I recently gave a talk to SWE (Society of Women Engineers) at my alma mater Duke University. The purpose of the talk was to give young women engineers insight into how college, specifically Duke did and didn’t prepare me to work as an engineer for a startup like Mint.com.
I thought the talk was well received and the girls asked a lot of good thoughful questions regarding startups, funding, marketing, and what employers were looking for in potential candidates.
Here is the gist of the talk I gave:
Hi, I’m Poornima Vijayashanker. I graduated from Duke as an ECE and CS major in ‘04. I left Duke to move to the Bay Area and work as a software engineer. For the past two years I’ve been working at Mint.com. Mint.com came about after the founder and CEO Aaron Patzer was frustrated with existing financial software. As a young and active individual he didn’t want to spend hours budgeting and tracking his finances. He found Mint.com as a way to help people save time and do more with their money. I knew about Mint.com since its inception. I came up with the name, and I’ve helped Aaron build his engineering team over the next two years.
My interest in working for Mint.com grew from my desire to be more than just an engineer. I wanted to have the freedom to create a product that would change people’s lives, and I also wanted to experience the evolution of a company and a product.
Duke prepared me for the startup environment. For starts, Duke’s curriculum is very challenging. The CS courses teach students good software fundamentals, and coding skills which apply directly to industry. Duke’s engineering school teaches the princples of problems solving that can be continually applied to any business or engineering problem.
When I first came to Duke I thought I was accepted by mistake. I was certainly not the smartest person there, and found the first two years very difficult. But then I started to see how my peers solved problems, and I began to think about engineering problems differently. Collaborating on projects and working as a TA exposed me to different methods of writing code. I became smarter just by being surrounded by smart kids
Finally, Duke’s professors are very supportive of their students, which is exhibited by the countless teaching awards they win year after year. My own engineering Professor Lisa Huettel is an endless source of inspiration to me both as a female and as a engineer. Her patience year after year, and boundless enthusiasm for engineering keep me motivated.
However, I think there are a few areas for improvement.
At Duke, every year is sort of the same. Sure each class is slightly different; there are those that are based on projects, others that have problem sets and tests, and some that you write papers for. And each year gets more and more challenging, but overall you have a very similar routine once you understand the system.
But at a startup you are constantly dealing with change. In the two years I’ve been at Mint I’ve seen the company grow from 3 people to 27, which meant that I played a pivotal role in the growth of it, including hiring my own boss, and explaining the architecture of the system to new employees. I wasn’t just coding everyday. I’ve also had to learn how to support a growing user base. During all these changes I had to learn to adapt, and accommodate them in order to be successful.
Duke didn’t teach me how to make tradeoffs, which is a highly valuable skill required in business and engineering because of time and resource constraints. In every class you are assigned a set of problems or a project, which you have to complete fully. Whereas in industry you might be given three features, but may only have time to implement one or two of them, and then you spend the remaining release cycle unit testing them, because you want to deliever a quality solution to customers, whose satisfaction and approval are your final grade.
Also, when writing a piece of code its not enough for it to be correct, it has to be scalable (handle multiple incoming and outgoing requests),
not generate too much load on the database, and be robust enough to avoid security breaches. Thinking in these terms comes with time and experience, but it could be incorporated into the existing curriculum by giving students more freedom when it comes to software or hardware design.
There was a lot that Duke did for me, but I would say the one thing it did best was teach me how to have fun. Not many people can say they’ve experienced an NCAA basketball championship, or been tenting with classmates in K-ville. Duke does an especially good job of keeping its students happy and instilling an element of work/life balance in them that I havent seen at many other institutions. I think this transcends everything else, because ultimately in working for a startup you want to be ethusiastic and passionate about the company and the product, and having fun every step of the way is the only way to ensure a happy and successful engineer.
In closing, I enjoy working at Mint.com, and the thousands of positive testimonals represent how successful it has been. I would like to thank Duke for playing a part in its and my own success.