College of Charleston computer science alumna Megan Landau ’18 is a testament to the theory that “sampling” – trying lots of different activities and pursuing diverse interests – can be an effective way to find one’s sweet spot in life.
Following a globe-trotting childhood in which she lived in South Africa, England and Wyoming, Landau first set out to study medicine at Boston University. But while she loved the science and research aspects of that subject, her creative side felt neglected. So, she switched gears and moved to New York City to study fashion design at Parsons The New School for Design. Of course, that move soon created a void in her life for logic and problem-solving.
Taking a break from school, she moved to Florida to train as a scuba instructor and then back to Wyoming to complete a certification course to become an emergency medical technician. While there, she met someone who was moving to Charleston, and she soon followed suit.
“A year after I moved to Charleston, I decided to go back to school,” recalls Landau. “Someone along the way had told me, ‘If you like science and math, but you are also really creative, give computer science a try.’ So I applied to CofC to study computer science, having no idea what I was getting myself into, and I am so glad I did!”
The College Today recently caught up with Landau to learn how the College served as a springboard to her career as a software engineer for the Walt Disney Company in Los Angeles, California.
Q: How did your experience as a non-traditional student at CofC help prepare you for life and a career in the “real” world?
Being a little bit older than most incoming freshman students, I had a little more experience with college, homework loads, balancing my time, etc. However, both of my previous colleges had been large and the professors there had very little time for the students, if they talked to us at all. At CofC, being able to go up to the professor after class or during office hours had a significant impact on how comfortable I felt in our department and when I had questions – especially in the first couple of semesters when I really felt like an imposter trying to study a subject that was very over my head. When you are able to talk with your professors casually and they enthusiastically respond to any of your questions, you start feeling more and more comfortable and more involved in your courses, instead of just taking a back seat. Once I had gotten to know my professors, they encouraged me to join clubs, tutor other students, and even reached out to me for beginner-level positions at local companies. This worked wonders for my confidence and, even though I was just starting out in the field, I started to think, “Yes, I can really do this.”
Q: How did you find out about and land your current position with Disney?
In 2017, I was one of the students selected for the Grace Hopper Celebration (GHC) Student Scholarship. The three-day conference is a massive (18,000 people!) event that celebrates women in computing, and they have an extraordinary career fair. As an attendee, you can add your resume to the resume database and then, in the months before the conference, companies will reach out to you with interviewing opportunities. I admit that I may have overdone it with the interviewing – I accepted every phone call, email, online coding challenge, and interview opportunity that I received. I took interviews in the library, in my car, between classes … Before I had even attended GHC, I had already completed three interviews with Disney and the fourth one was an in-person coding interview with my now manager while we were at the conference. An hour later, they had asked me to fly out to L.A. the following week to interview three more times with my eventual coworkers and the director of our team. It was definitely a whirlwind! I am so grateful to have received that scholarship to GHC because it opened up my opportunities and it was a great confidence boost to have recruiters reaching out to me for the first time in my life!
Q: What are your responsibilities in your current role as software engineer?
The team I joined at Disney functions a little like a startup. When I joined, we were at the point where other departments in Disney would ask for applications that solved some of their business problems. So, for example, our team worked on a calendar application that displays and schedules all of ABC Television’s shows and is used daily by producers, directors and CEOs. My sub-team within our team is the Product Platform Team, which is responsible for building shared services for all the other teams. For most of my first year at Disney, I worked to build a continuous integration pipeline for all of our applications. Even though I was hired to be a software developer, I spent a lot of time learning things they can’t teach in school, like how to deploy applications to various environments in the cloud, how to set up the infrastructure for a system of services, and overall, how to make the development process much easier and faster for all of our other teams. Our small team of five has built backend applications, quality engineering libraries, microservice initializers, pipelines, and has set up the entire system on which all other applications run on – Kubernetes. So it’s been a lot of responsibility from day one, but I learned so much so I can’t complain! Soon, our team will begin working on a new application that has to do with advertising sales, so I will be focusing more closely on application development and owning some of those Java services in the near future.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
My team!! I am very lucky – I started my position at the same time as a senior-level engineer who has more than 10 years of experience and is just the most incredible engineer I have ever met. Over the past year, he has been my constant friend and mentor and has patiently taught me new skills and ensuring that I learn to develop software the right way. Other members of my team have also helped me, but to have one person to whom I can ask anything and model my own work ethic after has been invaluable.
My team overall is also wonderful! We do a lot of team events together, go to Disneyland, birthday lunches, happy hours, bowling, playing tennis, playing Rock Band and Guitar Hero, and going to movie releases together as well as lots of other events.
Q: What has surprised you most about graduating from college and entering the workforce?
What surprised me most when I started my position was how much trust my team members put in me to complete my tasks. Although there is a code review process, it was still a little terrifying to me that my teammates would willingly merge my code when I started! They trusted me to test it fully and gave me complete responsibility over my tasks. I was surprised by this, but I think being a little scared of breaking the application and being overly cautious in the beginning helped me gain confidence that my skills were useful. My team did not give me only easy tasks, I was thrown right into the deep water from day one!
Q: You were selected in 2017 to participate in the Google Women Techmakers Scholars Program. What was that experience like and how did it influence what you did next?
I was lucky enough to be one of 20 female students in the U.S. awarded the Google Women Techmakers scholarship in 2017. This scholarship involves a trip where all the other Google scholarship recipients meet at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. I hardly have any words to describe the experience! I have never met a group of people before that were so different in their backgrounds, yet had so much in common in their personality, work ethic and overall passion for computer science. The summit gave me connections I will have for a lifetime and a support network that will always be there.
Q: How can schools, universities and companies help get more girls and women interested in technology careers?
I think one of the greater problems girls and women face with this issue is that they are not encouraged very early in life to pursue technology as an option. Oftentimes science-minded women are only encouraged to study biology or to go into medical studies, which is great, but they should also be told about the incredible opportunities that are out there for women in technology. This is an issue that is rooted in early education. Classes with building, construction and general engineering are often geared towards men, while women are encouraged to choose classes like home economics or art. At no point in my early education did anyone encourage me to become an engineer, even though I was good at math and science. So schools can be more aware of this and maybe encourage teachers to start curbing this bias against women in engineering at a young age. I can’t tell you how often people are comically surprised when I tell them I am a software engineer.
CofC has a special setup for women studying computer science because it is a college where the majority of the students are female, so, naturally, our computer science department has a higher percentage of women. Maybe this made me feel more welcome in my classes, and, by the time I entered the workforce and realized that there are far less women out here, I was confident enough in my own skills to not feel overly intimidated. My team at Disney is extremely supportive and, although I would prefer that there were more women on the team, I have never once felt that I wasn’t welcome or that my gender had anything to do with my skill level.
I think universities could encourage clubs like CofC’s Women In Computing club, which is where I found my first support network and how I found out about scholarship opportunities and research labs. I think companies could make a bigger effort to hire more women into associate-level positions and train them like I have been doing at Disney.
Q: What were some of the internships and professional development experiences you had as a student that helped prepare you for a career?
The summer after my first year at CofC, a professor asked me if I would be interested in working with his colleague part-time at the Medical University of South Carolina writing programs to help with data organization. Later on that summer, I joined one of the research labs at the CofC Department of Computer Science – the Virtual Reality Lab. It was a non-coding position where I led the creative effort to design a VR game. Once I had started working in the research labs, I found out about the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Lab and, in the fall semester, I began developing an iOS app to use voice control for our DJI Phantom drone. At the end of the semester, I had co-authored a short essay with my professor and had been accepted to present my work at the Human Robot Interaction conference in Vienna, Austria. When interviewing for internships that year, this research is what made me stand out, I think. It showed that I could drive my own work, persevere through challenging situations and that I was passionate about problem solving. That summer, I was very lucky to intern at Blackbaud as a software engineer intern. This experience showed me what my life could be like after graduation, and I absolutely loved it! I also interned as a machine learning intern at Netrist Solutions, a local start-up near campus. Both of these experiences solidified my drive to keep learning and to continue challenging myself so I could learn more about what opportunities were out there.
Q: What do you like most about living and working in California?
Los Angeles is … big! There are almost 20 million people living in L.A. and the surrounding counties. There is always something to do here and always a place to go, people to meet, new things to try. There are hidden gems of restaurants and shops on every block and a lot of the people here have had incredible lives and have great stories. I was a little overwhelmed when my fiancée and I first moved here because L.A. is much much crazier than Charleston. But we are now living in the Arts District in downtown L.A. and it is so fun having the big city experience!
As far as working here, the great thing about California is that this is where the tech people are. Granted, they are mostly in Silicon Valley up north, but the engineers that I get to work with every day have been in the field for 10-plus years and they know what they are doing. A lot of them have experience working for a wide variety of companies, from startups to corporate. I am always in awe of how smart everyone is and how easy they make everything look. And I am lucky they are happy to show me what they know.
Q: Describe your daily commute, office and workspace?
Yes, the traffic is exactly as bad as everyone says it is in L.A. If I moved back to Charleston, I would never, ever complain about traffic again! Disney has a lot of campuses and offices because it is such a massive company. The office I work in is on the 18th floor of a high-rise building with incredible views over the whole of Burbank and the Hollywood Hills. There are tons of restaurants to walk to during lunch and we take full advantage of this. It takes me about 35 minutes to drive to and from work, but I usually spend this time calling my family on the east coast or listening to Ted Talks. We have a huge employee parking garage and also a Disney employee store on the first floor. Disney offers plenty of perks, like having a full mail room that will send parcels for us. Our building is also where the Radio Disney studio is located and a lot of the casting for the Disney Channel is conducted on the floor above us.
Our office space is organized into pods, so we sit closest to those we work with the most. It’s a pretty relaxed environment, with people wearing jeans and T-shirts if they want to and dressing up in business attire if they prefer to. For equipment, we are given a MacBook with full admin privileges. A lot of engineers like to have multiple screens to work with as well, but I prefer just programming on my laptop. We have tons of meeting rooms and use plenty of collaborative tools to keep us all on the same page.
Q: What advice do you have for students interested in careers in technology?
My advice is to get involved! I can’t stress it enough. Join clubs, tutor other students, apply for scholarships, apply for internships, go to career fairs, set up your LinkedIn yesterday and start connecting, build a website portfolio, learn how to use GitHub, start your own projects. And if you aren’t sure where to start, go ask your professors. The first semester, I almost dropped out. I went to a professor I hardly knew and told him I was in over my head and didn’t know if I could do it. He gave me a list of a few things I could Google just to get started. He broke down this monumental fear I had that I wasn’t good enough by giving me small, accomplishable tasks. He took the time to encourage me and this made a world of difference.
Q: What’s the coolest project you’ve been involved in so far at Disney?
I have actually really enjoyed building the pipeline! Basically, for any application, there is a process developers have to follow every time they make a change to their code. They have to build the project, run tests on it, deploy to the cloud, run more tests and generate reports for management to look at.
Basically, my team and I have automated this whole process for multiple teams, and it is really rewarding when other engineers thank you for saving them a whole lot of time and manual process. I took the lead on developing our GitLab pipeline and I am really proud of the work I have been able to accomplish in the first year of my career.
Q: Who is your favorite Disney character?
I have always liked Ariel the best! She’s courageous and imaginative and she also has the best hair …
Q: Do you have any hobbies or special talents?
I love art of any kind. I have too many projects going at one time – embroidery, painting, furniture-making, website designs, digital drawings … I honestly don’t have time for any of it, but when you feel inspired to make things, you just have to do it. I am a huge fantasy reader as well and also love exploring L.A., hiking, and seeing movies. I haven’t been scuba diving in a while, but that is a huge love of mine as well. And once I have accrued some time off, I hope to travel a lot more, all over the world!
Q: What lesson or piece of advice from a professor or staff member at the College sticks with you to this day?
Oooh good question! I think the advice that Dr. Jim Bowring gave me in the beginning has been everlasting. When I first started in computer science, I was completely lost and overwhelmed by the amount of work that would be required going forward.
Dr. Bowring gave me the simple advice of just go do it. Go learn about it. There is nothing stopping you from learning, you just need to get started and it gets easier every little step forward that you take. And, eventually, you can look back and see just how far you have come.
Q: What question have you always wanted to be asked, and what’s your answer?
What or who keeps you balanced? I recently got engaged to Phillip Byrd, who also graduated from CofC’s computer science Department last May and who bravely moved out to California with me when I started my job at Disney. Having someone there to share the experience with has been incredible and it’s exciting to start a journey of a different kind!