How I Landed My Engineering Job Without a Computer Science Degree
Our mission here at The Muse is simple: to help you find your dream job. So, there’s nothing we love more than hearing about it when you do!
Today, we chatted with Grace Barkhuff, a recent graduate and engineer at software company Appian. Her passion for math, problem solving, and helping others are utilized every day at her job—from testing software to advocating for a better user experience to ensuring Appian’s resources are accessible for the disabled.
Tell us a bit about yourself!
I just graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a major in mathematics and a minor in pipe organ performance. My work focused on mathematical modeling, which often uses computer simulation to create predictive or analytical models of real-life situations. After graduation, I wanted to work in commercial software, which is how I came to apply at Appian.
What’s your title at your new role, and what are you doing day to day?
I’m a quality engineer (QE), and at a basic level, my job is to prevent the team from introducing bugs into our software. Sometimes this means manual testing: I look at the updated version of the software as a user and make sure the new code works as expected. Sometimes this means working with the developer to write test designs and thinking about all the potential edge cases before they begin work. And other times this means working with the team’s product owner to ensure our team is working on the most important updates in any given week. You have to be a strong advocate as a QE and be adamant when something in the software seems wrong or doesn’t work as well as it could.
What were you doing before you landed your new job?
At school, I was doing all math, all the time. I wrote an undergraduate math thesis in high-dimensional geometry and combinatorics (a fancy way of saying counting things in not just three dimensions, but also four, five, and infinite dimensions!), took math and computer science courses, worked as a teaching assistant in the math department, and taught my peers in our mathematical modeling club. I had a reputation for being the student who lived in the math department.
Although I don’t spend time reading math textbooks now, I get to use the thinking, reasoning, and teaching skills from my math major as a QE. In math, you won’t get very far if you have the right answer but don’t know why, or if you can’t convince others that your answer is correct. And as a QE, I not only need to know that the code is not working correctly, but why it might be breaking and who the right person to fix it is.
What attracted you to the job when you found it on The Muse?
I was searching for a job that was technical in nature, but didn’t require a computer science degree. So on The Muse’s job search, I filtered by “entry-level” and “math.”
The job listing for a quality engineer at Appian begins with: “MYTH: You need a CS degree to break into the software industry and get all the cool high-paying tech jobs. FACT: Slinging code is just one of the many things High Tech Companies need to do to create cool new products.” I felt compelled to apply because that was exactly the “myth” I was beginning to believe during my job search. I loved that the company seemed open to hiring all kinds of people, and that has proved to be true in my work so far.
I’d never heard of quality engineering before I found it on The Muse—it’s so cool to be working in a career that I didn’t even know existed before my job search began!
What’s your favorite part so far about working at Appian?
Appian really wants its employees to succeed. If I ever need something or if a process seems ineffective, all I need to do is speak up and it’ll be addressed. I feel supported and cared about by my managers and co-workers at Appian.
We also have an all-engineering meeting every month, and the first thing we do at that meeting is announce new members of the department and new promotions. Even though the company is growing, we still take the time to recognize these changes and celebrate each other!
Learn More About Working at Appian
What’s one project you’re really excited about?
I’m very excited about the work we’re doing to make our software accessible to people with disabilities. A lot of software is difficult (or impossible) for individuals to use who are blind or colorblind or who can’t physically use a computer mouse, among many other things. Because Appian is used primarily in a work setting, if it’s not an accessible software, it prevents many people from doing their jobs. Right now we’re greatly improving usability so that it’s compatible with screen readers, has high color contrast, and can be navigated entirely via keyboard.
Is there anything from The Muse that helped you out in your job search?
When I arrived at Appian for my on-site interview, the very first person I was directed to was James Stevenson, who gave me an overview of the Appian product. I immediately felt some sense of comfort in what was an otherwise busy day of interviews since I’d already “met” this person online on The Muse!
What advice would you have for someone who wants a job like yours?
Practice, practice practice! I did a lot of practice interviews with family, friends, and my college career center. This was helpful to both straighten out my thoughts on common questions as well as to practice making eye contact and talking without fidgeting. I think a lot of people underestimate the usefulness of practicing your responses, but it really improved my confidence going into my interviews.
Also, don’t let fear be the reason you decide not to apply—you don’t know enough about the company, you’re afraid you’ll never pass the interview, or you’re worried the company is “tough to get into.” One of my professors encouraged me to take some tough interviews, and I’m so glad she did. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have applied at Appian!
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