Gayle Laakmann

Gayle Laakmann

CSE and MSE '05

Gayle Laakmann is a Computer Science and Engineering and MSE graduate of 2005. She is now studying entrepreneurship as an MBA student at Wharton as well as the CEO of CareerCup, a company which helps programmers and students prepare for technical interviews.  Previously, she was the VP of Engineering at EmptySpaceAds and, before that, a software engineer at Google.

Q&A with Gayle:

Why did you major in CS?
I love to build, create and innovate. I started programming in the ninth grade and first became enthused with it when I built a simple graphics bowling game. It felt real, and it felt good to point to something and say "I built this". That passion for creating stuck with me throughout my computer science major.

What kinds of skills do you use?

  • Computer Science:  At CareerCup, EmptySpaceAds and at Google, I've found an eye for clean, maintainable code to be key to a successful project. 
  • Product Design & Understanding the Customer:  Because CareerCup and EmptySpaceAds are small companies, it's critical for me to understand the customer.  What do they want?  What are their priorities?  An element of risk-taking or experimentation is also useful here, because sometimes there's no way to find out other than trying!

How would you define a CIS graduate?
To be a computer science graduate, all you need is your slip of paper. But, to be a good one, you need so much more than that. Computer Science, perhaps more so than any other major, provides you real skills that you can immediately apply. You can use it to build and sell a product without anyone else's help. That's pretty fantastic. What this means, however, is that you need to understand these other disciplines (sales, marketing, product design, etc). These skills will take you from Good to Great.

What makes CS at Penn different from other universities?
Penn offers a fantastic CS program that is well respected by the top employers. What really sets it apart, however, is that Penn grads understand more than just the programming. They understand the entire product. They see the bigger picture.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I envision myself running my own software company and, in all likelihood, having one or more side projects that consume a chunk of my time. I tended to keep myself fairly busy at Penn, and that has continued several years after graduation. Why narrow yourself down to just one responsibility? Variety is the spice of life!

How have you changed since graduating from Penn?
I've learned two very important lessons:

  1. Seize opportunities. Take chances. Run with your ideas and see what can happen.  Everyone gets lucky, but what sets the successful apart is the ability to recognize luck as golden opportunities.

  2. Delegating responsibilities.  I used to try to do things by myself, but I was quickly overwhelmed by too many responsibilities.  I've since learned (because, frankly, I had no choice) to hire the right people and to encourage them to make their own decisions.

In what ways do you collaborate with co-workers and team members in your job?
I believe in collaborating with bigger initiatives and reaching a consensus, but making efficient decisions independently on smaller tasks.  Thus, I always strive to talk with team members and employees when it comes to general strategy.  We work through decisions together.  On minor things, I may act independently (and I would encourage them to do the same).

Is there a class or professor in CIS that has made a particularly strong impact on you?

  • Max Mintz: Max was my professor freshman year, and my advisor sophomore year through graduation. I TA'd for his course, CSE260 / CSE261, for three years, including one year as Head TA. He was my senior project advisor. He helped me with starting a course. I learned something very important about management: trust. He trusted all his TA's implicitly, and empowered us to make our own decisions. When you trust people, far more people will make you proud than will disappoint you.
  • Engineering Entrepreneurship / Tom Cassel: The two courses on Engineering Entrepreneurship taught me so much about starting a company. Now that I'm running various businesses, I frequently refer back to the lessons from this course: Cash is king, ask your customers what they want (but don't take them too literally), don't grow too fast, don't grow too slowly, etc. As the economy declines, these lessons are more important than ever.
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