Career Stories

Advice for New Grads: Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Life Skills When Growing Your Career

Emma Clausen, a software engineer at Abnormal Security
Emma Clausen, a software engineer at Abnormal Security.
| Courtesy of Abnormal Security

Emma Clausen always thought she wanted to be a lawyer—but while researching affordable options for undergrad in her home state of Nebraska, she discovered a small computer science program at a local university. Just like that, her career plans changed.

“Thinking that computer science would look good on law school applications, I gave it a try,” she says. “I quickly realized that you don’t need to be a math whiz to be decent at programming and fell in love with the ability to affect real change. It’s hard to find another field where you can make as much impact as a single person as you can in computer science.”

Today, Clausen is making a difference as a software engineer at the cybersecurity company Abnormal Security. She loves working at a smaller, growing organization because, she says, “even if you’re early in your career like me, you will be expected to contribute in a very real way.”

Here, Clausen shares why Abnormal Security is the ideal place to grow your career, the importance of learning life skills as a new grad, and how she’s adjusting to living far from home.

You’ve been at Abnormal Security for just a few months. Any early wins so far?

The first would be that I just completed my first on-call shift alive and in one piece! Jokes aside, getting through this rite of passage on the team has absolutely boosted my confidence. The other big win on the more technical side was creating a new pipeline that checks for code quality degradation for one of our models. This ended up being a bigger project than I expected and has already prevented some bad code changes from being made!

As someone who left big tech for Abnormal Security, what are some things you like about working at a smaller company?

There is never a dull moment! At bigger companies, you may be given work that isn’t a super high priority or that may get tossed out. However, at a small, fast-paced business, they simply can’t afford to have anyone working on things that aren’t driving the company forward. This provides a great opportunity to rise to the occasion and have a much larger impact than what you could have at a larger company. Furthermore, you also have a much bigger impact on the culture and direction of the company. Even if you’re not the CEO you still may be 1/200th of the engineering force.

Why is Abnormal Security an exciting place to work, especially within the fields of tech and engineering?

Everyone always says that they want to work with intelligent people, but holy cow. The people here are really good at what they do. I have never been surrounded by this many absolutely brilliant people. While it can be intimidating, I think it makes Abnormal a great place to work if you are trying to grow yourself and your career. The other reason Abnormal is an exciting place is that there is a large positive social impact stemming from the work that is being done. Being in a place where your work is going to a good cause and you can develop at an exponential pace is a hard combination to find, and I feel super fortunate to have that at Abnormal.

As a recent college grad, what advice do you have for others looking to jumpstart a career in tech?

The best thing you can do is to not artificially limit your opportunities. I can confidently say I would not be where I am today if I only applied to places where I felt I was fully qualified to work. Obviously, don’t misconstrue your qualifications or background; this is more about shooting your honest shot at things you are excited about. After all, we get enough “nos” in our life so we don't need to be adding even more ourselves!

You have several internships on your resume. What are the most valuable lessons and/or skills you learned during your internships?

I think of these lessons as being in a couple of different buckets. There are professional skills like how to work in a corporate environment, set goals, and, of course, technical skills. However, I think there is a class of skills that come from these experiences that are often undervalued, such as learning to live on your own. While interning you learn things like paying rent, cooking for yourself, time management, and exercising while also working 40 hours a week. These skills almost act as a prerequisite for further career advancement down the road. After all, it is very hard to succeed at work if you aren’t taking care of yourself at home.

What was the biggest challenge relocating from Nebraska to San Francisco?

I honestly didn’t notice a difference between Nebraska and San Francisco. Just kidding, it was a pretty big change. I think there are some pros and cons of both places. For one, the weather out here is amazing. There are also so many smart, ambitious people from different backgrounds. Getting to be friends with people from all over the world is something that I have never gotten to experience before.

However, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing either. Adjusting to being away from family and from all that I have known since I have been born was a big change. Finding a steady group of friends and getting involved in my community has really helped me to still feel grounded while I get used to life out here. That being said, I still am not used to seeing the ocean; it’s way too big in my opinion.

You’re organizing a dinner party with your biggest role models. Who’s invited and what will you talk about?

First off, I'm definitely ordering takeout since I am not a great cook.

I think role models can mean a couple of different things. If we take it to mean the people who I look up to in my day-to-day life, I am fortunate enough to say that it would largely be family and close friends. However, if we are talking about people on a more macro level, Dr. Francis Collins—a physician-geneticist who led the Human Genome Project—is someone I have recently looked up to quite a bit. He seems to strike a great balance between contributing to the betterment of humanity and pursuing his passions all while being insanely humble and kind.

What’s the best career advice you've ever received?

I think the best career advice I have gotten is also some of the best life advice. You should always surround yourself with the people that you want to be like. The people you spend 40-plus hours of your week with will certainly have an impact on your life. Additionally, working with people you admire and enjoy being around makes work all that more fun.

Updated 11/18/2022