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Google Intern Sierra Kaplan-Nelson on Changing the World Through Code

September 10, 2014
Sierra Kaplan-Nelson

Software Engineer Intern Sierra Kaplan-Nelson

Programmer. Coder. Software engineer. Computer scientist. What image pops into your mind when you hear these job descriptions? Have you been influenced by an unconscious bias or stereotype?

An increasing number of Silicon Valley companies, colleges and K-12 educators are acknowledging that a lack of diversity in the tech sector is a serious problem and are taking action to encourage more women and underrepresented minorities to pursue an education and careers in technology.

As part of its Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Series recently spoke with Stanford University computer science major and Google intern Sierra Kaplan-Nelson to learn more about her passion for coding and her advice to women seeking to make the world a better place through technology. What inspired you to pursue computer science at Stanford?

Sierra Kaplan-Nelson: “I had an amazing female AP Computer Science teacher, Helene Martin, who now works at the University of Washington. She has a blog focused on encouraging girls to pursue computer science.

“At the time, AP Computer Science was the only programming course offered at Garfield High School. The course was new, I needed a class to fill out my schedule, and it sounded interesting so I thought I’d try it!

“The stereotype is that you can’t become a computer scientist unless you were coding in your basement at age 10, or that you created a successful app before you hit your teens. That stereotype isn’t true; even taking my first computer science course as a junior in high school was early compared to most of the people I know who are majoring in computer science at Stanford.” When you first started coding what hooked you? What was it about coding that fascinated you?

Kaplan-Nelson: “I was excited from the very beginning. My teacher was awesome at making sure we saw the visual impact of what we were doing. When I saw that a ‘for loop’ was part of making a pyramid appear on a canvas it was super exciting because it felt like magic. For the first few months coding felt like magic that I couldn’t control; I didn’t understand exactly what I was doing. And then, after a few months, it suddenly clicked. I felt like my brain was working in a different, more logical way, and I had a much better understanding of how computers work. That’s when I decided that coding wasn’t just cool and magical, but that I was good at it and wanted to pursue computer science in college.” I want to drill down a bit more on coding being magical. Do you look at problems differently now as a result of coding?

Kaplan-Nelson: “I catch myself approaching just about every problem in life by breaking the problem down into smaller pieces, and thinking about how the whole system is designed. When I was taking a history class I noticed that I was thinking about all the different pieces and how they interacted with each other, and I was able to visual the material in a way I wasn’t able to before. I find that I can think through problems step-by-step, and work them out in a more logical way.” Getting accepted to Stanford University is intimidating. What advice do you have for students that aspire to attend Stanford?

Stanford University campus

Stanford University campus

Kaplan-Nelson: “I think that getting into Stanford is a lot of luck and somewhat random. I noticed that everyone who was accepted from my year at Garfield was a girl who had taken computer science, so I don’t know if that was random or if Stanford was trying to increase the number of girls in computer science.

“In my opinion, there’s too much emphasis among high schoolers now on what formula to follow to get into college. I really think you should spend those four years exploring different opportunities and finding what you are truly passionate about. Doing that will not only help you be unique and stand out to colleges, but it’s also the best way to find your talents and what makes you happy. Computer science is just one out of many things that I think everyone should have the opportunity to explore.

“Ultimately I’m a firm believer in not wondering whether someone deserves to get into a college, and looking instead at what they’ve done since being accepted, and whether they deserve to be there based on what they’re making of the experience.” There is a firmly entrenched stereotype of coders as anti-social geeks trapped in basements. What’s your perspective at this point in your coding career?

Kaplan-Nelson: “I didn’t realize that programmers have so much power in making the world a better place, and that so many of them want to. I always thought that programmers were primarily motivated by understanding the mechanics of technology. While yes, it is exciting to get a computer to do something, I’ve found programmers are very passionate about changing the world, making things accessible to more people and impacting the lives of others in a positive way. That was cool.” What was the first program you wrote where you were proud of your creation.

Kaplan-Nelson: “In my AP Computer Science class we had to create a fake name generator, things like pirate names, where we took a lot of input from the user and had to spit out a realistic sounding name. I thought that was fun. The first time I completed a project that I felt was very technically challenging, and was super proud of the result, was at the end of Stanford’s CS 107 class when we built a custom heap allocator. I felt not only that I understood how the system worked but also that I’d implemented my own version of the system. It was the first assignment where we were given a lot of freedom on how to solve the problem, and where the performance of our solution was impacted by the design decisions, whereas up to that point there was always a ‘right’ way to solve the problem. As a result I’m really interested in designing systems.” The statistics on gender diversity in many colleges and the tech sector in general remain stubbornly poor. What is your advice for girls that are interest in computer science, but are concerned about the gender diversity issue?

Sierra Kaplan-Nelson on the Google Campus

Sierra Relaxes on the Google Campus

Kaplan-Nelson: “I’m a section leader (TA) at Stanford for the two intro classes. As a result I talk to a lot of girls because the intro classes are about 50/50 girls to guys. One of the surprising things is how many girls, even in their freshman year, feel like it’s too late to major in computer science. I strongly disagree with this belief. I think that even if you discover computer science in your sophomore or junior year it’s something that you should pursue. You bring so much more to the table than how long you’ve been coding, and how much you know about smartphone apps.

“I think that everyone brings something different into the computer science field, and that it’s incredibly important to find people with biology backgrounds or history backgrounds or who are passionate about a thousand different things. I think girls often don’t realize how much they bring to the field beyond their coding experience. I say to girls that they should go for it! You may face some stereotypes, and maybe you’ll encounter some sexism along the way, but don’t let those negative experiences discourage you from changing the world.

“In classes I don’t feel discriminated against. I feel like I’m holding my own with my male classmates, and I’ve never experienced sexism from any professors at Stanford. I also don’t feel like I experience sexism applying for internships because I’ve had offers from companies with equal likelihood as my guy friends.

“That said, I notice sexism the most in startup culture. I feel there is a very strong bias against girls becoming entrepreneurs and perhaps that’s due to social attitudes, that we don’t associate entrepreneurship with girls. Perhaps it’s the way entrepreneurship is portrayed in shows like ‘Silicon Valley’, which reinforces stereotypes and doesn’t push reality to a better place. I once noticed a poster for an event promoting entrepreneurship and the pictures on the poster were all white guys. I believe one of the main reasons girls don’t become entrepreneurs is because of the images we’re constantly seeing, and an MIT study found that VC’s of both genders are more convinced by pitches given by men than women. While there’s a strong push to get more girls in computer science, startup culture is lagging behind.” Talk about how your first internship before joining Google this summer.

Kaplan-Nelson: “My first internship was with the University of Washington in their Change program. Change is a group that creates Android apps for use by NGO’s abroad, and I was working on an individual project with a Peace Corps volunteer. While the project was interesting, I worked on an app to help volunteers overseas collect honest feedback on humanitarian projects using anonymous surveys via SMS, I learned that I enjoy working with lots of people. I’m inspired when I have the opportunity to work with a team on a project that everyone cares about. Another stereotype about programmers is that they tend to work alone and that’s completely not true.” What attracted you to consider Google for your second internship?

Sierra on a Google Bike

Sierra on a Google Bike

Kaplan-Nelson: “Megan Smith came to speak at Stanford and for those who don’t know her Megan is an incredibly inspirational woman who is a VP in Google[X] (and who will be the next CTO for the United States, appointed by President Obama). Megan’s speech was all about how computer science can make the world a better place and how technology can help underserved communities. Megan is also very passionate about C.S. education for girls and racial minorities.

“I came away thinking that Google is a place where you can create products that reach a huge audience, where everyone cares about making the world a better place. I immediately wanted to be an intern at Google, and I was lucky that the interview process went well!” For students who are considering applying for an internship at Google, what should they do next?

Kaplan-Nelson: “I applied for an on campus interview. I submitted my resume through the normal Google submission process and had two back-to-back 45 minute interviews in person. It was a mix of programming questions and why I wanted to work for Google; I found the experience fun. It was my third time going through an interview process so I was a little more comfortable with interview questions. Once you get over the nervousness of interviewing you can enjoy the problem-solving aspect of the process.” I realize you can’t talk about projects you are working on; as an intern is part of your experience meeting with other interns?

Kaplan-Nelson: “I’ve gone to a lot of social events with my team and with other interns. Some of the events are organized by the official intern teams and other events are coordinated by the interns who started the same week as I did. We have Hangouts groups and plan events on our own, like lunches, baseball games and watching movies.” Are you surrounded by interns from around the world?

Kaplan-Nelson: “It’s awesome. I was at an intern lunch where I realized I was only one of two Americans out of a group of fifteen! I was talking with an Israeli, and someone from Syria and people from all over Europe and Latin America, it was wonderful. I had the opportunity not just to share internship experiences, and talk about the tech world, but also debate political views and cultural experiences. Everyone brought something different to the table, it’s such a vibrant environment.” Have you enjoyed Google’s famous food?

Kaplan-Nelson: “I have. That part I’m sure any movie about Google gets right. The food is incredible, it’s amazing how many options there are!” Where do you see computer science taking you as you head into the second half of your Stanford journey?

Kaplan-Nelson: “I want to be the most useful to the world that I can be by improving access to technology, especially in underserved communities in the U.S. and around the world, but have no idea if I’ll end up in a company or an NGO. I also think computer science education is incredibly important; if I were to become a C.S. teacher then even if I’m not the one who comes up with the idea that changes the world, I could improve diversity in the field and empower one of my students to change the world.”

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