Alumnae Spotlight showcases amazing Laurel women and the paths they have charted since graduation. Whether they are doctors, designers, artists, authors, scientists, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, engineers, pharmacists, or civic activists or volunteers, Laurel women inhabit nearly all careers and corners of the world helping to make it a better place. Our alumnae and the journeys that they have taken speak to the essence of a Laurel education and what makes this School and the community of women who call it their own distinctive. This space highlights their fascinating lives and the mountains they continue to move.
If you would like to be featured in our Alumnae Spotlight, or know of an alumna who might, please email Megan Findling.
December 2018 Alumnae Spotlight
Cici Lu ’11
Google software developer Cici Lu ’11 is passionate about getting more women into engineering fields. She sees how a diversity of experience and perspectives allows for the creation of a product that works for everyone. She loves traveling to understand how different users interact with products and building programs catered to how other cultures think. Cici’s interest in the field began at Laurel during the egg-drop challenge, and now, one of the things she loves most about computer science is the ability to fail and try again! She explains, “If something goes wrong, you can just delete the code that’s not working and try another solution.” Read on as Cici shares her enthusiasm for her career, helping others and the outdoors with us!
What brought you to Laurel in the Eleventh Grade? How was it adjusting to a new school?
My dad got a new job at Case Western Reserve University as a professor in biomedical engineering, so we moved from Salt Lake City to Cleveland. I cried when my parents first told me we were moving; I had lived in Salt Lake my whole life and it was scary leaving everything I knew behind to go to a new place—especially right before junior year of high school. I wanted to make the best out of the move by trying something I’d never tried before, so I left my 1500+ student coed public high school for a 250+ student private all-girls school.
My first few days at Laurel were definitely hard. I remember feeling that everyone already had their established social circles and that I didn’t fit in. I also was very shy and timid but after a while, I began opening up and made a few friends. I am happy that I went to Laurel because it was the reason why I decided to major in engineering and it helped me get to where I am now!
Tell us about your favorite Laurel memory.
My favorite memory at Laurel was working on team projects in my engineering class with Ms. Kovach and Mr. Carpenter. I really enjoyed designing and building a container for the egg-drop challenge and then trying to improve our design after testing it in class.
I also loved the traditions at Laurel! I really enjoyed Song Contest and the camaraderie it brought to our class. I enjoyed listening to Senior Speeches and how it was a time for our peers to share a topic that interested them with the school.
You studied computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan. What first sparked your interest in the field?
I went to college thinking that I would be a chemical engineer. Students entering Michigan as an engineering major were required to take a programming class. I had no idea what programming was, so I was very intimidated walking into the first day of lecture with over 150 students. The lectures didn’t thrill me, but I really enjoyed working on the projects. I loved directing the problem: understanding the constraints, weighing the pros/cons of each viable solution, and testing my program.
I really appreciated the fast iteration process. With one simple command, I could understand if my program worked or not. The process also provides a safe space to fail. If something goes wrong, you just can delete the code that’s not working and try another solution. There’s no long set-up process or concerns around wasted materials. You can just try and try again. I love the logic part of computer science, too. I found comfort in knowing that there’s a logical explanation for everything and that if my program didn’t work it was because of something I wrote. After my first class in college, I was hooked and declared it as my major.
Now you are a software developer for Google, working on Google Maps. You’ve worked on the launch of Street View in step-by-step directions for Android, in addition to a maps initiative in India. Can you tell us a little about what your typical workday looks like?
My workday changes day-to-day. I usually get in the office around 8:30 am to catch up on emails and create a to-do list for the day. There’s a lot of communication in my job, which I think surprises people. Working in tech isn’t just silently coding at your desk. Features and projects are a team effort, so you have to talk to your teammates and work together—kind of like playing on a sports team. A lot of my day involves thinking about how to solve problems, talking to my coworkers to understand areas of the code and to get their perspectives on my design, and then developing those designs. Depending on where I am in the project, I’ll also work closely with designers and project managers to understand the constraints of the project, what the feature should look like and how it should behave.
I usually grab lunch with my team or friends at work. I feel fortunate that my company provides free meals because it encourages us to eat with our team, which strengthens community and productivity on our team. At least once a day I have a random fun commitment such as a weekly team run, playing pool with some friends, or working out with a group of coworkers. I really appreciate the flexible work schedule because I can have commitments outside of work as long as I accomplish what I need to get done.
What do you love about working in the tech field? What are some of the biggest challenges?
Things I love:
- Learning how users interact with Google Maps. We do a lot of user studies to understand how users expect the product to behave. I’ve conducted a few user studies in Seattle and have traveled internationally just to understand how people use the map! It’s so cool to learn about how people use products differently because of their cultural background or things unique to their city. When I was working on the maps initiative in India, I learned that people there look for landmarks on a map, not road names, to help navigate them. It helped our team understand India’s culture more and then to build a product that took that into account.
- Empowering employees. If you’re not happy about something, you’re encouraged to speak up. We have a weekly company-wide town hall where the founders and CEO of the company talk about cool projects going on in the company and host an open forum where employees can ask questions or bring up concerns. The leadership does a good job listening and addressing our concerns. Change happens from within and I think it’s pretty amazing that we organized a rally to show the leaders of our company how we felt about their decisions, and change happened because of that rally!
- Good managers. Across the board, our managers want to support us in anything we need. They’ll put someone on a project she is interested in working on; they crave our feedback in how the team is doing; and they’re supportive if someone wants to leave the team—they’ll even help him look for another team!
Things that are challenging:
- Imposter syndrome is a big one for me. We work with so many smart people that it’s easy to feel like one doesn’t belong. After getting to know my coworkers better, I realize that they’re all friendly and willing to help if I’m struggling with something. It took me a while to get to this point, but it helps a lot with feeling that I do belong on the team of super smart people.
You volunteer at a local high school’s computer science program twice a week. Can you talk about your passion for getting more women into the tech field? What’s the best way to get more girls interested in STEAM?
It’s important to note that getting more women into tech isn’t a unique problem. Women also comprise only about 10% of many engineering fields such as aerospace, civil, mechanical, etc. And it’s true in other industries, too, such as business—at the beginning of many careers, the male-to-female ratio is about 50:50 or 70:30 but as one moves up the career ladder, one finds less women.
My passion for getting more women into tech stems from what I see in the industry. Women bring a different perspective to the table. There’s a famous story that when Siri was first being developed, it didn’t recognize women’s voices simply because there were no women on the team that developed Siri, so no one knew the problem existed. There’s a similar story about how Microsoft’s face recognition couldn’t recognize African American faces for the same reason. Tech is used by everyone and it’s become ingrained in our lives; there should be a diversity of input into products, so we can create a product that works for everyone.
Two things we can do to get more girls into STEAM is:
- Teach girls that it’s okay to fail and that failure is necessary to grow. A lot of girls I’ve worked with in high schools are afraid to throw out ideas because they’re afraid people won’t like them or think their ideas are any good.
- There’s a lot of creativity in Tech, which isn’t bound just to productivity tools and games. Technology advances medicine when surgeons can use a machine to do remote surgeries. Technology advances fashion by helping people identify where their favorite Instagram influencer shops. Technology advances agriculture by helping farmers understand the health of their crops.
You volunteer at a homeless shelter, helping to give stability and resources to the growing number of unsheltered men and women in Seattle. What motivates you?
Honestly, understanding the problem more. I’ve been volunteering once a week for about four months and I’ve learned so much. Homelessness isn’t because people are “lazy.” It’s very situational and most often is due to bad circumstances. Some people who are homeless worked low skill and/or labor-intensive jobs because growing up their families couldn’t afford or couldn’t prioritize education due to familial responsibilities. People who work low skill and/or labor-intensive jobs often live paycheck to paycheck. If they are injured on the job, they often lose their job and life falls apart without an income or savings. And applying for workers comp is complicated. Also, not all people who are homeless are jobless. Often times, low skill jobs don’t pay enough to sustain a family -- even if one holds multiple low skill jobs. Thanks to my volunteering at the shelter, I am passionate about increasing the minimum wage or having universal basic income (UBI).
On a typical weekend, where might we find you? What are you passionate about?
You’ll probably find me somewhere outdoors. I really enjoy hiking/backpacking and Seattle is surrounded by so many mountains, how could I not take advantage of them? I’ll also bike to the Ballard Farmers Market, a Sunday tradition of mine, or to Seattle Bouldering Project, a climbing gym.
When it comes to passions, I’m like a dog chasing a bunch of squirrels. More recently I’ve been making everything from scratch. I’ve baked pies, cookies, cakes from scratch—inspired by the Great British Baking show. I’ve been making pasta and sauces from scratch — inspired by Binging with Babish. I even purchased a sewing machine and am doing my own tailoring! I recognize that these passions are very gender conforming, but it’s pretty empowering to be able to do and create things yourself.
Do you have any advice for current Laurel students?
Be empathetic and compassionate. It’s easy to criticize and blame but in those moments take a breath and try to understand. Think of everyone as a version of yourself and give people the benefit of the doubt. If your friend is trying to pick a fight with you, ask her what’s going on in her life. Be kind and treat her how you would like to be treated. Trust me, this will get you far—professionally and personally—and will make you an overall happier person.
Be adventurous and stay curious. Be adaptable and resilient. Life isn’t one straight line from point A to point B. There are a lot of unexpected things that will be thrown at you, and it’s important to learn how to adjust or change your expectations and go with the flow. We learn from being uncomfortable, so take that moment as an opportunity to learn and try something new. If you’re waiting for the “perfect” opportunity to do something, such as changing careers or learning a new hobby, you’ll never do it because there is no such thing as a “perfect” opportunity. There always will be something that’s going on, so stop waiting and just do it!
What is the next item you hope to cross off your bucket list?
I really want to live outside of the country for at least six months. I’ve lived in the US my whole life and I never studied abroad. There’s a lot to be learned by surrounding yourself in a new culture and with people who don’t live or think like you. My current plan is to possibly move to Munich for six months for a rotational program Google offers, then take some time off and learn how to make bread in France.
I want to learn Chinese and be better at making Chinese food. Growing up, I wasn’t proud of my heritage because people would make fun of me or see me as different. As I have grown older, I've learned to be proud of who I am and appreciate Chinese culture.