That past Saturday, I sat down with the charismatic Katie Dolan to talk STEM. Katie has a degree in Computer Science and Engineering from the University of Nevada, Reno, and is currently a Software Engineer for GE. At GE, Katie programs software for users to diagnose machine health. Katie works on all ends of the software, from designing, to developing, to testing. She is involved in full stack development, which includes everything from how a screen looks, the colors, etc., all the way down to analyzing and manipulating the data. She is wicked smart and I am so grateful that she didn’t mind taking some time to talk with me.
What is your favorite part about being a software engineer?
There are a lot of different patterns that you can use to base your design off of but mostly it’s up to you and how you solve that problem yourself. It’s really rewarding when it’s finished, it works, and you get to say “Oh! I did this whole thing myself!”
What are some challenges you face at work?
Customers can be a challenge at times. People come to us with requirements of how the software needs to work and how it should look. We will implement their requirements and then we, as part of finishing our story, show it to them, in which they typically say “yea” or “nay.” Unfortunately, a lot of times after we’re done, they’ll say “Actually, we changed our mind, we want it this way now” and then you have to either start over or put it off until you have time in a few weeks. Either way, it’s frustrating because you can try so hard through the weeks to check every day “Are you sure this is right? Are you sure this is right?” and they can still change their mind and you have to re-do everything.
How does you work get assigned to you? Are you communicating directly with the customer to form project requirements?
We have teams who go out and interact with the customers and find out what the customers are looking for, such as what’s missing in the software, what would make it easier, or different ways to look at the data that’s more helpful to the machine diagnostics engineers. Then, the team will take those requests and break them down into features. For each feature, they write out all of the requirements, like it has to be this fast, or it has to be available here, and it needs to be able to do this. After we get the requirements, we break it down into smaller, manageable assignments. From there, we basically get free reign on how we want to make it happen.
Do you think software programming will become more prevalent in schools?
Yes, definitely. Right now, at UNR, they are considering making it a requirement to do some lower level programing classes in the basic core curriculum required for all students.
Education systems are starting to teach programming in schools because it’s integrated into everything now, and it’s very useful to understand what’s going on. People with all sorts of degrees, like physics degrees, or math degrees, will be able to do both, and bring that domain knowledge into programming because everything is going towards software.
Did you always know you wanted to do programming? What got you into computer science?
Monsters Inc.! There was a feature after the movie about how they animated everything. They were talking about how they had to use a bunch of physics and math just to make the hair move realistically. They talked about how the body parts moved and how each of them are related to each other. There was just so much going on, that it seemed really cool to me. I thought it was just the greatest thing ever! I thought “That’s so great because you get to be creative, but it’s also a ton of thinking, and math, and science, all put together in one.” That got me into the idea of engineering, which is having to think about all of these different things, but I wasn’t sure how specific I wanted it to be with computer science. Later, I went to a nerd camp that was all about information technology jobs and I said “Yes! I want to do programming!” And that was it!
Do you feel like you picked it up programming fairly easily?
I wouldn’t say I was a prodigy, but it wasn’t too terrible. I already liked math and patterns. Learning a new way to think about things for programming was easy to me but getting a lot of experience and learning better ways to do it, smarter ways to do it, did take a while and a lot of practice.
Do you have a favorite project or problem you solved at work?
I created a way for machines on different networks to safely view the data of the monitored equipment. So it was a mix of cyber security and problem solving! And it was a very different kind of solution than I had worked on previously, which was fun.
Is there anything techy or in software engineering that you’ve always wanted to try?
Making a website. I don’t know if that’s techy but it’s another cool way to use some of my creativity alongside my engineering knowledge. I just didn’t get into that industry, but I think that would be really fun to do.
What would be your first website? For yourself or for someone else?
I would build a website for someone else. My first website would probably be for my mom. She is starting a business and I think it would be cool to build one for her, especially since I do understand a lot of what she does because I’ve talked to her about it for so long. To be able to take that and turn it into a usable website, where people can make orders on there and send her contact info and promote her products would be really fulfilling.
What would you say, or do, to get the younger generations into STEM, or even just your specialty?
When I was in college, I worked for an outreach program through UNR that did a mobile engineering lab (MEL). MEL is great because kids will learn things about science at school, but then we go in there with an application, and say “This is how you would use that knowledge, this is how it makes a difference.” It can be really inspiring to the students. They will be learning about physics and then we get to go in there and say, you can use physics to do this really cool stuff, like Monsters Inc! It becomes very exciting for them. I think having that insight would be really helpful in schools because if you’re just learning physics theory, you’ll just get bored out of your mind. However, we can show the students that there are people out there who rely heavily on understanding all of that to simulate a wildfire that will understand, based off of wind speeds and temperature, and dryness, where fires will spread. Fire departments then use the simulation to train firefighters, which helps save lives. So it’s a cool application, and really useful. It gets the students to see the value in what they are learning.
Becoming excited about STEM is very specific to people’s interests. Before, we were talking about learning programming because it’s going to be part of everyday life. If you’re really into biking, and want to make an impact on that industry, there are a lot of different versions of science and engineering that go into that, that you could be a part of and that’s really cool!
Thank you Katie for sharing your experiences! If you, as a reader, have any questions for Katie, please let me know and I will gladly send them her way. Also, check out her YouTube channel where she continually strives to inspire everyone to take a chance, try something new, and stay creative!