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Computer Scientist and Entrepreneur Gayle McDowell on Succeeding in Silicon Valley

April 14, 2014
Gayle Laakmann McDowell

Gayle Laakmann McDowell

As part of OneDublin.org’s Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Series, we recently spoke with Gayle Laakmann McDowell, a University of Pennsylvania computer science graduate, founder & CEO of CareerCup, and former full-time Google software engineer (and programming intern at Microsoft and Apple during college). Ms. McDowell is also the author of three books targeted at helping candidates secure positions in leading technology companies (The Google Resume, Cracking the Coding Interview and Cracking the PM Interview).

OneDublin.org: What inspired you to pursue computer science in college and as a career?

Gayle Laakmann McDowell: “I actually came from a long line of female engineers. My grandmother is a mechanical engineer, my mom has a PhD in electrical engineering, and two of my three aunts also have engineering degrees. My father and grandfather are also engineers, so engineering is in my blood.

“When I entered high school my mother told me and my sisters that we had to take one computer science class before graduating high school. I fought and fought my mother on this because I had zero interest in computers at the time, but eventually realized I wasn’t going to win this fight. I decided if I had to take programming I might as well take it in my freshman year and get it over with.

“I signed up and ended up really loving the programming class. It was different than what I expected. I expected the class to be a lot of memorization, just like other science classes I had taken before. Programming was very different – more like playing with LEGO when I was a kid. Programming gave me the chance not just to study how problems are solved, but to actually create and build new things, to be really creative. I loved programming from the first week or two of the course, so I kept up with programming throughout high school, built a bunch of games and decided computer science would be my major in college.”

OneDublin.org: What should high school students considering computer science in college expect at the college level, and what can they do in high school to better prepare for college?

McDowell: “I’m really, really glad that I spent 3-4 years programming while in high school. The reason I’m glad, however, is not that I learned a ton in high school, I really didn’t; I’m glad because I had the opportunity to explore an aspect of computer science that I really love – writing code – which is just one part of computer science.

“But if a student doesn’t get the opportunity to code in high school it’s not the end of the world – in my experience only half of the people entering computer science at the college level have coding experience. If you don’t know anything about coding coming out of high school you aren’t at a significant disadvantage.

“Another thing I tell students is don’t think you need to love all aspects of computer science. There are a lot of different disciplines in computer science: there’s coding or creating computer programs, there’s a very mathematical side, there’s very low level specialities; you don’t need to love all of it. I didn’t like all of my classes but what’s important is that there’s an aspect that you like.”

OneDublin.org: After successfully completing your masters degree and securing your first full-time job, what was it like actually working as a computer scientist?

Cracking the Coding Interview - FrontMcDowell: “I was quite lucky. I landed several terrific internships while I was in college starting with Microsoft after my freshman year, and it was an amazing experience. I knew I was very lucky to get that experience so early on because being a software developer at any of the big tech companies is a great place to be.

“I believe that software development is one of the best roles coming out of college. Programmers are extremely well paid, particularly considering the number of hours worked, and it really opens the door to many other things. The idea that you are chained up to a computer all day isn’t true: it’s a very collaborative and unique role coming right out of college.

“Being a software developer also doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be programming your entire life, and it opens the door to so many different fields because employers really like people with proven technical skills, particularly if you want to stay in the technology industry. Being a software developer is also a much more creative job than most people realize.”

OneDublin.org: Walk me through one of the more interesting problems you tackled when working as a programmer.

McDowell: “While it wasn’t the hardest problem I ever had to solve, one of the cooler experiences I had was while I was completing my final internship at Apple, where I was a member of the iChat team (an instant messaging precursor to Apple Messages).

“I was using instant messaging a ton, but in a different way from my Apple teammates. Because I was younger, and instant messaging was so popular in college, I had a lot more friends on my instant messaging list than any of my co-workers. I was able to see problems that my co-workers didn’t notice, because I was using instant messaging in a different way.

“As a result I was able to make some decisions very early on. During my very first week at Apple, and at that point I hadn’t even learned the programming language used by Apple which is Objective-C, I was able to create and implement a change to iChat that made it easier to switch accounts, which ended up being one of the key features listed on the next version of Apple’s instant messenger client!

“Regardless of what you are doing at work, coding is useful outside of work to solve your own problems. For example, I had a baby about nine months ago and I was really frustrated by the baby name websites, because they didn’t show the data in a way I wanted to view it. So I spent some time and built my own site (JustPickAName.com), which helped me solve my problem.”

OneDublin.org: For people who dream of being offered a job at a leading Silicon Valley technology company, how should they approach the challenge?

Cracking the PM Interview - FrontMcDowell: “One thing I try to make clear to people is that when you watch movies or read articles about how hard it is to get a job in companies like Google, this is the media trying to tell a story, to get clicks and views of their content out of the thousands and thousands of articles published that day. One way to get articles shared is to include lists of scary interview questions.

“The reality is that interviews are a lot more normal than what is portrayed in the media. My recommendation is to ignore articles about ‘the top ten most difficult Google interview questions’ because those articles are often completely inaccurate, and instead go look at sites that have interview questions that have been directly added by the candidates. You’ll find that the questions are a lot more reasonable.

“There are a lot of questions about a candidate’s background. If you are a software developer you will be asked to write code on a whiteboard, that’s normal, but for other positions the questions that you think are really scary, like ‘how much would you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle’, are actually just problem-solving and deduction questions.

“View the interviewers in good faith. They are looking for people who are successful, who are smart and who are good problems solvers. They’re not looking to quiz you on bizarre details.”

OneDublin.org: Has being a woman in what remains, unfortunately, a male-dominated field ever been a challenge?

McDowell: “I had the benefit of being surrounded by engineers who are female, so I walked into engineering not perceiving the profession as a ‘male thing’, and I think that was very useful for me. I never felt I didn’t belong here because I’m a girl.

“When I was in college I didn’t feel the need to join women in computer science clubs, and I didn’t experience discrimination or sexism. But when I entered the workforce it was different; I didn’t experience hostile comments, but I did see the surprise in people’s faces when I mentioned I was an engineer, rather than marketing or recruiting. While colleges and big companies are relatively insulated from outright sexism, I do see it now that I own my own business and am in a startup environment.

“For the most part it’s not people directly blocking me, it’s people who are surprised that I’m an engineer. I know that I have to fight harder to prove that I’m technical. I start off every presentation that I give saying specifically that I’m not a recruiter, and that I’m a software engineer.

“For now at least, you have to fight harder to prove you are technical if you are a woman. And while it can be draining sometimes, I would rather tackle the sexism – which comes from women just as much as it comes from men – than leave computer science. I love what I’m doing.”

OneDublin.org: Finally, what triggered your decision to leave a successful technology company and create your own business?

McDowell: “Even though Google was a great place to be, I wasn’t passionate about working in a big company. What was missing, and what I value, is the ability to do many different things.

“I love coding, but I also want to think about the long-term direction of the product. I want to be on the phone with people doing sales, I want to do a ton of different things and you really can’t get that experience in a big company. I left to do my own thing as an entrepreneur.

“As a result, I’ve been able to play around with a lot of different ideas and have created about fifteen different websites, with CareerCup.com being just one idea that started to take off on its own while I was still at Google. My time at Google gave me a ton of experience interviewing, I was on a hiring committee, and was able to see first hand how candidates that looked great on paper would sometimes struggle during the interviews.

“It was frustrating for us on the hiring committee. We wanted people to prepare more for the interview process, but there weren’t great resources available. After leaving Google, I re-wrote CareerCup.com so that it could stand on its own and started working on my first book. I haven’t looked back since.”

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