My luckiest happenstance, falling into computing

Alumna Tara Tjandra

It was written in the stars that Tara Tjandra would study STEM at UNSW as both her parents completed an engineering degree there, but one of her “luckiest happenstances” she says was falling into Computer Science.

Since graduating in 2016, Tara has been working as a Developer at Atlassian. While Tara says she was initially drawn to the perks that most graduates are, catering and TGIFs, she has come to realise that brilliant mentors are what’s key.

We catch-up with Tara to find out what it is like to study at Computer Science and Engineering and what she is up to now.

Bachelor’s degree: Bachelor of Computer Science, 2016
Current role and organisation: Developer, Atlassian

What led you to study Computer Science?

My dad and mum both studied engineering at UNSW, so it was pretty much written in the stars from birth that I would be a STEM student at UNSW. I had no exposure to computing in high school. One day while studying, I was struck by the realisation that I was spending six plus hours a day on a machine that I had no clue about.

It prompted me to look up the UNSW Computer Science entry in the UAC guide. I always loved science, but maths was my subject, and I liked that the degree only had a prerequisite of HSC Extension 1 Mathematics and the flexibility for me to take a number of different courses. I had nothing to lose so I put it as my first preference. One of my luckiest happenstances is falling into computing. 

Can you tell us about your role since graduating? And what is it like to work at Atlassian?

I joined Atlassian right after finishing my undergraduate degree in 2017 and have been there for the last three years. I spent the first two years as a full-stack developer in a platform team for cross-product features and switched to a team focused on the performance and scalability of Jira Cloud

There’s a lot of perks such as catered food and TGIFs that I know many would be enticed by, as I know I was as a grad. However, I’ve learnt there are a lot more rewards in Atlassian that don’t lose their novelty as easily — brilliant seniors with seemingly endless capacity to share their knowledge, a team that makes me cry laughing while playing Pictionary, opportunities that push me to become a better engineer and person. I’ve learnt a lot technically over the last three years, but I believe my biggest gain is knowing how to work in a team.

How Tara and her friends occupied most of the whiteboard real estate during COMP3821.

What’s your favourite/fondest or most striking memory of studying at UNSW?

The one that stands out the most was completing the first assignment for Aleks Ignjatovic’s COMP3821 Extended Algorithms course. My study partner and I were in the Organ computing lab drawing equations all over the whiteboard trying to solve extension question 15 by using the master theorem proof. Then at some point after 9pm, we cracked it. It was exhilarating and I remember that being a turning point for me in my student life. It’s when I went from liking my degree to knowing that this is what I saw myself doing in the long-term future. My friend and I talk to this day about how much we loved that course and Aleks. I still have a photo of the state of that whiteboard saved on my camera roll. I promise he’s not paying me to say this, but I will happily advertise this course until I’m on my deathbed.

What advice would you give to other students who are just starting their degree in Computer Science?

I’d have two pieces of advice.

1. Be curious. Computer Science is such a varied field and it’s impossible to learn all of it. Use any flexibility available to try out different electives that sound interesting, from security to artificial intelligence to philosophy.

 2. Find people to learn from. I won’t lie, a number of COMP courses were hard and I pulled more late-nighters than I can count. What made it enjoyable were the smart friends I made who were chugging coffee with me along the way. Those long nights in the computer labs are happy memories for me.

 What character traits/skills do you think are important for engineers to cultivate?

Curiosity and resilience. The world is constantly changing and we need to be ready to move with it. I believe anyone would struggle in a world if they’re constantly grasping on to archaic beliefs, but I think engineers in the computing industry will especially struggle with this. Technology changes rapidly and engineers need to be prepared to learn the latest stacks to keep up with the latest innovations.

Tying into this, the ability to fail fast and move on is also something that is important to grow. Patterns from five years ago would no longer make sense as part of the industry standard today. In order to build fast, that comes with understanding that solutions that previously made sense can turn into a hindrance, and sometimes need to be torn down to keep progressing.

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