Career Q&A: College and career advice from a software engineer at AppNexus

Zoe Peterson recently graduated from Carleton College and moved to New York City to work as a software engineer at AppNexus. She is proud to be a part of the Girls Who Code family and has contributed to the movement in many ways. She was a Summer Immersion Program TA at Expedia in Seattle, co-founder of a middle school Girls Who Code club while in college, and organizer of an event for AppNexus interns and Girls Who Code students while interning at AppNexus. In college Zoe developed a passion for CS education and creating diverse and inclusive CS communities, organizing many campus events at Carleton. She is excited to find ways to follow these passions in NYC! When not coding or building communities, Zoe enjoys finding fun ways to get active including pickleball, hiking, step aerobics, and soccer. She also enjoys many types of crafts, especially knitting, and painting her fingernails. In our Q&A, Zoe talks about choosing a college, impostor syndrome, finding your community, and how to practice for a job interview.

What drew you to computer science and organizations like Girls Who Code?
Before entering college, I knew essentially nothing about computer science. I knew I wanted to study something “math or science-y”, but I thought CS seemed boring, very individual, and not for me. However, I had been told computer science is a useful skill, so I signed up for Intro CS. I absolutely loved it! There were definitely struggles… I remember on my first assignment I had to ask for help to run the program. But I found that even though CS comes with technology struggles, when I push through them there is an exciting world of problem solving and making things! As for Girls Who Code, I have always loved teaching, and so a TA job where I could share my new love of CS with others was perfect. Even more than the teaching aspect, what draws me to Girls Who Code is the community. Sometimes CS can feel isolating and impostor syndrome can hit hard. (If you haven’t heard of impostor syndrome I suggest googling it. It might help put a name to some of your feelings.) I know how much being a part of a community for women in CS has helped me through those challenges, and I want to help create that type of environment for others. Tech needs to be more inclusive and accessible to all, and forging supportive communities like Girls Who Code is one of the best ways I’ve seen to work towards that goal.

Looking back at your college experience, what are the most important factors to consider when looking at colleges and different CS programs?
Colleges have different personalities, and you want to think about what’s important to you.

Speaking from my own experience, I liked the idea of small class sizes, getting to know professors, and taking classes in many different disciplines to decide what I wanted to study, so I looked at liberal arts colleges. You might also want to consider: Urban or Rural? Close to home or a new location?

When specifically thinking about CS departments, one thing to consider is how you feel about collaboration. I love pair programming, and so my department at Carleton was a great fit because we did about 80 percent of coding in pairs. From what I have heard, pairing is much rarer at some colleges. If working with others is important to you, too, ask about it. Or if you have the opportunity to visit the campus, check out the CS building at night to get a better feel of the department vibe. Also, ask about how CS students get help. You know from Girls Who Code that sometimes in CS you just get really stuck and need assistance. At Carleton we have lab assistants there to help most evenings and intro classes all have an assigned TA. This was super helpful for me finding my CS footing. Finally, if a college has an established women in CS group, that’s definitely a plus! At Carleton we have Lovelace, and it became a hugely positive part of my college experience. And if the college doesn’t have one, maybe you can get a group together and start one yourself

What advice do you have for young women in college that are nervous about taking that first step to getting an internship or job as a software engineer?
I definitely relate to being nervous about stepping out of college and into software engineering jobs or internships! I find it helps to acknowledge that being nervous is perfectly normal and okay. One thing I wish I had learned earlier is to reach out to older students at my college, alumni, or past Girls Who Code teachers/TAs in your area. LinkedIn is a great resource for this! Ask to have an informational interview where you learn about their work or internship. Software engineering jobs feel less intimidating when you feel connected to others already in those roles, and this can help you figure out where you want to apply.

With regards to interviewing, technical interviewing is a skill, and as with any skill it takes practice to learn. You might find it’s easier at first to practice with friends. Force yourself to do many interviews because with time it will get easier. Also, consider interviewing at companies you don’t care as much about, because you will be less nervous. Take a deep breath, power pose, drink some tea (even while interviewing if it helps! That’s what I did!). You can do this.

Can you tell us about your work at AppNexus and what you value most about your job?
AppNexus is an advertising technology company, and I’m working on our Creative API that allows clients to do all things related to the actual advertisement viewed by the user. It’s a lot of new information, but I’m figuring it out! One of the core values at AppNexus is Learn and Teach, and one of the things I value most about my job is that my coworkers embrace this value. As a newbie, I have a ton of questions, and my team members are always there to teach me what I don’t yet know. This also means that I am learning a ton, which is awesome!

Which women inspire you and why?
There are so many inspiring women in tech! I find a lot of inspiration from my peers and the students a couple years older than me braving the path and helping me follow. Another huge inspiration of mine is Melinda Gates. I admire her focus on listening and collaboration in her philanthropic work, and I am inspired by what she describes as her “impatient optimism.”

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Originally published at imagirlwhocodes.com on October 4, 2017.

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