I feel like there are two approaches: some people know exactly what they want to do, and others kind of explore outside of that and learn new things. I would say to take a breadth of classes because the MPCS offers things that going in, you may think, “I don’t know if I want to do that.” But after taking the classes, it offers a new direction or it helps you to be better in the direction you want to go in in the first place. Overall, it makes you much more marketable.
The other thing is that the University of Chicago has a very good reputation so I would suggest applying to a lot of different places while you’re in the program. Get to know your professors - they have a lot of good advice for you. You’ll learn a lot from the other students as well - don’t be intimidated if you don’t have the same background as everyone else. It’s very rare to find two people in the MPCS who have the same journey. You still have something valuable to bring to the table. Tech has so many openings and companies are looking for people who are diversified. The more you talk to people the more you realize how many opportunities you’re going to have.
What are your career goals upon graduation?
LC: I would like to be a product manager on a customer-facing UX or UI product. I want to be working on a team with engineers and designers toward building a new product or improving an existing one. Working on new technology would be really interesting.
YC: I want to be an excellent software engineer and have the chance to participate in the development of some cool products, which will impact people’s daily lives. In a few years, maybe I will switch to a leadership role.
HK: I will be working as a software engineer at a social media company after I graduate. I want to try out different teams and areas of interest for the next few years, but I am also interested in pursuing a product management role in the future.
BP: I’ll be joining Accenture as an Advanced Applications Engineer doing a combination of analytics, consulting and hands-on coding. They also have a lot of opportunities for outreach and community so the things that I loved about education and didn’t want to give up, I won’t have to give up in this new position.