Charting My Own Path in the STEM World

You could call me a math nerd since numbers came out of my mouth before words as a baby.

Claire CahillOne of my most vivid childhood memories was in first grade when a boy named Nishu Mehta beat me in a math game called Around the World. In this game, students stand on chairs and challenge their classmates one on one with multiplication flashcards to see you can beat everyone and go “around the world.” I was the undefeated champion the entire year except for that day, and I vowed to never let anyone (especially a boy) beat me in math ever again.

This simple math game laid the foundation for the rest of my education years. I was uber-competitive and never settled for second best in a math class. Every test was a competition to make sure I finished fastest and made the highest grade. If I didn’t feel challenged enough, I would try to make the math problems harder. If the long division question on the test said to round to the nearest tenth, I would put the next 15 digits to the side just to prove I knew how to do it (and do it faster).

I love math because there is a right answer and there is a wrong answer but there can be many different ways to come up with that correct answer. Words are arbitrary, numbers are not. No matter how complicated, there is a solution to a problem if you just think hard enough. Math is a fun game to me. Throw an X in front of me and I can’t help but solve it.

When applying for college I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. How does my love of solving for imaginary variables translate to the real world? My dad was an Electrical Engineer and I had been to enough take your daughter to work days at Emerson to know that would be an impressive path to go down. I knew I was good at math and I was also good at chemistry, so originally I applied to schools for Chemical Engineering.

I ended up choosing to attend Washington & Lee University to play on their tennis team, and that was the only school where I didn’t have to declare my major as a freshman. This allowed me freedom to explore my other options. From this I quickly learned that I really only liked Chemistry because I liked balancing equations, and I didn’t actually see myself in the chemical engineering field.

W&L had an incredibly impressive Business school, so I dropped my engineering aspirations and started to take more business classes because I figured it would be another practical field to help me get a job. Alongside these business classes I kept taking math classes just because I enjoyed them. Before I knew it I was only one class away from completing a B.A. in Math as well as my B.S. in Business Administration. That one class was Puzzles and Games, an infamous spring term class that rewarded you for completing the math major with 4 weeks of solving Rubik’s Cubes for homework and using probability lessons as an excuse to play poker and monopoly. Naturally this class confirmed everything I loved about math, but left me no closer to figuring out what I wanted to do with my life after college.

When it came time to apply to jobs, I felt lost. My fellow business majors were applying to Investment Banking firms; my fellow Math majors were applying to be Actuaries. I was not interested in either. “Business” and “Math” now felt like the most arbitrary words to me.

I went through a couple interviews for various Analyst roles but I didn’t have the prior work experience some candidates had because I had spent my summers working to help pay for those degrees and training 6 hours a day for tennis. Abstract Algebra and Real Analysis also didn’t exactly prepare me for technical analyst interview questions. Business/Math Double Major, Captain of a national champion tennis team, Math Honor Society, how could nobody want to hire me??? While everyone was touting full time offers, I was preparing to move back home with my parents in Austin, Texas and carry on the job search from there.

I learned that networking pays off! An opportunity finally arose when I got in contact with a family friend from my tennis academy who happened to be the CFO of my current company, Bazaarvoice. During graduation week I received this email, “Would you be interested in exploring an internship with us? Our VP Engineering may need a business analyst to help build out metrics for his R&D teams.” It wasn’t a full time offer, but I was thrilled because it was finally an opportunity in my hometown!
Jim and Claire Cahill
Future STEM'ers Dad Jim & Daughter Claire in their elementary school years
I got in contact with the EVP of Engineering and he informed me that this was a brand new position he was creating. Even though it wasn’t the full time position I was looking for, I was excited that he was willing to take a gamble on me. I accepted the offer, and exactly 1 month after I graduated college, I began my internship as a Business Analyst in the engineering department at Bazaarvoice.

The first week was a very overwhelming and eye opening experience. When I arrived at my new desk I was given a PC computer when every single engineer had a Mac, so everyone immediately looked at me like I was lost and didn’t belong there. (The “non-technical” roles received PCs). I looked around for a friend but there was only 1 other female on the entire side of the office. She was a manager and did her best to avoid my desk, which I learned later was because she thought I was an auditor (again, PC computer). The engineers avoided my desk too, and I’m not sure if it was the fact that they were nervous around a female in their territory or the fact that they judged the amount of excel files on my screen.

My internship was with the Platform Infrastructure team – aka the AWS Cloud Ninjas. They are, in my eyes, the most brilliant people in the department and know everything there is to know about VPCs, VPNs, NATs, DNS, IAM, ELBs, EBS and every other thing that could possibly have a 3 letter acronym in the engineering world. In other words, I had no idea what they were talking about. I quickly realized I knew absolutely nothing about software engineering. I had never taken a computer science class, I did not know what a terminal was, and when an engineer asked me to edit a txt file I opened it up and sent it back in Microsoft Word.

Since those Around the World games in first grade, I was used to being the best. Give me a mechanical pencil and some notebook paper and I will solve all the world's problems. Throw a computer in front of me and I'd now entered some seriously uncharted waters.

I walked around the first month feeling like an alien that was dropped in a foreign country where everyone was speaking a completely different language that I was too scared to learn. I thought I had made a huge career mistake at first, I felt isolated from the rest of the engineers in the department and my confidence in my abilities was low. I started to second guess my place in the STEM world. I felt like my extroverted personality was being stifled, so I did a complete 180 and started applying to sales positions and also looking for Business Analyst positions in other departments. I wanted the feeling of being on top again.

My first moment breaking through the foreign language barrier came when I picked up a Rubik’s cube off of one of the most tenured engineer’s desks and proceeded to solve it. That was the first time multiple engineers turned around and noticed my existence and they immediately started questioning where I learned that. When I mentioned that it was in a MATH class because I was a MATH major immediately their eyes lit up again. “Oh, so she IS a STEM girl….OK she can sit with us” Shoutout to that Puzzles and Games class senior year for being the most real world applicable class I took and for finally gaining me some respect from my engineers.

That interaction propelled me forward in my internship. Once the word got out I was a math major and could do a rubik’s cube, I started to gain some more street cred and they were more apt to help in my pursuit of becoming a real analyst. As my internship went on I was able to start making an impact by analyzing our AWS Cloud Hosting expenses, creating dashboards, updating reports and becoming an Excel and SQL wizard. I was offered a full time role in my current position and when I finally decided to accept it, I realized that I was just going to have to dive in and embrace the challenge. I realized that I wasn’t going to be the best Software Engineer in the department, but I could be the best Business Analyst. 

Bazaarvoice collects consumer generated data from a vast network of brands and retailers; we get to see the shopping behaviors of millions of consumers every single day. I get to watch my teammates build brand new products from that data that do amazing things like helping consumers make purchase decisions by informing them what other users in our network like them are buying. Together, our data science, technology, engineering and math nerds are transforming the shopping experience! There are so many more opportunities and I get to be on the front line, helping our engineers better understand our data and keeping them in check and on budget. 

Looking back, it makes me laugh that I ever even thought about switching departments. I am working with the smartest people in the company every single day. I am surrounded by female role models in a department that invests in retaining female talent by sponsoring a monthly R&D Ladies happy hour and a monthly R&D Ladies lunch where the women in all the different roles in our department get to come together and “run the world” as Beyoncé would say. I am able to work with an engineering team to develop AWS cost tools that are so good we could spin off and start our own start up. I am in a position in this department that was created just for me and I have the opportunity to do whatever I want with it. I have the respect and trust of my management team who allow me opportunities to grow. And I get to be an analyst at a company with a data asset that any data nerd would kill for.

Bazaar TeamBeing immersed in my role for the past 2 years, I have finally learned how I can tell a computer to do exactly what my brain can do with a mechanical pencil and paper, and it can do it in a fraction of the time. I have accepted that I will forever be second best to the computer in Around the World. Once I came to that realization, parts of my job became easier, allowing me to take on new challenges. Writing a SQL query is just grabbing data and throwing some math on top. Python is just math and logic with a little bit of formatting. Tableau is a way to grab your data, perform a bunch of math calculations on it, and create powerful visualizations. So I DID know something about software engineering going after all! It’s all just Math, it’s not that scary!

Best part of the STEM world: if you don’t know something you can Google it and there will be countless answers from people who have encountered the same thing, or if not there will be countless people waiting to answer. You are never in this field by yourself.

I have realized that I am absolutely a woman in STEM. Not only is that letter M just as big as that letter E, but they work hand in hand. We women in STEM all bring unique elements to the table, but what unites us is that we are all problem solvers. Our brains are all wired to dive in and solve challenging problems (and enjoy doing it). There are so many paths to take in the STEM world and so many different opportunities. I didn’t need to follow the path of anyone else with my same degrees, I was able to pave my own path. I belong in my department and am so fortunate that I was given the opportunity to learn and grow in such a nurturing environment.

Growing up I was a math nerd, now I am data nerd and I am so excited to see what the next step of this Woman in STEM nerd’s journey will be...