How Rice gave Yang Wu the confidence to try new things

Yang Wu's advice on being successful in CS

Yang Wu

Yang Wu has worked as a software engineer at Microsoft and Schlumberger Global Oilfield Services & Equipment and she is equally enthusiastic about the technology opportunities ahead in both industries.

The Rice University Computer Science alumna (MCS ’15) said, “We are living in a rapidly increasing technology century, surging forward in areas like the cloud, robotics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence. I am excited about using my knowledge and skills to improve people’s lives and to make work and home life more convenient and wonderful. The chance to keep creating great products is what motivates me most. Each time a customer is happy using our new products, or a new feature helps them solve a difficult issue, I feel super satisfied.”

Wu credits some of her success to the professional master’s program at Rice. She said the basic algorithm and database courses were immediately applicable in her interviews and in her daily work, and she recommends the object oriented analysis design and programming class as well.

“The OOAD course teaches principles and patterns through interesting labs and lectures. In industry, OOAD provides reusability, reducing a project’s development time and cost and improving the quality of the system by recycling software and programs rather than introducing new components,” she said.

Her Rice experience also included exploring Houston and Texas with new friends she met through the Office of International Students and Scholars (OISS). Wu formed such close ties with her local hosts that she continues to return to Houston for holiday visits in their home.

Adria Baker, Associate Vice Provost for International Education at Rice, said Wu was matched with local hosts through the International Friends at Rice (IFR) program. “Usually, two students are paired with each local friend or host – Rice community members and alumni who have completed IFR training. Everyone meets over a pot luck supper at Rice to ease the transitions. It’s a very popular program because our international students are curious about American homes and are eager to improve their English in casual conversations.”

Wu agreed with Baker. She said, “I met a wonderful family through the OISS matching program. They taught me a lot about U.S. culture, took me to their church and farm, and offered me the kind of support I’d only experienced with my own family back home.”

The embrace of a supportive, family-style relationship helped bolster her confidence in trying new things. In addition to diving into required courses for her degree, she registered for classes in subjects that intrigued her, such as statistics and business. To learn more about software engineering careers, she attended a large number of technical employer info sessions and did not hesitate to ask questions about job openings that aligned with her strengths and interests. She also sought assistance with her resume and interview skills at the Center for Career Development.

Now she encourages other international students at Rice to push past their comfort zones. “Try new things and enjoy your time at Rice,” she said. “It is such a beautiful campus, and the times you stay up late working on different school projects with friends will be some of your most wonderful memories. Know what you want, and be confident that Rice is going to provide the skills and opportunities you need to be successful.”

One of Wu’s courses, Game Design with CS professor Joe Warren, required her to build an iOS app – a project she then demoed to recruiters, increasing their interest in her skill set and leading to additional interview invitations. She also prepared to meet recruiters at the Rice Career Expo by attending their pre-expo sessions and researching employers online.

“There are hundreds of employers at the Expo, and there is no way to meet all of them,” said Wu. “So look at the list of employers, pick 20-30 you really want to talk with and research the company background the weekend before the Expo. Are they focused on AI and machine learning? Is that even what you want to do? Attending the company information sessions is a great way to learn about their trends and to chat with recruiters in a small setting. Don’t forget to practice your elevator pitch!”

She also advises connecting with Rice alumni who come to campus on recruiting trips. “After you’ve talked with them at Rice, connect with them on LinkedIn and ask for referrals. Social networking is really important in your job search, but you also need to know what openings their company has posted. Alumni respond better to specific job posting questions than a generic ‘do you have any openings?’ question.

“Arrange mock interviews with your friends and also with professors. The teaching aspect –such as learning algorithms and data structures – helps with the technical part of your interviews. Talking with professors helped me with the behavioral aspects of the interview. Both Schlumberger and Microsoft conducted group interviews with behavioral questions like, ‘If your manager gives you a tough task and you cannot meet their expectations, how do you deal with that?’ They are trying to determine if you are a good fit for their company culture and behavioral questions have becoming increasingly important these days.”

She said Rice CS students are well-prepared for engineering careers and the demand is high. But like many students, Wu experienced imposter syndrome. She pushed through it and now realizes Rice students are already very smart – they just need to define the kind of career they want and pursue it.

“Other students and Rice alumni are all ready to help. I want every Rice student to realize they have a bright future. Know what you want, and stay confident. If I could give my younger self advice, I’d say, ‘Be brave. The opportunity is now, you can’t wait for it.’

“You don’t have to know everything right now. Normally, when you get an internship or full-time offer, you will have a connection with the team leader. Ask them what technologies or design patterns they are using that you can learn in advance. The thing you need to learn on the job is how to fully understand the customer’s requirement and how to come up with different proposals with tradeoffs like timeline versus features.”

Learning to understand and set priorities at work has advanced Wu’s own career. She believes it is important to create a clear picture with her manager from the first, to better understand their expectations. Then she periodically asks for their feedback – and not just when it is time for a performance appraisal. Asking, ‘What is an area or skill I can improve on?’ is one way to solicit input.

“Rice students are not often challenged by the tech they will use on the job, but by the way the real world requires you to communicate with customers and take care of their needs. Those skills, as well as learning how to set clear expectations with a manager, are difficult to learn in a classroom,” she said.

To get over the hump of asking for a student’s first interviews, Wu suggested thinking through the worst thing that can happen if they don’t do well. She does not consider rejection a failure. Failure is not applying for a job or not asking for an interview.

She said, “You’ve got nothing to lose. If you get rejected, you still got one more great experience learning how the interview process works. Think about how it went and what you could have done differently, convince yourself you can make it, and move on. I was not a confident student, but I told myself –like 100 times– I could get a good offer, and finally I began to believe it was the truth.”