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Pooja Desai

Master of Science in Information Technology – Software Engineering, Class of 2013

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If Pooja Desai (MSIT-SE 2013) could give a prospective student one piece of advice, it would be this: “be very clear on why you want to get a Software Engineering master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon. If you want a job—just any job—or if you simply want to come to the U.S., this probably isn’t the place for you.” Pooja believes that a student “should know what he or she wants to take away from the program. Getting an industry job shouldn’t be the end goal, because learning is the best part of the experience, and it’s the whole experience that matters. It’s important to be open to everything—the courses, the people from many different backgrounds, a new way of life.” If, however, a student is eager to grow personally and professionally and to accelerate their career, the Software Engineering Professional Program is the perfect fit.

Growing up in a family of professionals (her father is a lawyer, her mother a biologist) in Pune, India, Pooja always had a strong interest in math and biology (and in Kathak, a traditional dance in India). Her technical knowledge, though, was limited to cell phones and the cash register at the local grocery store. It wasn’t until she entered her secondary education that she was formally introduced to computers and programming languages. As she neared the start of her university years, the decision about which discipline to study presented itself. “At that time, I wanted to pursue any combination of math and biology,” says Pooja. “The obvious field was computational biology, however it was a new and evolving field and there weren’t many relevant courses that were available in India.” Although her parents acknowledged and were fully-supportive of her strengths and her interests, they held the position that whatever undergraduate degree she earned should provide her with a solid foundation and be “something everybody was familiar with.” They advised her to look to an advanced degree for study in a more specialized field.

Pooja enrolled in and graduated from Sinhgad College of Engineering with a Bachelor of Engineering in Computer Science and Information Technology. Following graduation, she went to work as a software developer at Infosys Limited. Her keen grasp of programming and her natural leadership qualities worked to promote her to a supervisory position, steering a small group of project developers. This leadership role, in turn, earned her the quarterly GEM award for excellent team performance.

Aware of the highly-competitive nature of the industry in India and recognizing the ever-changing nature of the field, Pooja decided after three years at Infosys that the time had come to learn more about the most current technology. “The field of software engineering field changes so quickly. If you want to stay in this field and do well, you need to keep learning—period. Because so many young people are entering the field every day with the latest tech knowledge, there’s easily ten people ready to replace you and your skills at any given moment.”

Thus began the search for a software engineering master’s program. Pooja started her search by looking at the top ten ranked schools in the field. Next, she “sat down and identified the problems in my work environment that I wanted to improve upon, and (the areas) I wanted to learn more about.” She honed in on very specific professional and learning objectives.

It became clear that Carnegie Mellon, with its graduate programs in Information Technology, was a strong contender. The MSIT-SE degree’s holistic approach to the process, design, and implementation of software was exactly what she was looking for. “I wanted more software and management—not only how to reliably build technically sound software, but also how to deal with the people who make software, how to manage the people and processes that make software happen. The choice was pretty clear for me.”

As she nears graduation, she’s had ample time to reflect on what she‘s derived from the program. While the acquisition of strong technical and managerial skills was an initial reason for her pursuing the MSIT-SE, in the end Pooja’s discovered that it wasn’t the best or most long-lasting take-away. While in the program, she “learned how to be proactive and not reactive” and how to manage her time as a way to reduce internal stress. “I wasn’t used to working on a longer-term project, one that required that you budget your time on a day-to-day basis.” But the nature of the MSIT-SE curriculum and its project component demanded that she effectively plan and appropriately adapt if she were to successfully manage both.

She’s already applying her newly-acquired planning skills to her post-graduation position as a Software Engineer with the Connectivity team at Harman International in suburban Chicago. “I broke down what I needed to do before the move. For example, because there is limited public transportation in the area, I have to have a car. This means not only to I have to buy the car, I have to learn how to drive in the U.S. and I have to be ready to use the car upon my arrival in Chicago. All this requires proactive and careful planning.”

Another significant takeaway for Pooja was an improved sense of judgment. “In math or biology, there is the right and the wrong. There is no grey. But in software development, there are interdependencies and varying factors, and decision-making requires judgment. It’s important to know if and when the conditions are right or wrong, and why.”

This ability to break down, analyze, and assess not only the problem but the solution is an aspect of the MSIT-SE program that is consistently addressed throughout the program. “On all of the course assignments, we’re asked to explain the choices that we’ve made as we make them. It’s not enough for the student team to say, “it’s going fine”. Rather, we need to recognize when things are going well and not so well, what and how we did things, and the rationale behind those decisions. This introspective approach has become so second nature to me that I find myself applying it to just about everything I do from cooking a new dish, making personal life choices, or defining my professional development goals. It’s good to know that you can make a mistake, learn from it, and not be afraid to risk failure.”

Looking to the future, Pooja plans to work in industry in the U.S. for a few years before returning to India to pursue another degree, possibly an Executive MBA or a PhD in computational biology. It is her hope that one day in the not-too-distant future she can fulfill her childhood dream of opening her own café in India where people can come to relax, dance, and eat desert. For now, though, she’ll continue to apply the skills that she’s acquired at Carnegie Mellon on and off the job.

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