10 Questions with Cynthia Bailey Lee

Lecturer in Computer Science at Stanford University

Cynthia is a lecturer in the Computer Science Department at Stanford University.

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

I started coding in elementary school, and even won a prize from the county science fair for a Monopoly simulator I wrote in BASIC. Unfortunately, right in line with the statistics on middle school girls, I drifted away from computers and thought of them as something for boys. I didn’t do anything with code again for several years. Towards the end of high school, I started coding web pages for fun and even got a couple small paid gigs. I thought of this as artistic design work, and didn’t see myself as a “computer person.”

That changed at a summer internship designing web pages for NASA at Moffett Field. It was there I first started working on UNIX, and I was mesmerized, completely hooked. There was something about the austere command prompt that inspired my imagination about what could be explored beyond. Perhaps it reminded me of exploring the mountains behind my grandparents’ house, and the feeling of being one of a lucky few who know the secret that a simple dirt path that doesn’t look like much can lead to caves, abandoned mines, lakes, and other surprises. My mentors at NASA pushed me to learn shell scripting, and then C programming. I loved how coding felt like the patterns, puzzles, and riddles that had always fascinated me.

“There was something about the austere command prompt that inspired my imagination about what could be explored beyond.”

2. Who’s been a role model you look up to?

I was fortunate to have a great PhD advisor in Allan Snavely. He was very committed to an ethic of “being the change” he wanted in the world, and at every opportunity found ways to just do the right thing. Sometimes that meant going against the grain of big systems that seemed to demand compromise, but he was endlessly optimistic that quietly, kindly doing the right thing would give the right outcomes in the long term. My reasons for choosing his research group were as much about respecting his approach to life as an affinity for that particular research area, though I was deeply interested in it.

3. What gets you out of bed in the morning?

That’s easy — my students. It feels like such an honor to be involved in the life of another person at key junctures for them. When I get to witness that moment when a a student’s passion for coding is first sparked, it feels almost holy, like being present for a birth. I also like that I get to keep learning new things. I’m addicted to learning new things, and in tech we’re lucky that the field is constantly changing so we always have new things to learn.

“When I get to witness that moment when a a student’s passion for coding is first sparked, it feels almost holy, like being present for a birth.”

4. What’s a challenge you’ve faced in your career journey?

I went through most of my life thinking that I would be a stay-at-home mom and not have a career. Even as I was finishing at the top of my classes in undergrad and publishing successful papers as a grad student, I think my self-image was always that this was a sort of side hobby. That’s not to say I wasn’t serious about my work. I’ve always been extremely competitive with myself, a perfectionist, and I’ve always worked my tail off. For example, in my senior year of undergrad, I was taking a full load of courses while working 60+ hours a week at a startup.

Looking at that drive and those hours of dedication now, it seems silly to say that I didn’t have a career in mind. But I truly had never internalized the idea that I could aggregate power and success to myself, and have a serious career for myself. I always thought of myself in a supporting or object role — it was my destiny to be somebody else’s mom, somebody else’s wife, an indispensable help to somebody else’s startup. I can’t point to one instant of time where I overcame that societal programming and decided that I mattered as much as anyone else. It’s been a long process that continues right up to the present.

5. Describe a time you were proud of yourself.

Finishing my dissertation after the birth of my twins was really challenging, and there were long periods of time when I was certain it would never happen. Graduation day was a huge vindication. Having my kids there with me, taking photos with me in my robes, made it that much more special. I felt immensely proud knowing I not only had done this thing that would be really hard for anyone, but I’d done it with challenges and pressures very few of my peers had faced.

6. What’s something you want to get better at?

One of my current goals is to read more fiction instead of just non-fiction all the time.

7. Comfort food of choice?

Cheese. All kinds of cheese.

8. Favorite book?

The Little Prince.

9. If you could try another job for a day, what would it be?

If I could inhabit the mind of someone good at it (rather than just do the job as myself), a jazz musician. I would love to feel what it feels like to have that skill and that level of appreciation for music.

10. If you could give your 18-year-old self a piece of advice, what would it be?

Get more sleep, and in general prioritize your health more. A workaholic nature is good to a point, but success is a long haul. Look for women who excel at being comfortable in their own skin and owning their successes. Watch them and learn from them. Believe you can be like them.

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