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Students, FASS News, Linguistics, Alumni
Love of languages leads to Silicon Valley job
Vagrant enjoyed learning languages as a high school student in India and then Singapore, and was puzzled why Google Translate didn’t do well on unrelated languages or on complex sentences. Xe decided to study this seemingly simple problem that no one had figured out.
But “solving” machine translation is not simple at all. It requires both computer programming skills and linguistic knowledge. Simon Fraser University (SFU) is one of the only universities in the world that offers a Joint Major in Computing Science and Linguistics at the undergraduate level so xe applied to the program and won an entrance scholarship that kicked off a four-year journey that Vagrant calls the most exciting chapter of xyr life—so far.
Living across the world from xyr family in India took some getting used to, but Vagrant’s transition was eased by living in residence at SFU where xe made many close friends. Learning about computer programming and linguistics was initially difficult, but Vagrant rose to the challenge, and by the end of xyr first year xe was working as a research assistant for Ashley Farris-Trimble, a linguistics professor at the Phonological Processing Lab who studied how children acquire the sounds of speech, and how adults mentally represent speech sounds. Vagrant worked at the lab for three years, apart from an eight-month hiatus to do a software engineering internship at General Electric (GE Digital).
Performing linguistic research and writing software professionally were fun but Vagrant craved an opportunity to combine both in one role. That opportunity arose in xyr final year at SFU when xe used xyr programming skills to study the linguistic characteristics of online comments at the Discourse Processing Lab where xe worked with linguistics professor Maite Taboada.
“One thing I have learned in tech is that communicating what your code does to someone who is non-technical is an important part of being a software developer,” Vagrant says. “This was more heavily emphasised in my Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences classes than others and has transferred nicely to the workplace.”
By the time xe completed xyr degree, Vagrant had assembled a portfolio of experience ranging from experimental research to industry work. With knowledge of the tools used in xyr field combined with glowing references from xyr research supervisors and colleagues at GE Digital, Vagrant was accepted into some of the world’s top graduate programs in computational linguistics and language technology. Instead of launching into xyr Master’s degree immediately, Vagrant chose to work and save money for graduate school.
Vagrant aced xyr very first job interview and landed a position with a Silicon Valley start-up called Dialpad as a computational linguist on the automatic speech recognition team in its Vancouver office. The position calls on xyr to use both components of xyr joint major degree.
Vagrant is reluctant to point to any one event as xyr biggest success at SFU.
“It’s hard to come up with a list of things I learned at SFU that were not relevant to my work now—either directly or indirectly,” xe says. “Every term and every experience I had was built on the previous ones, and they all came from persevering for four years to keep a high grade point average, have a social life and grab every opportunity that crossed my path.”
This article was updated on May 6, 2022 to reflect Vagrant's new name.
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