Tawnie Thiessen

Tawnie Thiessen
Class of 2004
Bachelor of Science in Computer Science
Harris Corporation

You've returned to campus several times after graduation and talked to many students; have you noticed any major differences or similarities about student life since you graduated?

One thing that hasn't changed is how busy students are. Some classes have changed as the curriculum evolves, and the physical campus itself has changed quite a bit but it's nice to see some things that are still around, like the Fence and the readme newsletter.

When you were talking to students at the TOC, what stood out the most in elevator pitches/resumes?

The extracurricular and hackathon projects always stand out - it's great to see students working on technical things outside of class (I know how hard it is to make the time!). Also I'm impressed by how the limits of what students can accomplish just keep growing because there are more and more open source libraries and tools out there.

Which computer science topics that you learned at CMU do you use the most at Harris? What were the most valuable non-CS things that you learned at CMU?

Some of the most useful CS-related things I learned were from algorithms class- to think critically about what the code is doing and figure out how to be more efficient. Also having that understanding of what's going on under at a lower level from 15-213. Even though most of my software projects have been high level, I've seen that it's still easy to get into trouble and create memory or other performance problems if you don't pay attention to what's going on under the hood, especially when you start scaling up your applications. Outside of CS, I took three years of Japanese classes and having that in-depth language study really helped me to learn to communicate better and pay close attention to detail. When you're trying to translate or say something in another language, you have to be careful about your word choice and context to convey meaning accurately, and that mindfulness carries over to any communication in general. And this is definitely useful for software - thoughtful error messages and documentation are crucial to helping users or other developers trying to fix your code (or trying to figure out your own code that you wrote a year ago). I try to avoid using terms that the user or testers may not know and to make the corrective action clear (if there is one other than 'contact your administrator'!).

What is your favorite part about your job? What is the most challenging part of your job?

The best part of my job is creating things! The most challenging thing is having to make the constant trade-offs of deciding what tasks should be done. This can mean negotiating features with customers, or deciding whether to take on a significant design or architecture change in order to facilitate future changes or maintainability, or deciding which bugs are really critical to fix and which can be put off for now, all while meeting schedule constraints.

What is a typical day in your life at Harris like?

On an average day, I might do any or all of the following - code, review my team members' code, talk with my lead about current status and plans, review interface specification changes, write up estimates for change requests, answer questions from my team or the company we work with, discuss cross-team code implementation or changes, or help troubleshoot an issue with a team on the other side of the country.

What activities were you involved in while you were at CMU?

I was involved in cmuTV, and Women@SCS.

How often do you stay in contact with friends you made at CMU? Is it hard to stay in touch?

We stay in touch on and off, a lot of friends are on social media which helps. I also find excuses when I can to get out to the West Coast and visit my friends there.

People often recommend finding mentors in their respective fields (similar to the little/big sister program in Women@SCS). Did you have a mentor (maybe in Harris?) after graduation? Do you mentor anyone now?

At Harris, we have what's called a group leader, this is the person who handles your performance reviews and can also be an advisor/mentor. I used to be quiet and nervous about having conflicts, but I've been fortunate to have group leaders as well as team leads who encouraged me to speak up when I had something to say or gave suggestions how to handle difficult situations with other companies we work with or customers. As a team lead I try to act as a mentor to my team members, both in helping them write better code or learning other skills like dealing with clients, and in giving them opportunities to grow. I also learn from my team as well!

Do you have any opinions on the stress culture at CMU? Did you ever experience it when you were a student?

I absolutely experienced the stress culture. But I only stayed up all night a couple times, I highly value my sleep! The experience definitely helped prepare me for work - the transition to work and having regular hours felt relatively easy compared to being at CMU. I've heard other alumni say they've been bored after starting work- I always have some project or hobby to spend time on, so that wasn't an issue for me.

What do you miss most about being a student, if anything?

I miss the environment in general - there were always interesting talks, activities, or just fun things going on- like seeing pi written out in chalk all over campus on Pi Day. We have talks and fun events at work as well, particularly for Engineers Week, but it's not quite the same as being immersed in it.

What was the biggest adjustment to make after leaving CMU?

Learning how to deal with the people side of things. I'd had several group projects as well as internship experience, but as a logical-minded, introverted college grad who just wanted to code and make cool things, I had little experience as far as things like negotiating, resolving conflicts between teammates, communicating with managers or clients who don't have a background in technology, etc. I've had to do all those things now and more, I've learned a lot so far and am still learning!

General Advice

Tawnie says she made use of several of the recommendations in 'Lean In', by Sheryl Sandberg: "For example, she talks about 'sitting at the table'. Like the women in her anecdote, I had a tendency to sit in the back of the room, even in college, but now as a software team lead (and sometimes the only female lead in the room) I saw her point that I should not be hiding in the back and looking like a spectator or worse not seen at all. I should be in the middle of things and making my voice heard. It felt a little uncomfortable at first, but now I sit near the front for our staff meetings"

"Don't be afraid to ask for things! Ask for feedback - whether technical or general, this is how you will learn to do better, and get your career to the next level. You are your best advocate - just ask what you need to work on to get that promotion, or get assigned to that awesome new project. Ideally your managers or leads will give you feedback as they see things you need to improve (or that you're doing well) but not everyone will take the time to do so. Many organizations only do reviews once a year, don't wait until then to get the feedback you need. Also, inevitably you will get some negative feedback - you may not agree, but try to take the time to ask the person the reasons for the feedback, and think carefully if that's something you should work on to accomplish your goals?"