Alumna Q&A: Alexandra Johnson

SCS alumna Alexandra Johnson (CS 2014) played integral roles in strengthening programs like SCS Day and Women @ SCS, and worked hard to improve multiple areas of campus life while she was a student.

Carnegie Mellon University doesn't always consider itself cool. But this year, Seventeen magazine begged to differ, naming CMU one of its 2018 "Cool Schools." Their reasons? Our gender parity in STEM fields and strong community of female coders.

One person who has helped make CMU cool is Alexandra Johnson (CS 2014). The Washington state native played integral roles in strengthening programs like SCS Day and Women @ SCS, and worked hard to improve multiple areas of campus life. And she did it all while earning her bachelor's in computer science; completing internships at Duolingo, Facebook and Rent the Runway; being active in Greek life; and serving as an undergraduate teaching assistant.

Alexandra works at a startup in San Francisco now, but was on campus earlier this semester for a Women @ SCS panel discussion. We caught up with her to learn more about her time at CMU, how organizations like Women @ SCS transformed her CMU experience, what she's doing now and what her plans are for the future.

Washington state's a long way from Pittsburgh. How did you end up at Carnegie Mellon?
I'd known for a long time that I wanted to major in computer science. I liked math, and my parents said I should work in startups in Silicon Valley. I always had it in my head that I wanted to major in computer science, so I only applied to schools that I knew were top programs in CS. Carnegie Mellon was far and away the one with the best resources.

Once you arrived on campus, how did you feel about SCS?
SCS gives you enough theory to really impress interviewers, and so you get great internships right off the bat. And you get practical experience. Spending four years understanding the theory behind why we do something and what it means for code to run a certain way and what it means for code to be modular — I think that's actually important. Because then you can drop into any situation and you can learn any language and any new paradigm. SCS teaches you how to learn about programming.

Did anything at CMU disappoint you?
I tried to help create the experience I felt was missing by getting involved in clubs and activities. I ran SCS Day for three years. I was also really involved in Women @ SCS, which is such a valuable group for SCS. Another student and I put a lot of effort into making sure there were always upperclassmen at the freshmen events, getting people to come to the meetings, letting people know how they could get involved. Both SCS Day and Women @ SCS have sustained a lot of momentum in the years after my peers and I left CMU, and I'm so proud of the work the students are doing today.

What are you doing now?
I work at SigOpt. We provide an API that can help you fine-tune the hyperparameters of your machine learning models. I do a lot of the full stack engineering, a lot of the process to make the building of the models repeatable. I just finished development on a big machine learning platform project called Orchestrate, which contained a lot of exciting technical and logistical challenges.

What did you do at CMU that best trained you for your job at SigOpt?
Certainly Operating Systems was a great crash course in "manage a project over four months and don't hit any deadlines." Doing that project and having a partner on it taught me a lot. When I was at work and I had a chance to manage a project as the tech lead, I gave myself generous deadlines, all of which I hit. I also kept some of the ethic of that class. OS taught me that sometimes, in a large project with many small, moving pieces, the most important thing is that the project gets done.

How do you feel about California?
There's a lot of energy in San Francisco. I organize a meetup now, Women in Machine Learning and Data Science. It's an extension of the work I did with Women @ SCS and SCS Day.

How do you find women in tech? How does it compare to being a woman in SCS?
I definitely think SCS is probably the best place to go as a female undergrad. I don't think I've found something that strong anywhere else. It was just so great. I really wanted to be involved in the community and there WAS a community to be involved in. Some of that extends out to the Bay Area, but it's different, because you're not all on campus together.

Let's talk about your time at CMU. What are some of your favorite memories?
Some of my best computer-science related memories were when I was taking Operating Systems and we would sneak into the conference rooms in the upper levels of the Gates-Hillman Centers that overlook Pittsburgh and get a really good sunrise view. It was in the fall semester, so everything was snowy. Those times when we were doing that, but we were all together — they were great.

My favorite class at CMU was actually not in SCS. It was the History of Clothing in the School of Drama, taught by Barbara Anderson. It was a class at the apex of what it should be. I couldn't have gone to another school and majored in computer science and gotten that same experience. That's an experience unique to CMU — that I majored in computer science and literally walked across the Pausch Bridge every day to the School of Drama and took my class from their costume expert.

You've been out of school for a little more than four years. What's your career plan?
I thought I had a plan when I graduated and I have less of a plan now. I'm learning that life and career doesn't work in five- or 10-year plans. If you'd asked me this eight months ago, I would have said I want to make a really great technical contribution to my company, which I felt like I hadn't necessarily made at the time. Now, I feel like I've worked on something that is interesting and my plans are to just keep working on that. It reminds me of what I like about tech. My work allowed me to learn about a piece of technology that's relatively newish in the industry, and I want to keep working with and learning about it. I want to write a couple blog posts. I want to give a couple talks. And then I'll see where I am.

What advice would you give prospective students applying to SCS?
I would tell them to really go look at the curriculum. Look at the advantages. Look at things like if they want to start programming right off the bat. If they do, it's a great place. Is being around a lot of other really intelligent students who want to talk about computer science and think about computer science and breathe computer science — is having that really important to them? Because SCS is the place where you can have that.

For More Information
Susie Cribbs | 412-268-4482 | cribbs@cs.cmu.edu