Meet our board: Olivia Cole

Meet Olivia Cole, a member of BuildHer’s Branding Team!

Olivia is a junior student who just transferred to Northwestern University. She’s studying Computer Science in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, and is part of our branding team!

What was your first experience with computer science?

A lot of people told me I should try computer science because I’d always liked math, and I took the class on a whim and I loved it. And three weeks in I was like, ‘Okay, this is it. This is what I’m majoring in.’ It was unlike anything — I’ve never really been a ‘school person’, like someone who enjoys gathering knowledge for the sake of gathering knowledge. I want to be able to apply what I’m learning there, right then, not later on down the line or whatever. And that’s what I loved about it. It was like math, but better.

Do you happen to know what specifically drew you to it? Do you remember?

I think it was that, it was just that we would learn something in class, go to the lab to work on our assignment, and the things that I had learned I could put into practice right there. It would come up on my screen and it all worked. You know? I saw what I was learning in action, working. So to me that was super valuable and it reinforced that what I was learning was useful.

What is something about Northwestern computer science that you particularly like, or don’t like?

So, right away I joined [Women in Computing] and I was able to go to Grace Hopper really last minute. What’s been the most apparent difference I’ve seen is the community and the resources that I’ve had at a larger school with a much bigger program. And it’s not that the program I was in before wasn’t a really great quality program — I loved my professors and I felt that my peers were really smart — but just because it was so small there’s just no way that it could offer a trip to Grace Hopper for sixty girls. And that’s just really, really cool.

What did you think of Grace Hopper?

It was so insane. I did not know what to expect at all, I found out I was going like two days before, so I got on the bus and everyone was like “Oh, I have this interview scheduled, I have five interviews!” And I’m like — I didn’t even know that was a thing! So I got in, and it was like, can I do this? I never had to sell myself to recruiters or anything like that. So going through the career fair and practicing talking about myself and, after awhile, seeing that I could do it successfully and get interviews, was really esteem building. And besides interviews and job opportunities, I think that’s the main thing I got out of the career fair. Honestly, I wish I had gone to more talks; it’s really easy, I think, to get caught up in wanting to get job offers and swag, so I wish I had gone to more talks, and next year I think I will. But, yeah, it’s incredible. And I’ve never seen so many females in computing all in one place, that’s true, but you’re also talking to a lot of grown women who have built a career and are now there sharing their story to recruit and also share their knowledge with girls. It was just such a powerful and awesome experience all created around women.

Do you think there’s anything specifically from Grace Hopper that you want to incorporate in BuildHer?

I think anything I could say is something that is a main value of ours already. So, community, confidence building, I pretty much said all that when I was describing Grace Hopper. That’s true of [Women in Computing] anyway, and I felt that immediately. So having Meg and Alaina running it, there’s no doubt in my mind that those values are going to be incorporated.

This is the classic question, but what would you love to do with your life, your dream job?

I guess I could take this question anywhere, but being more realistic, I’ll talk about what I actually see myself doing. After college I want to spend a couple years programming which I’ve spent my undergrad studying, but then I want to go to business school, and after that I see myself doing product management. I have confidence in my ability to program, but I feel like where I shine is not so much in just pure programming, but in a role where I can use my knowledge of the engineering side of things and have a say in the business part of it, and have a little more human-to-human interaction. When I came into college originally I thought “Oh, I’m going to study math and go into business”, so I’ve changed that plan a little bit, but I think the knowledge I’m gaining of engineering will be really useful.

And that lines right up with BuildHer wanting to do interdisciplinary work.

Yeah, exactly.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to do something that isn’t strictly coding or programming, but wants to know how they can incorporate that into their life?

So, when I first started taking classes and learning computer science, I realized that there was a really big range — even in the intro classes — there was a huge range of experience. There are kids who have to go through the intro classes but have been programming since they were in sixth grade and they have it down pat, it’s what they love to do, and they spend a lot of time outside of class doing it. And that was super intimidating, especially since a lot of them were boys. It was intimidating! And even now, I’m majoring in computer science, but I’m not a person who is going to spend all her time coding. I don’t see myself doing that with anything, because that’s just not my thing. So I have come to the place where that’s totally okay for me, especially because that’s not what I want to do down the line, even at the workplace. I don’t want to only be coding. So the advice I would give to someone starting out is: don’t let that intimidate you. Because I think that all the way through, there’s going to be a big range of people who are all good programmers, but will approach it with different levels of how purely they want to focus on it in the midst of everything else in their life.

One last question, what would you say is the benefit personally, for you or in general, of having fellow women involved in programming?

Seeing and hearing that people have had the same experiences as me when I thought those experiences were specific to me, especially experiences that have made me feel down on myself or insignificant. Like that thing I just said about being in intro classes with a huge range of people — I realized that that wasn’t just something that I had noticed and felt insecure about when [Professor] Sara Sood said that in 211, and she said that one of the first days. And I was like, “Yeah! That’s right!” There is a huge range, and that did make me feel really insecure. What is it called, the imposter syndrome? Knowing that other people share the same feelings as me and that I’m not an imposter, those are okay things to feel, and they’re normal.