Photo of Tina Kim by Two Dudes Photo.
Tina Kim grew up in the Silicon Valley in the dot com era. The Rice University Computer Science alumnus (B.S. ’04) said, “A lot of people around me were going into software and technology, so I thought I’d try that CS thing. Plus, my uncle worked on Nintendo64 for Silicon Graphics and I loved playing video games. The possibility of working on video games for a living was appealing.”
Her penchant for overcoming obstacles in video games served her well. Her high school had no computer science classes and she was one of the few women in her CS courses at Rice, but Kim considered her uniqueness an opportunity to shine brighter.
She said, “I had no programming experience and my freshman year was a lot harder than I expected, but I’m one of those stubborn people who hates to give up. Sure, my classes were filled with guys, but the material was hard for everyone. I just kept chugging along and discovered I really liked it.”
Kim never did program a video game. Instead, her career began in software development and evolved into sales engineering and product management. She said a Rice CS degree provides the kind of foundation upon which many different careers can be built.
“I took a journey to product management through various different roles, but each step brought a new perspective. I didn’t love software development, but I kept at it for several years and that gave me the engineer’s context,” she said.
“Sales engineering provided my first taste of product management. As a sales engineer, I was the technical support for the sales reps. I spoke with different potential clients about our software and how it would work and scale in their environment. I explained the value that our software brought and how it could solve the customer’s various pain points.”
Kim said she enjoyed talking with customers, hearing their requirements, feeling their pain, and passing that information back in ways the engineering team could relate to the product. But she felt frustrated by her role; rather than passing along feedback, she wanted to shape the future direction of their products.
“I was working closely with our product managers, and expressed my interest in their work. When an opening came up, I was able to make the transition. It is so satisfying to close the loop –not just feeling the customer’s pain and passing it along; now I can do something about it.
“Working as a PM also opened my eyes to the full product cycle. Earlier, I’d wondered why some things were not baked into the original product roadmap. When I became a PM, I was able to see the whole picture and put together all the pieces amidst challenges and constraints and deliver roadmaps and features. After all the hard-work, the most satisfying thing is when you can see the results after launching a feature. Recently, a customer tested a feature we’d created for her use case. She said, ‘Thank you, this is great!’ and she had tears of joy in her eyes. That was powerful.”
Kim had also experienced the full cycle of launching a new product at Rice. Although she did not personally feel discouraged by the gender imbalance in her CS classes, she helped found a club to support other women in the major.
“There were only five of us in my graduating CS class. Rice was small, so you knew just about everyone. There were so few women in my CS classes, it was easy to become even closer. One day, we were hanging out and talking about the other clubs for women in engineering, like SWE – the Society of Women Engineers, and realized there was nothing for us. It was totally a missed opportunity, and we decided to do something about it.”
Kim said she can’t take credit for the name that sounds like sisters, but she knew about starting a club because she’d chartered a new Red Cross club in her high school. Each of the students took on a different role, like reaching out to Lydia Kavraki to be the club sponsor and securing an endorsement from Moshe Vardi, the department chair.
“I knew how to write a mission statement and constitution, so we sat around someone’s computer and drafted those for CSters. Our first big event was going to Grace Hopper in Vancouver. It was exciting and encouraging to be surrounded by so many women in technology. Then we started reaching out to Rice students in each year’s introductory CS classes and the club began to grow,” she said.
As the co-founders prepared to graduate, they identified potential officers and and handed off the leadership of CSters to the next class of women. Since 2002, CSters has grown from five members to over 150.
Kim is proud of the legacy she helped create and advises students to take another semester or two of CS courses, even if they discover they don’t enjoy programming.
“The field is wide open, and CS is a solid technical foundation for many career paths. For me, the freshman year was hard and went by so fast it was a blur. I didn’t find my rhythm until my sophomore year. Finally, as a junior, I discovered my aptitude and thought, ‘I got this!’ I’m so glad I stuck it through. I love where it’s taken me, and all the journeys I’ve had along the way.”
She also encourages students who feel they are struggling, or who may be feeling out of place in the major, to stay the course.
“Don’t be discouraged if you don’t notice other people like you in your college or your classes. There are plenty of women in tech. The men I’ve worked with want more women and underrepresented minorities in tech. They want more diversity and appreciate the viewpoints we all provide. If anything, being different is an opportunity for you to stand out and shine.”