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Love of languages leads to Silicon Valley job
Vasundhara Gautam 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. She 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 Gautam applied to the program and won an entrance scholarship that kicked off a four-year journey that she calls the most exciting chapter of her life—so far.
Living across the world from her family in India took some getting used to, but Gautam’s transition was eased by living in residence at SFU where she made many close friends. Learning about computer programming and linguistics was initially difficult, but Gautam rose to the challenge, and by the end of her first year she 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. Gautam 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 Gautam craved an opportunity to combine both in one role. That opportunity arose in her final year at SFU when she used her programming skills to study the linguistic characteristics of online comments at the Discourse Processing Lab where she 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,” Gautam 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 she’d completed her degree, Gautam had assembled a portfolio of experience ranging from experimental research to industry work. With knowledge of the tools used in her field combined with glowing references from her research supervisors and colleagues at GE Digital, Gautam was accepted into some of the world’s top graduate programs in computational linguistics and language technology. Instead of launching into her Master’s degree immediately, Gautam chose to work and save money for graduate school.
She aced her 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 her to use both components of her joint major degree.
Gautam is reluctant to point to any one event as her 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,” she 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.”
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