Shan Wang currently resides in Austin, Texas, where she is a Senior Staff Software Engineer at Google, LLC. After completing the TAMS program in 2003, Wang completed a B.S. in Computer Sciences at UT Austin.
What brought you to the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science (TAMS)?
Truthfully, I made a deal with my parents that I wouldn’t transfer high schools in my hometown as a freshman and in exchange I would apply to TAMS two years later. I moved around a lot as a child and figured that going to TAMS meant that at least I’d be a new kid with a class of new kids. There was also an underlying yearning for the freedom that TAMS represented to me.
What did you enjoy most about TAMS?
Definitely the tight bonds (and shenanigans) that come from living with each other 24/7. At TAMS, we were far more immersed with our peers than at any other time period I can think of in my life. I think it was partly from not having a lot of responsibility coupled with being more or less marooned on campus. Sure you could bum rides from your friends but it wasn’t that easy to go somewhere else and for most of us, there was a not a lot to go to so we just came up with imaginative ways to spend time together. My group of friends started a Sunday dinner tradition where we’d walk to Sack and Save, carry groceries back, book out the kitchenette and cook and eat together on Sunday nights.
How did your experience at the University of North Texas (UNT) and TAMS shape your career path?
TAMS definitely gave me a leg up when I went to UT Austin. I had more time to explore electives and ended up still graduating a year early. More importantly, I think being around so much talent, believing that having career aspirations was “normal”, set the bar for how I approached things down the line. And just being able to mix ideas with the group of people who self-select to attend TAMS pushes you to strive and achieve.
What was the most valuable lesson – inside or outside the classroom – that you learned at UNT and TAMS?
I can be attempt to be more profound looking back. But in the moment, I think it was that I wasn’t a geeky little weirdo. And that was a pretty life changing realization at that time. Maybe more importantly, it’s ok to be the geeky little weirdo if that’s who you are.
If you earned a bachelor’s degree, what did you do in the year immediately after graduation?
I taught a summer at Breakthrough Austin (now Breakthrough Central Texas) which I learned about on a tip from a fellow TAMSter in my class, Shinjita Das. I taught science to middle schoolers. It was an intense experience: long days and a super close knit community. I found I loved to teach and still look for opportunities to flex those muscles today. Then I started at UT Austin in the 2nd class of the Turing Scholars Honors CS Program the following fall.
Please share a memorable moment or experience from your time at UNT and TAMS.
One of our first junior seminars was an etiquette expert who came in to give us a lecture about table manners. (Why that was a topic for seminar, I still don’t understand.) One of the rules she shared was that if someone asks for the salt, you’re supposed to pass both the salt and the pepper. She referred to it as “never divorcing the salt and pepper”. So of course when we went to dinner immediately after seminar, we purposely divorced the salt and pepper and that inside joke has lived on to this day.
How would you describe UNT, TAMS, and Denton?
My memories of Denton were that it was a sleepy little college town whose main purpose was to sustain UNT. TAMS was this weird little bubble within UNT.
If you could go back and do it all again, would you still attend TAMS? What would you do differently, if anything, during your time as a student?
Definitely. I would probably take more electives and explore more hobbies. I was very much a straight arrow through TAMS and college as well. Looking back, I had plenty of time to take some detours that I would love to go back and make use of.
What is your greatest professional accomplishment?
A couple of years ago, my team was going through a tough transition. We had been reorged, our entire upper management chain had changed, there was a impossible project deadline, and we lost a bunch of key talent. I was the ranking technical lead. Our brand new immediate manager and I rallied together and not only did we get through the project launch, we ended up creating the foundations of a team that tripled in size over the next 18 months and retained all the core members during that time frame and beyond -- a long time at Google when average tenure on a team runs around 18-24 months. The relationships I built with that team and that specific culture I worked hard to cultivate is what I now hold up as the gold standard. Looking back, I think it came from the fact that we were all willing to take a leap of faith together, to put our fates so firmly in each others’ hands and hold nothing back. It’s as if the fact that we believed so much in each other manifested into the reality we all wished for. That was an incredibly magical team dynamic that I hold a lot of personal pride for helping to create.
What advice/insight do you have for TAMS alumni and students interested in your field?
Many people mistake it for fixing computers. That’s not what I do. Other people think it’s coding. That’s only a part of what I do. What I’m looking for when we hire new team members or looking for talent to nurture in the junior members of my team are people who know how to think. People who look at a problem and look for the problem behind the problem. You can fix symptoms or you can fix root causes. I want the people who have the big picture in mind to dig for the root causes. Coding is a skill. It’s useless if you can’t apply it judiciously. Many people also think this field is very solitary. To build great things, you need a team. And more over, you need a team with diverse skill sets. Being able to interact with people on their level, being able to break down problems in ways that are engaging to someone with no technical background, are some of the underrated qualities not taught in a CS education in any school but are paramount to success in any workplace or application. That college writing class seemed like a waste of time until about 10 years later.