By Sara Navidpour (Software Engineer, Zoosk)
My friends are surprised when I tell them that more girls study in hard sciences and engineering in Iran than in the US. I studied computer science at one of the best universities in Tehran and being a girl in this field wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
In the school that I got accepted to, Tehran University, CS was in the math department and was weighted heavily toward the theoretical over the practical. I really enjoyed studying theory but down the road I realized I actually like developing software more than just studying theory.
In Iran, a lot of students choose engineering majors because universities are strong in these fields. But unfortunately there are far fewer job opportunities than there are university graduates! Therefore it is very common for new college graduates to apply for graduate school programs either in Iran or abroad. I, too, started a graduate program and picked programming languages as my research area, which at the time was the most practical choice available to me. The application of my research was in proving the correctness of programs using theoretical proofs. Knowing that there are more opportunities in the US, I decided to continue my research toward a Ph.D. at Penn State University.
Sometime in the second year of my Ph.D. program, I heard a funny story about a guy who kills dragons. When dragons become extinct he has no job, so he starts a new field in a university on how to kill dragons. The students who graduate from his course see that there are actually no jobs for them, so they start teaching how to kill dragons and it goes on like this. Very soon two things happened that made me really relate to this story...
I talked to a recruiter from Microsoft about opportunities in Microsoft Research Lab which was the ideal place for me to work if I were to continue in the same area in my future career. She mentioned that every year MS Research Lab only accepts a few new researchers and those are not necessarily new grads. She said the more specific and theoretical the area of your expertise, the fewer job opportunities are available to you. You may be surprised but this was new information for me. In Iran the culture is so focused on education that you kind of forget about what you want to do with your education afterwards!
The second thing that made me relate to the dragon story was a fantastic speech by Professor John Hopcroft on “New directions in Computer Science” at my school. In his talk he said the research of the past was focused on making computers more powerful and useful. Nowadays, computers are already powerful and in use everywhere. Today our focus should be on practical interdisciplinary applications of computers.
So I decided to quit my Ph.D. and look for a software engineering position. Being a new grad, I had the opportunity of starting off my career in a variety of fields. The web industry in particular seemed intriguing because of all the job opportunities, dynamic environment and cutting edge technologies. I started learning web development on my own and applied for open positions in this area. Very soon I got an offer from Zoosk as a FrontEnd developer and I am very happy with my decision. Now I have the opportunity to create things and see the results of my work in a fast-paced environment.