Laurie Watts: Hungry to Learn

Watts has worked in various aspects of software engineering for three decades and said her Rice skills were just as relevant at IBM and Siemens as at an Austin startup.

Rice CS alumna Laurie Watts is a senior software engineer at Siemens.

“What you learn in Computer Science at Rice is how to figure things out,” said Laurie Watts (B.A. ’88). “An Energy Management System that controls HVACs and lighting? I had no idea how that stuff worked, but I also had no doubt I could learn it and use this new platform to make a difference.”

Watts has worked in various aspects of software engineering for three decades and said her Rice skills were just as relevant at IBM and Siemens as at an Austin startup.

“In addition to learning how to be analytical, you learn how to work with other people. And after leaving Rice, you know you can do it. At Rice, you approached problems in areas you knew nothing about and you created solid solutions. Now you know – whatever you approach – it will be something you can learn.

“The tech industry is hard, because you have to keep up to date with all the advances; new technologies are always coming out. You are always evaluating software products or methodologies to see if they are relevant to the project you are working on. Is this just a fad or a new, useful way of doing things? The technology cycles spin so fast in this industry that you must be confident that you can learn what you need to know. And Rice is where you earn that confidence.”

After taking Computer Science courses in high school, she knew Computer Science was something she wanted to try. Her father was an electrical engineer working on firmware programming, and his enthusiasm was contagious. Watts said he got very excited about the new Macs that were coming out and encouraged her to pursue a programming degree.

“I found I liked it and was good at it, and nothing else interested me more – although I did enjoy studying French,” said Watts. “Then I got a student job at the Baylor College of Medicine, helping a research surgeon with graphs and charts of his data.

“He was using electroencephalogram (EEG) tests to monitor brain wave activity during auditory tests for patients with moderate to severe hearing loss. These patients were good candidates for a cochlear implant, which was a relatively new technology at that time. The effectiveness of the cochlear implant was evaluated by comparing the EEG before and after the implant. I worked there during school and in the summers. That job is what stood out most on my resume when I interviewed for my first job, at IBM.”

Although the job she found through the career center gave her practical work experience with software and data, Watts said two of her CS courses had the most significant impact on her career. In those two courses, she learned how to work with and around team conflicts, and how to analyze problems in fields that might seem unrelated to computing.

Watts said, “Team programming was a big, scary six credit course that everyone had to take. We were assigned to groups of two or three for the entire semester and each of us rotated through the team lead role throughout the semester. Dealing with the people on the team as well as the technical aspects of the project was great training for the real world.

“Near the end of the semester when I was the team lead, I talked with the TA about a team member who just quit working on the team project. I was flabbergasted. He was still enrolled, but not contributing to the project and we had to figure out how to deal with that. The TA said we had to work with him and give him a chance to do his part but strategize ways to work around his lack of participation – possibly by giving him less important tasks that wouldn’t require us to be so dependent on his contributions.”

In a different CS course, Guy Almes greeted his students one day and led them out of the classroom and into a conference room. The CS majors were mystified when Almes said they needed to know about Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, dubbed ‘Star Wars’ by an opposing senator.

“The professor outlined the proposal – if Russia sent out a missile, we would send out a missile to intercept it so that the Russian missile would never hit the U.S. I kept wondering, ‘Why are we talking about this?’ but the professor outlined it as a software problem we could analyze and solve. He asked us how well we thought the proposed solution would work. How likely would it be for the U.S. missile to intercept the Russian missile? Could there be other solutions, such as exploding a missile with lots of debris in the path of the Russian missile?

“That was probably the first ‘right now, right here’ example of how to take a problem that is going to be a software engineering problem and analyze it objectively and decide the best course of action. That’s what software engineers do. That one class immediately taught me to be more analytical, to look past the surface, and determine the components of the problem to target.”

While analyzing software problems at IBM, Watts had an opportunity to earn an advanced degree and she joined a cohort of co-workers taking an early version of remote video-conference courses offered by the University of Houston at Clear Lake. She completed her M.S. in Information Technology Project Management in four years while working in Austin, without ever setting foot on the south Houston campus.

“IBM made it easy for us. They designated a room in the J. J. Pickle Research Center and set up a special video connection with UHCL. We went there every week, listening and asking questions in the same classes as the on-campus students. I focused on the software development process.

“How do you manage and control the process for developing software? It involves requirements gathering, planning the infrastructure and focusing on maintainability. It was a great complement to my Rice CS degree. And luckily for me, IBM was already very process oriented. Outside of my studies, I was immersed in learning the right way to do things and making sure we were meeting customer requirements. We couldn’t just go out and hack up something, we had to plan how we would develop it, test it and maintain it.”

Watts said earning an advanced degree gave her a sense of accomplishment and she feels it stands out on her resume. And she recommends CS alumni considering an advanced degree begin the process before they’ve been out of college for many years.

“When you graduate, it feels like you have so much free time. And you begin to fill that free time. It is harder to move back into the study and learn routine and discipline. But even though it’s been 20 years since I finished my M.S., I’m considering another advanced degree.

“In Austin, there are several meetups focused on empowering women, which I love. I am a co-organizer of the Austin Women’s Investment Group, where we talk on a variety of topics, all focused on understanding and managing our finances. I am also a member of Women in Data Science meetup in which experienced Data Scientists are teaching this new technology. It’s exciting to contemplate diving back into a rigorous study schedule, but I imagine anyone at Rice feels the same way. We’re hungry to learn.”