If You’re Willing to Work Hard, You’ll Learn Fast at UBC CS
When you ask Amy Kwok about the kinds of hobbies she enjoys, she pauses to gather her thoughts and then launches into a list of favourites: “I like to play the piano and guitar and to paint, I try to travel, I love playing badminton, I really like hiking, and I like to do the Grouse Grind with friends—slowly!” Such a mix of the active and more reflective, the artistic and the sporting, the solo adventure and the group activity are pretty illustrative of Amy’s diverse talents and they showcase her love of learning in numerous settings. And then on the subject of Amy’s academic and extracurricular experiences while an undergrad student in UBC’s CS department, you get the same thing in spades. Because it was here in the CS department that Amy really shone.
She might not have felt she was going to be quite such a star in the department when she entered the program in September 2005. Amy, a new graduate of the all-girls Little Flower Academy in Vancouver, had always been interested in video gaming and was pretty passionate about computers, but she only agreed to enter the program if a friend of hers applied and entered as well. (The friend did apply and was accepted, paving the way for Amy’s first year.) Sitting in those first classes was difficult. “I looked around and saw mostly boys and I definitely felt intimidated and quiet that first year,” she notes. Having her friend in the program helped, as did getting to know a couple of students in the Computer Science Students’ Society, Eugene Chan and James Dunlop were very encouraging to Amy, suggesting that she “do more than go to classes” and that she get involved in as many extracurriculars as possible. Jumping in with both feet, Amy explored the life of the department for the next few years as few undergrads do.
The CS department is uniquely structured to encourage undergrads and graduate students to participate in the department’s governance. One of its policies is to have student representation on departmental committees. Amy learned about this option and signed on to represent undergrads on the department’s Communications Committee, which she found was a “great way to network with professors and other students.” Over the next several months, as she gained an understanding of the department, she began to explore the many other ways that students can engage in and outside of it. For example, Amy joined the Tri-mentoring Program, where industry representatives mentor older students and older students mentor the younger. Amy first heard of the Tri-Mentoring program from her MUG leader, Mark Sun, also a computer science graduate. Her first Tri-mentoring experience was so positive she knew she would sign on for more. In fact, she ended up being mentored by senior students for her first two years; for the next three years she served as a mentor for junior students herself. Now that she’s graduated, Amy intends to continue this service role and mentor senior students. “That’s one of the things that makes the CS department so special. It’s that junior students can get a sense of community at UBC.” And helping junior students gives seniors a chance to give back to the department in ways that extend beyond the classroom. “For them, it’s not just about studying and getting top marks and a good job,” Amy observes.
Spurred on by her experiences with Tri-mentoring, Amy looked for other ways to contribute to the life of the department. Here was she encouraged by CS grads Liza Ma and Sybil Shim, who urged her to join the Focus on Women in Computer Science Committee (FoWCS), where she put to use her understanding of the unique issues facing women in a male-dominated department. Coming from an all-girls’ school, Amy understood how incoming female students might feel in the department, and to that end she organized meetings, lunches, and movie nights where women could discuss issues they felt pertained to them, strategize and problem-solve where necessary. “These were sort of like campfires for women in CS, and they were really enjoyable,” Amy recalls with a smile.
Liza and Sybil also encouraged Amy to think about running for President of CSCubed, which she did successfully in 2008-09. The presidency allowed Amy multiple chances to connect with students and delve more deeply into the department’s inner workings. Part of her successful tenure lay in helping the Cube refocus its mission statement and restructure its internal organization to help engage students with the department through volunteer work. More than 100 undergraduates ended up volunteering to help organize and run department events like TechTrek, the ACM Regional Programming Contest, and various Tri-mentoring Events. “That’s another great thing about the department,” notes Amy, “there are always so many events to volunteer and help out in.”
Understanding women’s departmental experiences led Amy to further investigate how girls might prepare for a career in computer science. To that end she signed on to help assist with GIRLsmarts sessions, where Grade 6 girls come to UBC for half- and full-day workshops in various CS topics. In these sessions girls are exposed to hands-on activities and demos and they come away with a new understanding of what it might be like to study CS in university. Finding a lot of satisfaction in volunteering with Girlsmarts, Amy decided to extend her mentoring of other students to the TechTrek program, in which girls and boys in Grades 8-11 come to UBC for Saturday workshops and summer camps, where they build their own robots, program computers with JAVA, and design and play their own video games. They also tour the CS lab facilities and gain a greater understanding of the range of possibilities in computer science.
All of her mentoring activity gave Amy insights into how a student could make the leap from high school curricula in computer science (which is often weak or nonexistent) into a high-paced environment like that found in UBC CS. Together with Professors Paul Carter and Don Acton and Project Director Michele Ng, she developed a presentation to the girls for her high school, helping bring a greater awareness of the possibilities for study in computer science at UBC.
At the same time that she explored the many mentoring options open to her, Amy was developing as a CS student herself. Another valuable component of the department is the extent to which it encourages students to undertake co-op work terms through the UBC Science Co-op Program. Co-op has been developed to allow students to experience the workplace prior to graduation, to gain valuable work-related skills and professional contacts, and to gain a deeper appreciation of their major area of study while still at university.
Throughout her career at UBC, Amy signed on for five placements, finding in each a valuable set of skills to help guide her professionally in the future. In her first and second placements, Amy worked for the Vancouver-based telecom giant TELUS. In the first placement she worked as a Quality Assurance Tester. In the second she wanted to further develop her technical skills and so took a position in the Wireless Provisioning Department as a Validation Tool Developer. In this role she designed and implemented a user interface using Java/NetBeans for an issue-tracking system that allowed developers to more effectively serve the communications company’s wireless customers. Amy rewrote an existing program to allow developers access to customer cell numbers and other subscriber information so as to simplify the technical side of the customer service process. In addition, she wrote a user case document to simplify future maintenance of the program. In this and all of her co-op positions, Amy found that she had to employ both her technical and teamwork skills. Having enjoyed her first two co-op terms at TELUS, Amy came back to UBC as the TELUS Campus Ambassador).
In her third co-op placement Amy moved from the giant TELUS workforce to the small- to medium-sized company Apparent Networks (now AppNeta), where she worked as a GUI “bug-fixer.” Having a considerable number of bugs thrown her way taught Amy the invaluable skills of time management and task prioritization. The workplace’s small size was an asset because she was able to approach developers directly to talk about the bugs and their fixes. The fit was so good at this firm that Amy ended up feeling like she and the others were “like a tight-knit family.”
For her fourth placement Amy moved temporarily to Waterloo, Ontario, where she worked for four months for Research in Motion (RIM) as a Product Manager Associate. There, in addition to undertaking a new placement, she learned what it was like to live alone and apart from her parents, a first. She also learned valuable skills in market research and analysis, conducting a product overview for the BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES) and analyzing various competitors’ market shares and trends on the use of corporate- and personal-liable phones. Amy particularly enjoyed this placement because she had a boss who was interested in helping her learn this new skill set, guiding her through the process and ensuring she took away with her skills to complement her technical and project management expertise. Back at UBC, she worked as a RIM Campus Ambassador, explaining the company to other interested CS students.
In her final placement at Accenture, Amy worked as a Technology Consultant Analyst who performed two major tasks. In the first, she worked to help account for and catalogue the thousands of organizing documents that a firm such as Accenture uses in its daily business: RFPs, product documents and testing documents as examples. To aid future employees, Amy’s team was charged with “asset harvesting” these documents, compiling and placing them in a central repository. Her second task was to help create a step-by-step presentation and video demo to guide stakeholders through the Microsoft Dynamics CRM for the Demand-Side Management (DSM) system. For this project, Amy produced two demos, one for customers and one for utilities. Amy found Accenture to be unlike other companies because it employed people from a wide variety of backgrounds and specializations. “Other companies mostly employ technical people in CS and engineering, but the people at Accenture were from the arts as well and they helped in a wide range of marketing and design functions. It was a fun experience.”
In all, Amy loved her time in UBC CS and she has many fond memories of her student days. She must find it hard to believe that at one time she felt she needed a friend to navigate the department, when today she could single-handedly give guided tours of the many groups, labs, and resources at 2366 Main Mall. No longer a “quiet and easily intimidated girl,” Amy is a confident ambassador for a field in which she herself will surely have a bright future.