Happy Monday Reigners! We are thrilled to highlight Kelsey Hrubes, who I met during the Sequoia’s Start @ a Startup Conference in NYC a few weeks ago. Instead of our typical format of answering questions Kelsey wanted to write about her journey. Her story is truly one of going down unchartered territory and making a complete transformation. This brought tears to my eyes…can’t wait to see all that Kelsey’s will accomplish!
A few days ago, I was hidden away in a corner of the library, checking my email for the God-knows-how-many-ith time. A white, medium sized popup appeared on the page. It had an icon, a title, some subtext, and two buttons. Most people would briefly read the content and then close the popup, but I stared at it and smiled. I knew the exact in’s and out’s of how that popup worked; because I had implemented the framework for it a few months prior while interning for the Inbox team at Google.
How did this become my life? To be a Software Engineer and develop something millions of people would interact with, to experience the shiny Silicon Valley life that so many people dream about, blog about, drop out of school to be a part of? A majority of the people I talked to out there, from what I’ve gauged, come from a family full of engineers, who set sky high expectations for themselves. They charged headfirst into their Computer Science classes at school, aiming for the most prestigious internships.
I, on the other hand, wandered lost through the hallway of possible careers and stumbled into the wrong room.
My name is Kelsey Hrubes, and I’m studying Computer Science at Iowa State University. I was born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Towards the end of highschool, cheap in state tuition decided I should probably stay in Iowa for school.
What I didn’t know was what to choose as a major. A lot of my friends were going with business or marketing, and I considered it myself. At the time, it didn’t seem like a life-changing decision. Pick a general major in the middle of the road, and as you drive along through school, veer off to one side. Easy.
College is supposed to be everything the movies and magazines and tv shows said it would be: a montage of dorm room living with your new best friend for life, eating pizza, drinking too much coffee, going to parties Saturday night and wandering campus Sunday afternoon, “tired”, wearing an oversized Iowa State University sweatshirt and sporting a messy – but not too messy – bun on the top of your head. It’s supposed to be fun, not serious. You only start to fake being an adult, a real life grown-up with responsibilities, after you are handed a diploma. I’m sold. I just need to check the box next to some major and this college life will be mine.
But what to choose? Although I’m grateful for it now, my parents didn’t give me much direction. My Dad studied Business, my Mom Communications, so somewhere in that spectrum seemed safe. Don’t choose art or theatre or something too specific, “you’ll never get a job”. Don’t choose anything with the word “engineering” in it, that was for the smart kids, the ones who took all AP classes including college level calculus senior year. I had always managed good grades, but was a bad student, a troublemaker. Sassy, but usually smart enough to get away with it.
So there I sat, scrolling through the seemingly endless list of majors that Iowa State offered. I had two prerequisites, nothing with the word “engineering” in it, and not just Business. I wanted to be different than my friends. To this day, I don’t know what compelled me to check the box next to Computer Science: probably because it was listed next to Computer Engineering, but by lacking the word “engineering,” I interpreted it as the easier version. I envisioned working basic IT support in an office, taking my sweet time helping clueless old ladies update basic software, CTRL+ALT+DEL-ting my way to an easy paycheck.
If you’re wondering how I could just pick a major like Computer Science without really researching it, it’s because I was pretty apathetic about, well, everything at that time. There’s this easy-going, family oriented culture in Iowa. Meet your husband in college, maybe get a job, maybe start a family right away. Doesn’t really matter what you do. If you survive college, or community college, or manage to support yourself, you’ve done enough. Just produce the next generation, kick back, and get way too interested in college sports. That sense of security made picking the wrong major not much of a concern.
In fall 2013 a tall, blonde girl wearing a short dress and fake tan walked into Com Sci 227, Intro to Programming in Java. It was like a scene from Legally Blonde: just swap lawyers for programmers. Cliche nerdy types drinking Mountain Dew and stuffing their faces with Doritos shot me confused glances, wondering if a portal had appeared in a sorority house and teleported me into this world of wide eyed guys huddled over sticky laptops.
Well, so much for Computer Science. These are clearly not my people. These are the smart kids whose parents are engineers and have prepared them since birth to do the same, putting them in every activity possible and teaching them to program calculators. I was the girl vainly applying lip gloss, copying my friends’ US History answers, and constantly getting busted by my parents because I am a bad kid. Their parents expected a high GPA, leadership roles in clubs, multiple internships and job offers, the ability to change the world with software. Mine expected, hoped, prayed for me to not drop out, to not get knocked up, to not live in their basement after college. The bar was set low: make it over the hurdle, but don’t be afraid to dance a little while you run.
Hopefully I can seamlessly switch into Marketing. I zone out in the lecture, and dart out of my seat when we are dismissed.
“Kelsey?” a voice questions behind me. It’s a guy from my high school, familiar face, name unknown. Judging by the wrinkled video game tee he’s sporting, we weren’t exactly friends before. I automatically say “hey” and snap my head back toward the door. We are both equally confused as to why I’m here.
He asks the question hanging above a few nerds guys’ heads in that room: what am I doing in that class? I inform him with a misplaced sense of pride that I’m a Computer Science major. He raises a furry, skeptical eyebrow. He is the type who has been told his whole life the he is smart/gifted/better than you and revels in making sure others are aware. Showing surprising weakness, I admit that I’m going to switch to Marketing. Furry Eyebrows Wrinkled tshirt guy scoffs,
“Yeah, that seems like a better fit for you. This would probably be too hard.”
I don’t like the way he phrased that. Little flames flicker on behind my eyes.
“I dunno about that, I just don’t think I’ll like it.”
“Yeah sure, you should probably switch to the easier major.”
The flames grow bigger and blood rushes to my face. My skin feels like lava. I’m fine with admitting I’m not good at something because I don’t like it, or because I don’t want to do the work, but admitting I’m not smart enough? No, no, NO. That is not me. If I want to do something, it will get done.
Had he not condescendingly told me I wasn’t cut out for Computer Science, I would have marched right to my academic advisor and demanded to switch majors. Instead, I sped through the door, steam billowing out of ears leaving a trail of schemes and plots to how I would prove him WRONG behind me.
I put my Java book on the table in front of me and swore, like swearing on a bible in court, that I would pass do well in MASTER this class.
Slowly, but surely, I did. A bad student isn’t necessarily an unintelligent one. The concept of syntax was familiar to me, as I spent too much time during my middle school years making preppy MySpace layouts, which were basic HTML and CSS.
Our Computer Science department sponsored a trip to Grace Hopper that year, and I curiously went. Never in my life had I been so intimidated. I sat down in a tech talk on something I had no clue about and watched the code and numbers and big scary words go in one ear, out the other, and disorientingly dance in front of my face.
I had this disappointing feeling wash over me. Intro to Java barely scratches the surface of what was to come, and it scared me. Next semester I will make a sly exit off stage left and jump into the current production of Marketing! the Major You Should Have Chosen.
Mid way through the semester, I got an email from a recruiter at Google. They wanted to interview me. I probably read that email 30 times in a row. At one point during the Grace Hopper career fair, I talked to Google. I really just wanted a t shirt. There wasn’t much for me to talk about, given by abysmal lack of experience. The recruiter was pretty chill. Basically just told her the exact story I wrote out, from randomly picking CS to getting an A on the first test. It must of piqued their interest somehow.
It really started rolling from there. Get ready, hold your breath, the next year and a half will be crazy.
The interview with lead to me being flown to NYC for placement in a program then called Google Jump, where I was put on a team with 3 other guys to build an Android app over the course of the next 6 months, from March-August 2014. Having that on my resume got me a summer internship at an enterprise software company in Ames, Iowa, called Workiva.
My team and I built an awesome app that allows users to take pictures of grocery receipts and store their refrigerator data. We called the app FRiJ. It won the competition.
That got me another interview with Google, which got me an internship for the following summer. In the meantime, I spent fall semester at a school in Germany, taking math and Computer Science classes in German. (German was my best subject in high school). The following spring, I worked as a Software Engineer at Rockwell Collins Deutschland, and got to use my foreign language skills on the job. The summer during my internship at Google, I founded and organized a hackathon for tech interns in the Bay Area, called InternHacks. A few weeks ago, I accepted an offer from Microsoft to intern for the Summer of 2016.
You might be thinking, “whoa whoa whoa, weren’t you talking about switching majors three paragraphs ago?!?” and you’d be right to be skeptical. I still don’t know exactly how it all happened, but 2 or 3 opportunities into my uncertain career I realized I might as well roll with it, something here seems to click. It’s been a challenging/fun/rewarding/stressful blur, full of 1’s and 0’s and WHY DOESN’T MY PROGRAM WORK and jumping out of your seat when it finally does.
If you want to try Computer Science, and are scared, just go for it. It will work out.
This field opens a lot of doors. You make cool stuff. You meet cool, smart, people. You mature a lot after realizing that nothing in high school really matters, and that being passionate and successful is going to last longer than a fake tan.