Above and Beyond Scholarship – Lauren Cairco Dukes, PhD

Lauren Cairco Dukes is a software engineer.

Year of Scholarship and Conference Attendance: ACM symposium on virtual reality software and technology, 2007

Country of residence at the time of receiving the ACM-W Scholarship: USA

Lauren Cairco Dukes was a software engineer at Area 120, Google’s in-house incubator until the entire Area 120 organization was cut as a part of Google’s layoffs in January 2023. Lauren earned her BS in Computer Science at Winthrop University, where her liberal arts education gave her the time and space to pursue many other interests, including music, writing, and biblical studies. Her interdisciplinary interests continued through her MS and PhD at Clemson University, where she conducted human-computer interaction research for healthcare training in virtual reality and taught undergraduate courses. This broad range of interests and experiences prepared her well for a flexible career within Alphabet, where she’s worked from the very bottom of the technical stack on Search Performance to the very top of the stack doing UX research, design, and technical leadership for an open-source electronic medical record app, MedTimeLine. In addition to Lauren’s technical work, Lauren served as the site lead for her office’s annual month of community service emphasis and mentored new hires. Lauren also stepped down to 80% time and is an advocate for workplace flexibility.

Outside of work, most of Lauren’s time is spent chasing her two-year-old around! When she has time, she volunteers with her church’s nonprofit for disadvantaged entrepreneurs, plays recreational kickball, weight lifts with an intergenerational group of women, and plays board games.

What has been a highlight of attending the conference (utilizing the ACM-W Scholarship)?

The conference I attended with the ACM-W scholarship was the first conference where I presented my own work. My undergraduate research advisor–who later became my PhD advisor!–and graduate student mentors in my lab helped me conduct a study, write up its results, and submit it for a poster publication. I was proud of the work I accomplished, and it was really good for me to get practice talking about my work and meeting folks from other schools who are now lifetime colleagues and friends.

How did attending the ACM-W sponsored conference impact your career?

No matter how diverse your institution is in thought or practice, one university only represents a minute slice of the research going into a topic at any one time. Conference attendance gave me a glimpse into the outside world and what other people were doing. Additionally, when you read papers, you think of the authors as some intimidating beings who are much smarter than you. It turns out that when you meet them face to face at a conference, they are people just like you with hopes, fears, dreams, strengths, and weaknesses. Conference attendance helped me understand what it means to be part of a healthy community of practice, where we treat one another respectfully and help one another advance in our careers while advancing the field, always holding the door open for the next generation to come in.

What has been your career highlight? What are you most proud of?

I have two answers. Project-wise, I loved working on MedTimeLine. On large projects in traditional settings, you’re often pigeonholed by your job title, but on that project, I got to use the full range of my skills: user experience research, visualization design, software engineering, and project management. I also appreciated that the mission of the project was to improve the quality of care for patients and the quality of life for clinicians by automating a tedious and error-prone process.

I am most proud of an award I won at Verily. Every year they distribute one award for each company’s key values. In 2018 I won the award for “Do More Good: Do more good for our patients, our people, and the communities in which we live and work.” It was an honor to receive the award, as I would rather be remembered for doing good than for any technical accomplishment.

Lauren with her son

What aspects of your career have you found challenging?

So many aspects are challenging–both in negative and positive ways. On the negative side, it was hard in my very early career to find my feet and the confidence to assert my knowledge. I was often the youngest and the only woman in the room, further stacking the deck against me. But, with the help and encouragement of mentors and managers, I found my voice. Now my primary challenge is balancing my career with motherhood. Moving to 80% time was a game-changer for me in feeling like I could be both the mom and the employee I want to be, and I am grateful to see the work culture changing to give people more options like that.

For positive challenges–in the greenfield problems I’ve worked on the most, every day is a brand new challenge that no one has completed before. No copying and pasting from Stack Overflow will help! That can be intimidating but can also be exciting as you have the creative freedom to solve problems any way you’d like.

My current challenge is slowing down and thinking carefully about what to do next. Although I was happy at work and the layoff was a shock, this is an opportunity to step back and consider how I want to spend the next phase of my life. My husband was also laid off by Google, and we are grateful for the generous severance, so together, we’re taking some time off and having lots of conversations about our future. Where do we want to live? What jobs will best be in support of the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual health of our entire family? What would a joyful and balanced life look like if we were making it up from scratch? There are real challenges and fears about getting new jobs, but it is also freeing and exciting to dream of what could be next and work together to make it happen.

What would you recommend to young people thinking of a career in computing?

Cultivate humility. Modern computational systems are so complex that no one person can hold all the knowledge to maintain it independently, so to succeed, you will need to admit when you don’t know something and ask for help from others. There is no shame in it, and if you pair humility with curiosity and a desire to learn, you will refine your own skills as you learn from others’ experiences.

Lauren’s career path

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