Rolling with the Punches and Coming Out on Top

Elena Kholondyreva

When Elena Kholondyreva was 10 years old, she had a hankering for a Barbie-styled dollhouse. In her hometown of Minsk, Belarus, where the average annual income is less than $1,500, such dollhouses simply didn’t exist. So Elena decided to build one. “But it was a house with a difference,” she says laughing. “I completely wired it with electricity and had a little 10-switch panel that controlled the lighting in all of the rooms. It even had a glowing fireplace made with red lights.”

Working with the tools available to adjust to whatever life throws her way is a skill that Elena has cultivated to great effect. At the Belarusian State University she studied mathematics and education, believing that like her father before her, a university professor of physics, she would apply her aptitude for math to a teaching career. Then those dreams got put on hold in 2002, when Elena’s family immigrated to Vancouver. “I didn’t speak English, and we didn’t have any money for me to go to school. I worked for awhile and tried to figure out what to do with my life.” Knowing she would need to speak and write English, Elena studied for and passed the TOEFL on her first try. The Language Proficiency Index required for admission to UBC was a bit tougher, but ultimately she passed that, too. By this time she’d been accepted to the UBC math department, a program for which she was well prepared given her strong math training in Belarus. All was well for a time, with Elena excelling in the math department’s most advanced undergrad courses.

Then, however, she had to face another curve ball. “I decided to apply for a master’s degree in the math department, but I didn’t have any research experience, so I wasn’t accepted into the program.” Disheartened, she again thought of her love for a teaching career, which she’d been continuing to develop by privately tutoring high school and college students and by working as a math department teaching assistant. “So I thought, well, I’ll apply to UBC’s education department, but I was told that I didn’t speak English well enough. I was really nervous at that point. I’d felt pretty lucky in my life, that everything had gone my way, and now I felt like I had no career ahead of me.”

At that point her brother Yury, already enrolled in the UBC computer science department, made a life-altering suggestion. “He told me he thought I had good logical skills and I would be good in computer science.” Despite the fact that Elena had studied some programming in her free time in high school, she’d never considered becoming a computer scientist. “I didn’t want to be a code monkey,” she notes, because at the time that’s what she thought computer science meant. But Yury took the additional step of introducing her to the department’s acclaimed ACM programming team, of which he was a member. By that time in 2006, the team had competed internationally and racked up an impressive string of victories (see related profile on the team). At first Elena was wary. “I thought, ‘Oh boy, all day long practice sessions on Saturdays. Do I really want to do this?’ But she was intrigued and began attending the practices. “And then I found out it was really, really fun. You get to work as a team, so if one person doesn’t understand something, the next person can help, which is great. Plus, there’s free pizza!”

At the same time she delayed her graduation from math and applied to the computer science department. Because she’d taken a number of CS prerequisites, she was able, by taking five courses one term and four in another, to graduate in one year with a combined math/computer science degree. Then she found herself at another fork in the road. “I went to a job fair and handed out a bunch of resumes, but I felt really weak on paper. I had no research experience, hadn’t done any big projects, hadn’t done the co-op program because I’d joined the department so late. I handed in my resume to a Microsoft rep and ended up getting interviewed, mostly, I think, because he knew of my brother. So personal contacts can be really important!” Her first interview with Microsoft didn’t go well, and again Elena worried about her future. “It was miserably depressing, but it was useful for me,” she recalls, because a few weeks later, Microsoft phoned again. This time her interview experience paid off, and in June 2007 Elena moved to Redmond to begin working as a Software Design Engineer doing web development for Microsoft’s Windows Live Experience team.

Elena’s team at Microsoft is encouraged to work reasonable hours to accomplish their projects, so that unless a deadline is nearing, Elena usually works 8-hour days. This way, she is free to pursue her many other interests, such as martial arts, including aikido, nenjutsu, and Kali, a Filipino weapons-based martial art, sports such as downhill skiing, racquetball, and volleyball, and crafts like knitting, tinkering with her car, and—shades of her childhood dollhouse-making—soldering. Nicknamed by her group “The Knitting Ninja,” she loves working with her team, which she describes as “young and dynamic,” with ever-changing ideas and projects.

Elena loved her time at UBC and has glowing things to say about the CS department. “I really liked that the ACM team was so strong. It said to me that this is a strong department in a strong school. I also really liked the fact that the department had just built several new buildings, which said to me that it was a department that can bring in money. If other people and companies think this is a department worth funding, then they think it’s a good investment for the future, and that made me think about how worthwhile it would be to study with this faculty.”

Because she learned a great deal from the bumps and twists in the road she traveled through UBC, Elena has considerable advice for incoming CS students. Her first recommendation is to take a broad range of courses. “There have been times at Microsoft, particularly in the beginning, when I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. If I’d taken a course where a certain idea had been introduced, at least I would know that it existed and could work from there.” The second piece of advice is for those students who think they might want to join the programming team. “Start out with it right away! Practice is really, really important and you can learn a lot just by being a reserve member of the team.” Third, Elena believes that joining the co-op program to get workplace experience is critical. And finally, she highly recommends paying attention to required departmental courses. “I was really unhappy having to take Computer Engineering. I thought, ‘I don’t want to make these things! I want to work with algorithms!’ But I am so happy now that I did. I use that class a lot in my work. It’s like having an argument with your parents, when you think you’re right, but twenty years later you realize how right they were!”