“Don’t hold yourself back” – one student’s journey from CS novice to a big data career

As an undergrad, alum Aylin Gunal had her first exposure to CS and programming in CS Kickstart, an introductory bootcamp for women and gender minorities.
Aylin Gunal
Aylin Gunal

Aylin Gunal graduated from the University of Michigan with an undergraduate degree in 2021. Before her time at U-M, she had never even considered computer or data science as a career option, and jumped into introductory CS classes with no prior coursework.

We sat down and talked with Aylin about her experience as a student who was new to computer science. Here’s some of what she had to say:

Right before my freshman year at U of M, I had had zero experience with coding…

…but today I work at Microsoft as a technical solutions architect. I do data and app consultation, and I would never have pegged that for myself four years ago. I expect that I’ll continue to work with data further down the line, particularly concepts related to natural language processing.

I got started when I heard about a program called CS Kickstart.

CS Kickstart is an intro to computer science bootcamp for incoming first-year women at U-M which is held annually the week before school starts. Throughout that week, I got to learn the basics of coding and how accessible coding really is. I distinctly remember the first time I printed “Hello World” and the message popped up in the box. I thought, “This is doable. This is something I can do.”

I also met a lot of really cool people, particularly other women and members of underrepresented groups in STEM who hadn’t been exposed to coding before. The really wonderful thing is that this community traveled with me throughout my career at Michigan. Right up until my senior year, I was still talking to and doing projects with people I met in CS Kickstart and I still consider them some of my good friends today. So beyond getting an intro to coding together, we’re all friends and we were able to support each other through a pretty male-dominated, intense line of study.

One of the most formative parts of my undergraduate career

For a while, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with computer science. I really liked coding, but I just couldn’t see myself just coding for the sake of coding. I really wanted to be able to apply it to something meaningful to me. I ended up moving over to data science and working with big data, and one of the most formative parts of my undergraduate career was taking Information Retrieval, EECS 486.

EECS 486 is an introduction to natural language processing, as well as recommender systems and information retrieval systems. While I was in the class, I realized that I really enjoyed working with text data. Our professor encouraged us to go to talks and learn about the applications of natural language processing for social good.

In that class I was able to ask my professor questions like, “If I’m really interested in this portion of the class, do you have any suggestions for what else I should do?” She was able to point me towards different resources so I could narrow my interests down.

I wouldn’t say there was one specific experience during that class that was really important, but the entire class taught me the importance of natural language processing. 

If I could give advice to high school me…

…I’d probably tell her: open your mind up a little bit. You don’t have to avoid an engineering field or something like computer science, even though you have little to no experience. That’s the whole point of going into college coursework: introducing yourself to new concepts. The intro classes are never going to hurt you, they’re meant to teach you the foundations and help you decide if you really want to continue on with the curriculum.

So don’t be afraid of those intro CS and math classes – just because you don’t have experience with them doesn’t mean you can’t become interested in that later on, in ways that you would never have expected. For example, right now, my interest is natural language processing. I never would have gotten to this point had I not taken EECS 183 (Elementary Programming Concepts) and then continued down the line all the way to taking Information Retrieval in the second semester of my senior year. 

It really is just a process – don’t hold yourself back to what you think you’re going to be the most successful in.