Engineer to Engineer: Inspiring Young Minds to Love Technology

Written by Briana Augenreich

Left: Briana Augenreich | Right: Ria Galanos

In this edition of Engineer to Engineer, WWCode Fellow Briana Augenreich meets with Ria Galanos, Software Engineering Lead for Learning and Development at Yext, to discuss the importance of teachers, encouraging students to love computer science, and technological advancements that are making a difference.

Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your current role?

I’m the Learning and Development Lead in the software engineering group at Yext. I’m the first person to hold the title, which is exciting because I get to shape it according to the company’s needs.

My job is to create learning and development opportunities for our current engineers and to formalize our onboarding program. We onboard people all the time, but designing a formal, concrete process sets new engineers up for success as early as possible. Some of the best accolades I’ve received have come from returning interns who wished the program had existed when they were new at the company.

That’s awesome. And what are some of the benefits you’ve seen come out of the program?

My goal is to get new employees up to speed faster and empower people from their very first day at work. I want them to know exactly what we expect from them, what we don’t expect, who to ask when they have questions, where to look for answers, and what resources they have at their disposal. Individuals, and the company as a whole, will be so much more successful on their learning journeys when they feel comfortable in a work environment instead of feeling panicked when they’re at a loss.

I love that. I’m familiar with starting a new job with a new team and new rules, so it’s great that you’re ensuring people know what tools to use and what technologies are available. It’s about more than information; it’s giving them tools to thrive.

Exactly. That’s part of the role that was my idea. I remember not knowing where to go for answers during my onboarding process, so I want to help people avoid that.

I’m a former teacher, and I approached education the same way. When a freshman in college doesn’t understand something in computer science, do they abandon their major because the material was too challenging or because they didn’t know where or how to get help? In my experience, the latter is often the case.

Are there any particular resources you want people to have access to, or skills you want them to hone early on?

Each team uses a specialized technology, but what I’m working on now — which will benefit everyone — is formalizing how engineers debug and troubleshoot their projects. It’s common for debugging to be on an ad hoc basis. Some people thrive learning on the fly like that, but it takes everyone else longer. Is it a database issue? An internet or configuration problem? Plus, many engineers don’t learn debugging in school so I believe Yext can do a better job at helping its team members solve problems.

As a practicing engineer, I know debugging and troubleshooting are foundational skills that help you overcome countless hurdles, but I agree that it’s not something we learn in school the way we should. It’s amazing that you’re enabling problem-solving more deliberately.

I’d like to know more about your teaching background. What was your experience like?

I taught computer science for 16 years. Specifically, I spent much of my career teaching AP Computer Science A, which is the first AP course in the field. I, therefore, encountered mostly high school sophomores and older students who were just discovering their interest in computing.

My first groups of students looked pretty stereotypical. Many of them were definitely the archetype of high school “nerds.” I wasn’t okay with that — I’m a woman who has always loved math and science, but I wouldn’t say I identify as a “geek.” Those students were welcome, of course, but I wanted my classroom to be more diverse in terms of race, gender, and background. Athletes, creatives, musicians, and kids with other interests should have a chance to discover the joys of computing.

I pounded the pavement for a few years recruiting. I used all the gimmicks: handing out cookies, prizes, all the kind of desperate measures you take when trying to sway people. They worked, but I realized that they weren’t authentic. Kids were only taking the class because they liked me. That’s not the worst thing, but I wanted them to genuinely love computer science.

So, I changed my approach to teaching. Instead of relying on traditional assignments, I made them exciting, real-world, and tangible. There’s nothing wrong with the Fibonacci and Towers of Hanoi assignments we’re familiar with, but I wanted to mix in projects that enabled students to actually accomplish something. Many teachers give out programming assignments where the answer is already known, which means students just go through the motions. Instead, I brought real-world data sets into the classroom and taught my students how to manipulate information from the Facebook and Twitter APIs to answer questions they couldn’t simply look up online.

One of the students’ tasks was to determine the most common word their favorite Twitter celebrity used in their last 2,000 tweets. The students had fun predicting what that term might be and were almost always wrong. While this assignment involved the basic programming constructs in an introductory programming course, the effect of having them write a program that uses real-world data had two consequences I didn’t expect. First, the students appeared to be more engaged with this assignment than any other they had been given that year. I’d like to think this was due to the fact they had no idea what the outcome of the program would be in advance. Second, I didn’t anticipate that the students would transfer the skill of looking for and using APIs outside of my classroom.

One of the highlights of my career is when a student stopped by my classroom the first week of school to tell me about her summer internship. She had served as an intern for a member of Congress. In her first few days, she was given a project to classify the congressperson’s social media activity throughout the duration of their term into a host of categories. She was thrilled to get this assignment, and about a week later, she put a report on her supervisor’s desk saying that she completed the assignment. Her supervisor was confused and asked, “How could you be done so soon? This was supposed to take you all summer!” They had expected her to do this manually — literally reading through all of the representative’s posts on various social media profiles — and were impressed that a rising senior in high school had the skills to do this task computationally, writing code and using the APIs for each platform. Personally, I was thrilled that my student applied skills learned in my classroom to a new task. This is why I became a teacher!

Wow. I love that you’re mirroring what programmers do in the real world and teaching them how to solve problems and arrive at answers, not just repeating steps.

Thank you! I think giving students questions other people have already found the answers to makes assignments feel more like homework. This way, there’s a bit of mystery they have to solve, making it more engaging. It ignites the spark and love for the field we programmers have.

(Open this audio snippet in a new tab to listen to part of Bri’s interview with Ria!)

That’s phenomenal. Now, did you do anything specific to address the stereotype of what a software engineer supposedly looks like? In high school and college, many people were surprised to find me in computer science and told me, “You’re very outgoing and personable, you’re not a typical nerd.” Did you combat that stereotype concretely to get more folks in the door, or did it happen organically?

I firmly believe that movies and other media are the reason we have a diversity problem in computing. They present one kind of person sitting behind a computer, but I celebrated diversity in my classroom. Not just on a racial or gender basis, but personality types. We need the loud person on the podium just as much as we do the quiet person in the corner.

Most of my former students aren’t old enough to be very far in their careers yet, so we’ll see which ones stay in or leave the industry 10 years from now. I did make a point, though, to discuss technologies that one group created and left out another. Their perspectives are necessary, so hopefully, they’ll stick with it despite the problems that persist in the field.

I also make sure new members on my team know not to diminish the power of their experiences and points of view. They might be the person to ask a question on day one that gives the rest of us an “Aha!” moment and results in a better solution.

I’m with you about the role movies and TV play, too. People are surprised to learn I don’t care for The Big Bang Theory because those men embody the stereotype that technologically savvy people are socially awkward and predominately White.

I once asked my students, could they name a woman in a computing role in a movie who wasn’t designed to be a villain or unattractive? The only answer was Jennifer Hudson in Sex and the City, a Black woman who was an out-of-work developer. Hollywood missed an important opportunity there.

Well, I know the schools are definitely missing you and your curriculum. Do you have any tips or advice for current students looking to enter the field?

My advice is to look for relevance. If your teacher is giving you assignments that are static and straight from the textbook, work on an independent project that matters to you. That’s what will drive your enthusiasm and perseverance to overcome obstacles. You will inevitably feel defeated at points and think everyone knows more than you, but having passion will help you dig yourself out of that pit and build the thing you set out to build. It doesn’t matter how elementary or complicated it is.

In addition, take computing classes even if you don’t plan to be an engineer. Whether you want to go into medicine or civil engineering or something else, the skills you learn could change your life.

Definitely true. I think, besides not identifying as a stereotypical engineer, people steer away from programming because they’re afraid of how complex it is. We’ve been led to believe you need to be incredibly intelligent to grasp technical concepts. My friends who aren’t in the industry have shut down conversations about my job because they say, “Oh, that’s way above my head.” It’s easier to understand than people think, but the question now is how to stop people from immediately putting up that kind of barrier.

I saw an interview with Viola Davis recently and the interviewer asked her about the impact the pandemic has had on the arts. Is it temporary, or are the arts in trouble? She immediately responded that the arts are always in trouble and need consistent support. However, during her answer, she noted that acting isn’t rocket science, and that upset me because I studied aeronautical engineering for my undergraduate degree and I can’t act at all! What people do on stage or screen takes so much intelligence. Therein lies where many people have been misled: that some professions are better than others or require more knowledge. I would never say that I’m smarter than Viola Davis by virtue of my profession. As experienced as I am in computer science, I would argue she’s smarter than me because she’s a bona fide master of her craft.

I agree that people are taught to believe certain fields are elite, and you have to be a certain kind of individual or have particular skills to enter them. We all start from scratch, though.

Absolutely. Some students who failed my class are now software engineers, so it’s about perseverance more than natural ability.

Diving into your background further, what got you interested in technology, and what inspired you to pursue a career in teaching?

I’m a child of the 70s and 80s and was obsessed with math pretty much from birth. The first Apple computer came out when I was in fifth grade, and my parents bought me one even though we didn’t have a lot of money. However, the customer associate who sold it to us made a mistake at checkout, and my father and I both knew it. I went home with my computer, wrote a program to figure out the math, brought it back to the store manager, and they gave me a certificate. I was completely hooked after that. I even designed a gradebook program for my teachers!

My high school didn’t offer any computer science opportunities, though. I channeled my passion into math and physics, so everyone said, “Well, you have to be an engineer.” I went on to major in aeronautical engineering in college because I wanted to be an astronaut without ever researching what it actually takes to become one. Unfortunately, the airline industry was being deregulated when I graduated and the Challenger exploded, so the industry wasn’t hiring aeronautical engineers at the time. Needing to find something else to do, I became a defense contractor for the airforce at the Pentagon. I talked about planes all day, every day, traveling the world and making good money, but I wasn’t fulfilled.

That’s when many of my friends started leaving their various positions and becoming teachers. They talked about what it’s like to guide young people and how great it feels, and I wanted that for myself. I got my master’s degree in education and became a math teacher. A year later, my school requested that I switch to computing — I didn’t even know you could be a computer science teacher — and I never looked back. I probably would have been a teacher right from the get-go if society didn’t prioritize engineering over education.

I love that what you’ve done in your classroom is, essentially, to recreate those special moments you experienced in your childhood. My husband is also a teacher and I tell him constantly how important he is for expanding our next generation’s minds. It’s something I’ve considered transitioning into myself.

On a final note, are there any trends, developments, or anything else happening in the tech industry that really excites you?

The projects happening in the industry that excite me most are the ones improving people’s lives in simple ways. Self-driving cars are a hard problem, but building an app that disrupts someone’s PTSD nightmares is something that seems less obvious to most people but invaluable to the individuals who would benefit from it. It’s a small invention, but not insignificant. There are just so many possibilities like that coming to fruition in the next few years that will make a tremendous difference.

I also love all the things we can do remotely now, too. More people are able to talk to doctors because telehealth appointments happen over Zoom. A teacher friend of mine said that her school is witnessing increased parent participation because they don’t have to take time off work for parent-teacher conferences — they can do them during lunch breaks. I spoke with a vintner recently who said that the pandemic devastated his restaurant, but his vineyard is making more money than ever because they innovated by introducing virtual “wine tastings.” My favorite technological advancements make life easier for people in need, not just those that make my to-do list go by faster.

Ria Galanos has dedicated her career to empowering people and setting them up for success so that everyone in her charge has proper guidance, whether they are in school or at work.