In Conversation with Kristy Gao
Kristy is in her final year of computer science at the University of Waterloo (UW).
Since her enrollment, she has interned for Paypal, Cognite AS, Peggy, Cockroach Labs and Google — all as a software engineer. When she graduates, she plans to work as an engineering manager.
At the moment, Kristy is a technical project lead for UW Blueprint initiative, which focuses on accessible technology and promoting public and social welfare. The initiative partners with non-profit organizations to provide websites, mobile applications and analysis tools for free.
Under UW Blueprint, Kristy leads a project that builds web applications to help Planet Read coordinate volunteers to translate and review children’s stories.
“Currently how they process their translations is through email and Word documents, so we’re building a platform to hopefully change that,” she says. “It’s kind of like my brainchild for the last few months and we will be deploying in [January].”
Kristy’s journey to UW’s computer science program was possible through a handful of positive reinforcements.
Growing up in Guelph, ON. alongside her older sister to Chinese immigrant parents, Kristy fostered a keen interest in computer science through video games and mathematics. From catching Pokemons to rummaging through online indie games, Kristy began to see the correlation of mathematics in them.
“I always liked tinkering with things…it seemed like computer science was a natural concept to try out,” she says.
Although in high school, Kristy did not find the computer science courses to be challenging enough, she admits having an excellent teacher was a game changer. She is also proud that she was part of a tight knit comradery of the few female students looking to venture into computer science careers.
“It gave me a lot of inspiration to try it out myself, and I really don’t know where I’d be if they were not there,” the 22-year-old says. “I think that it was really huge for me.”
Then there were hackathons.
“Hackathons really connected me with the community I wanted to be a part of, I met a lot of students from Waterloo while I was in high school in the hackathon community.” she says.
For Kristy, hackathons were a way for her to connect with people who wanted to build and create. What attracted her to hackathons weren’t the elaborate and complex projects, but the simple ones that embodied the spirit of learning and having fun.
Throughout high school, hackathons became Kristy’s staple extracurricular, but for her it was more than just an after school activity. In 2016, she would become the founder of SpartaHacks, introducing Guelph to the first high school hackathon, organized alongside her friends from September to December. This was Kristy’s first time organizing and finding major success.
“I really wanted to give back to a community that gave me so much.” Kristy says. “My school, on a smaller level, didn’t have much of a computer science environment or community, I felt really passionate about bringing it to my school and convincing my friends to enjoy these things.”
As Kristy found herself studying at UW, her passion for hackathons continued. Soon, Kristy will be working with Hack the North as a logistics organizer and backend engineer.
“I wanted to find people I could relate to more, I think it’s important to be able to have people in your life who can support you in the way that you need to be supported,” she says. “It’s hard.”
Kristy does not shy away from talking about identity politics in the computer science industry, including her time at UW. As a queer woman of colour, finding a space in the industry isn’t as easy as it seems.
In her experience, having mentors who either are allies or individuals from your community is a way to feel connected to a stereotypically heteronormative space. “It was huge for me that I had mentors in high school, who were women in computer science.”
“It’s great to have a diverse network, and be friends with people from all walks of life, regardless of the background you come from.”
Kristy spoke of the hope she feels in the growth of inclusion in the industry.
“I think the onus is on everyone to make the space more welcoming and inclusive,” she says.
When looking at Ontario, Kristy stated that there needs to be more change in regards to learning in programming, as computer science isn’t offered in every school, public or private. This would mean providing more resources, funding programming camps and implementing programming courses in schools that are subsidized.
“If you grew up in rural Ontario, where there might not even be upper calculus classes, then it’s going to be hard to get a hold of programming classes,” she says. “Having the resources and the opportunities to go to programming camp, or go to hackathons, can be really influential with that.”
With the ever-growing environment of STEM careers, Kristy believes there are many ways for students and people interested in computer science to increase their skills. For Kristy, co-op programs changed her life for the better, giving her a chance to explore different paths.
Kristy spent time in California and Norway where she worked remotely for international companies during the pandemic. Through these experiences, her love for startups and entrepreneurship grew.
“You receive valuable hands-on experiences on building software and websites from scratch,” she says.
The desire and focus to build and create is what Kristy believes is the most important factor in figuring out what a student or someone just entering the STEM industry needs. She also emphasizes the need for expanding people’s creativity, and not just sticking to one type of building.
“Take time to take care of yourself, do some art, some construction, woodwork, things like that,” she says. “Those are all important in keeping the spirit of building things alive, and to keep the spirit healthy.”
Writer: Rhea Singh
Editor: Choi David
Photos: Abul Rehman
Styling: Kayla Strong