10 Questions with Kelly Kaoudis

Women in Tech

Kelly Kaoudis is a Software Engineer at Twitter. Before joining Twitter, Kelly was a Software Engineering intern at Intel Corporation. She was also a coordinator of her alma mater’s local Women in Computing (WIC) group, an organization dedicated to promoting and growing a community of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. Tweet her at @kaoudis and follow her on Medium at Kelly Kaoudis.

  1. When did you know you wanted to be in tech?

In the US, we pick a major when we apply to college as seniors in high school. Girls I knew who were also applying wanted to study history, fine arts, marketing, biology, pre-med, psych. Nobody my age I knew aside from my brother was into computers at all; tech wasn’t really on the menu at that point for me. It hadn’t clicked that anybody, even me, could try a STEM major or even have a tech career. My worst grades in high school were in trig and statistics (lacking experience, I didn’t see any applicable use in what I was being taught, so didn’t do the homework).

When I was a senior in college, I briefly dated a first-year CS PhD student. I got to see what some of his coursework was like and realized it was stuff I could do, if I only knew more. Since I was curious, I registered for my university’s engineering school’s Intro to Computer Science class (about then, the doctoral student and I broke up). I’m not really a Hermione Granger type, nor did I like the math I’d seen to that point in time very much when I started.

I ended up doing a CS minor as my fifth year of college, and applying to grad school for computer science.

2. Who inspired your career in tech?

I believe I got into grad school because of my linear algebra professor, who let me play around with one of her active projects and feel like I was contributing something small. She, and her grad students at the time, are amazing people and I’m glad to have had their support. It also really helped me to be a teaching assistant and grader (while a grad student) for other female professors and to see female speakers at WiC events and conferences like USENIX NSDI. Incidentally, there were also more women in the classes I TA’ed for than the classes I had taken as part of my minor.

Also, two of my aunts are in tech — one is a quality engineer and one is a database administrator. Also, my dad has always been in and around technical things my whole life, so I had three technical people to look up to. I probably would not have ended up where I am if not for deciding to do a CS graduate degree (for which I partially have that ex to thank), but it helped to have people close to me doing tech-related things. I didn’t always know I wanted to work in tech, but I’ve always loved technology and science and figuring out how things are put together.

3. Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard said, “I had to learn to stand up for myself. It was a male-orientated culture.” What has your own experience been like?

I have not personally experienced behavior I’d consider sexist or offensive in the context of the tech industry. I’ve had people tweet rude things at me a few times, but I blocked them and went on about my business. There will probably always be people who say or do things I don’t agree with.

I am incredibly lucky to live in a place where it’s safe for me to walk around at night, it’s not against the law to have my hair and face uncovered in public, and if I have opinions to share, there is a decent chance someone will be willing hear them. Comparing behavior where I live to less fortunate places doesn’t make bad things in more modern, liberal cities and countries any better, but it’s also important to not forget how far women have come in the Western world. It’s important not to forget that the ENIAC programmers during WWII were women only because many of the men were at war or working on other, more highly regarded military applications.

Note that I’m absolutely not trying to devalue or apologize for the experiences of others with sexism and harassment. Nor do I think that kind of behavior is acceptable. I’m just lucky to not have had it directed at me.

4. What interests and excites you most about technology right now?

While it is a problem in areas like information security, I’m delighted that there are a lot of places for improvement and new development in today’s technology. Not all the cool things have been done yet! A widespread overall shift to sustainable, environmentally friendly agriculture and use of renewable energy for power seem to my fairly limited viewpoint to be what people really need right now — and technology can help with that.

On a more personal level, I’m really excited about the incredible number and variety of open source projects around today. Absolutely anybody can check out a project on Github, mess around with it, make a pull request. I love that it’s possible to buy a 3D printer kit and make replacement parts, or toys, or just about anything. I love that anyone who wants can take Dan Boneh’s cryptography classes on Coursera and learn a bit about how the mathematical protections we use for absolutely everything in the digital world work.

5. What are the benefits of working in a synonymous company like Twitter?

There’s often instant brand recognition. I also have the privilege of working with and learning from a bunch of really gifted engineers, which is a great way to stay humble, as every day I see that I’m not half the engineer many of them are yet, and I have to try harder. Like many of the brand-name tech companies, there are perks like (delicious) free breakfast. As someone coming from grad school, I’m happiest that there are a lot of interesting large-scale distributed systems problems I can help solve (and that work is only roughly 8–9 hours a day!).

6. What do you spend most of your day doing?

Most of my day is spent coding. On average I spend more time pairing than working solo, but there’s usually quite a bit of creative freedom allowed in how I approach and solve problems. We do standup for about five minutes in the morning, and maybe 5–10 hours of my time each week ends up reserved for meetings.

7. Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps at a company like Twitter?

I don’t know how all teams and groups at Twitter work, but in the Data Products group at the Boulder office we do a lot of pair programming and collaborating. My group also only has full-time engineers (including me, when it’s my turn) doing in-person interviews, so keep in mind you’ll mostly be talking to people who do what you’re interviewing to do. Be aware that you are likely to end up working directly with your interviewers if you get an offer.

Know the brand; preferably, have an active Twitter account. Know what you’re good at (and what you’re less good at). Even if you’re not a new grad, revising the common parts of an algorithms textbook and doing some practice hackerrank questions never hurts. Be willing to step through the interview problem with your interviewer, even if you’ve never seen anything like it before. Ask questions.

8. What do you have to love doing to be successful in a role like yours?

Debugging. Some of this comes in the form of asking people questions, whether they’re architectural in nature or related to specific code. Part of debugging is also being patient and making sure you resolve every edge case. Being meticulous about what your code does and how it does it is really, really important.

9. Fill in the Blank: I can’t live without ______.

Figuratively, I can’t live without something interesting and constructive to do.

10. What are some of your favorite things?
Crypto, gardening, exploring, biking, yoga, and tinkering.