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Recent CSE Alumna Makes Waves – Without a Favorite Photo Filter – at Instagram

CSE alumna Brina Lee (BS Communications ’08, MS Computer Science ’13) was the first full-time female engineer hired at Instagram, and while she still works there, she is now playing in a much bigger pond following Facebook’s acquisition of Instagram. In the latest edition of the magazine ELLE, Lee is quoted as saying, “It’s great now that Instagram is a part of Facebook, so we can leverage all the women here!” After an undergraduate degree in communications, she worked in marketing, eventually at Yahoo! She taught herself HTML, and in 2010 began enrolling in classes through UC San Diego Extension. ”I decided to enroll in part-time classes to build a foundation in computer science by learning Java,” Lee wrote in the Huffington Post in October 2013. “I was surprised I was pretty good at it, but more importantly – I liked it.”

CSE lecturer Rick Ord remembers Lee as a “pesky Extension student trying to get me to sign her Concurrent Enrollment through Extension add card for a CSE 11 that was full with a wait list.” Lee needed the course on her resume, because she had decided to apply to CSE for graduate school. She passed muster successfully completing the core CS undergrad coursework while volunteer tutoring several undergrad classes, and she was accepted into the Master's program. She eventually earned her Master’s degree in 2013, after TA’ing several undergrad classes and doing her main project with CSE Prof. Ryan Kastner. For her project, Lee built a “slouch detector” called Droop (pictured below), a wearable device to help identify bad posture.  “It was 100% Brina’s idea, and it spanned several CS topics, including embedded systems, human-computer interaction, and mobile computing,” says Kastner. “It also showed how computing can make an impact in everyday life.”

While working on her MS degree, Lee did internships at Google and Facebook before getting her full-time engineering position at Instagram last April. She credits her degree and a Grace Hopper Scholarship Award for reinforcing her resume when applying for software engineering jobs. Lee regularly also attends the annual Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, and she speaks out about the fact that women make up only 13% of all computer science graduates – a fact that is more powerful because it comes from a software engineer who did not get an undergraduate degree in computer science because of one “boring” class on coding in high school.  Lee hopes more women will become engineers and computer scientists, and she expects it will become easier for women to get ahead in the tech world as more of them climb the corporate ladder. In her Q&A in ELLE magazine, Lee cited Jocelyn Golfein. “She’s one of the highest engineering directors here at Facebook, and because Sheryl’s at the top,” said Lee, “I think all the male engineers here do look at women differently and allow us to go up the ladder.”

Meanwhile, CSE faculty point out that in addition to enrolling more high school students in computer science, the department must find more ways to make it possible for late converts to change their majors and get into necessary courses if they need to catch up – especially when the department is dealing with an impacted major. Brina Lee is one reason “why I am a strong advocate to keep spots open in our impacted major for those who do not come in as a declared CSE major and find religion (computer science) later on,” notes Ord. “They more often than not become some of our best majors.” “It's never too early or too late to switch majors or careers,” wrote Lee in the Huffington Post, “especially if it's what you're meant to do.”

Oh, and if you’re wondering which Instagram filter for photos is the CSE alumna’s favorite, she says none. But she does have a favorite video filter, it’s called Vesper.

Read the full Q&A in ELLE magazine.
Read Brina Lee’s op-ed piece in the Huffington Post.