After earning a degree in computer science from the University of Maryland, Elissa Redmiles began work as a marketing manager at IBM and is currently pursuing a PhD in computer science at the University of Maryland College Park. Be sure to catch up with Elissa this summer, where she will be teaching programming courses at DMA’s New York University and George Washington University locations.
Elissa Redmiles is a writer, computer scientist and the newest Made by Girls curriculum developer.
What got you interested in computer science?
I took my first computer science class when I was 12, mostly by accident. Computer science was the only science course available at my school that fit into my schedule. My first project in class was to create the game Pong using the Java programming language. Although I liked making games, solving puzzles and figuring out how to make my code work, what I really enjoyed was the visual part of programming.
The most rewarding moments for me are those when I get to use computer science to make someone’s life better.
At first, I wasn’t sure that computer science was the thing for me. When I started college, I thought I wanted to be a medical doctor. However, I quickly realized I was rather squeamish around blood. I remembered my computer science class from high school, and decided to take a few more comp sci courses at the college level. After taking these classes, I discovered that with hard work, persistence and good study partners, I was really enjoying my studies. So I continued on as a computer science major in college at the University of Maryland.
You’re finishing up your Masters degree and are starting work on a PhD. What’s been your primary area of research?
In my PhD work, I will be researching human factors in computer security. What does that mean? I investigate questions like, “How do we help older adults practice computer security more easily (e.g., remember their passwords)” and “People receive a plethora of advice about physical and computer security: lock your doors, change your passwords, etc. People do not and cannot listen to all of this advice. With that in mind: A) What advice do people listen to, and why (i.e., they listen to advice X because they hear it frequently, or because a trusted person tells them, etc.); B) What advice should they listen to (e.g., what advice is actually valid); and C) Now let’s take what we learned in A and B to rephrase good advice in such a way that people actually listen.”
How do I go about investigating these questions? It’s very interdisciplinary: I use survey and interview tactics from psychology, work with colleagues in the communications department to develop phrasing models and then use computer science to develop tools that improve people’s ability to use security simply. When developing these tools, I use something called Design Thinking, which comes from the field of human computer interaction, to make sure that the tools I design are as user-friendly as possible.
What was your role at the Maryland Center for Women in Computing?
I helped launch the Maryland Center for Women in Computing with Dr. Jan Plane. At the Center, I researched the issue of underrepresentation in computing and wrote numerous grant applications, and met with C-level executives from companies in order to recruit financial support for programs that would help to retain and support women in computing.
As an example, one program that I developed, wrote a grant for, and then ran was the University of Maryland Curriculum In A Box. The Curriculum In A Box is a set of completely free, disabled-accessible curriculum tailored to interest underrepresented students in computer science through HTML and CSS videos, social-media programming tutorials and more. (Psst: The Curriculum In A Box also features a set of computer-science, role-model profiles, if you’re looking to read about more computer scientists!)
Working at the Maryland Center for Women in Computing really reinforced my drive to stay in computer science to hopefully serve as a role model and peer for other women. In addition, it expanded my interest in working on providing support for other underrepresented groups in computing, such as students with disabilities.
Studying computer science can definitely help you achieve your goals.
What would you tell someone just getting into computer science?
The way of thinking you learn as a computer scientist can apply to just about anything. After I graduated with my undergrad degree, I began working as a marketing manager for IBM. My logical, problem-solving approach to working helped me excel, even in a totally different field. Even if you don’t think you want to be a software engineer, studying computer science can definitely help you achieve your goals. Many of my computer-scientist friends went on to become journalists, medical doctors and scientists in other fields (such as biology).
What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of CS?
I really love checking things off my to-do list, so it drives me nuts when I get stuck on a problem. Sometimes when you get stuck, you just have to walk away and come back, but I hate that this slows me down. On the flip side, the most rewarding moments for me in computer science are: a) the “ah ha!” moment when my program finally works; and b) the fact that I can directly make someone’s life better using computer science.
Made by Girls
DMA’s Made by Girls is a technology camp exclusively for girls, and the goal is to use project-based, hands-on learning to help girls prepare for their future and careers. DMA is offering two new Made by Girls camp programs, in addition to the Introduction to Programming with Java course, DMA also offers an Adventures in Soccer, Photography and Graphic Design camp for younger girls (aged 8-12).