Szeyin Lee ’14
Dual major in computer science and linguistics and cognitive science
Software engineer at Microsoft, Redmond, Washington
SCRIPPS COLLEGE: You were a dual major in computer science and linguistics and cognitive science. Those areas would seem to have a lot to say to each other, in terms of understanding how humans use and interact with technology.
SZEYIN LEE: Like many Scrippsies, I have many interests—economics, foreign languages, philosophy, the list goes on and on. The graduation requirement at Scripps was 32 credits, but I ended up with 42 credits when I left! I actually stumbled upon cognitive science and computer science during my second year of college. They both fascinated me, and I had a hard time deciding which one to major in, so I decided to major in both. I am very interested in how humans think (or, more broadly, “What does it mean to be human?”) and how technology comes into play when trying to answer such questions.
My senior thesis was titled Designing a Better Internet Search Engine Based on Information Foraging Theory. I wanted to create a new way to visualize search engine results based on Peter Pirolli’s information foraging theory. The theory assumes people optimize their behaviors to maximize the success of accomplishing their goal by selecting paths based on the expected utility from the information cues. The end result of the project was built using Google’s application programming interface, latent semantic analysis, and data visualization tools to give the user a more human-centered search experience.
SC: How did you end up at Microsoft after Scripps, and what do you do there?
SL: In college, I had summer internships at Electronic Arts, a gaming company, and Etsy, an online consumer platform. In each of those positions I saw firsthand the ways technology is rapidly developing and changing the way we live. It made me realize that, in computer science, there are a lot of opportunities to make an impact on how the future is unfolding.
During my final semester, I actively interviewed with many companies. A recruiter from Microsoft saw my LinkedIn profile and thought I would be a good fit for a role they were filling. I interviewed and was given an offer to work on “a secret team.” I didn’t know what I would be doing, but the people I chatted with made it sound very exciting, so I took the job. It was mind-blowing to find out on the first day of work that I had the opportunity to work on HoloLens, a mixed reality device. Instead of immersing the user in a totally virtual environment, HoloLens lets her integrate graphics, photos, and video into her real-time view of the world. I am developing the Skype application on this new platform.
Every morning my team has a short meeting to go over what everyone is working on. Depending on what phase of the product cycle we are in, the rest of the day is spent on coding features, fixing bugs, or analyzing usage data to improve stability. Less than one year into my first job, I am proud to say that I have coded for astronauts. It’s pretty amazing that our product is currently being used at the International Space Station as a new way to facilitate communication between space and Earth. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of this journey. It was a big shift coming from Scripps to a male-dominated field, as I was one of very few women in the program at the time. I am grateful that Scripps has taught me to live hopefully, confidently, and courageously.
SC: As an undergraduate, you developed an app for Scripps’ Motley Coffeehouse. How did that project come about?
SL: As a computer science major, one of the things I wanted to do before I graduated was to build something cool for the Scripps community. In my mobile-software development course, the final project was to create my own app, so I contacted the Motley with a proposal, and the project began!
First I researched popular apps related to coffeehouses and analyzed their functionalities. After making initial mockups, I met with the Motley student managers to discuss the functional specifications: a drinks menu, drink recommender, calendar, a page to save users’ favorites, and an “about us” page.
Building the Motley app was the first time I took such intimate ownership of a project, from conceptualization to leading collaboration with others to the implementation of the final product. I gained valuable technical skills throughout the process. And in terms of the larger context of tech, I’m proud that the app was 100 percent made by female students. I partnered with Chelsea Carlson ’14, the amazing artist who created the art assets, to create an app for a prominent feminist on-campus space—to me, the achievement represents the empowerment of female students in technology.
I eventually took the Motley app off the app store because I didn’t have time to maintain it. But if anyone at Scripps wants to further develop my project, I am happy to share my code!
SC: How do you think the world will be different in 20 years, in terms of new technologies and applications?
SL: It is difficult to predict the future, especially for a constantly evolving field like technology. My experience of working on HoloLens has changed the way I perceive and interact with the world and challenged me to explore possibilities I once thought unimaginable.
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