When she first applied for computer science internships as a student here at the Jacobs School, Brina Lee felt like she’d hit a wall of rejection. Lee, who had a bachelor’s in communications from UC San Diego and a background in marketing, was turned down across the board. Now fast-forward just two years, and she is the first female engineer to have been hired at Instagram, the popular image sharing app, after it was purchased by Facebook.
How did she do it? Lee became one of the star tutors for computer science teaching professor Rick Ord and worked her way up to a teaching assistant job. She finished her master’s degree in computer science in just four quarters and interned at Google and Facebook. The latter hired her in April 2013. After completing the company’s boot camp, she chose to work at Instagram, which Facebook had acquired in spring 2012.
The company was a good fit for Lee, a photo enthusiast, who likes to go on photo walks on her days off. Since she started working there, she has been making a special effort to compose her shots. “There is so much creativity and attention to visual details here. I love it being a part of my daily life,” she said.
As the only female engineer on the team, Lee believes she brought a different perspective. She was working on the team that builds the tools to show ads on Instagram. Four more women have joined the team in the past year, not including female interns, Lee explained.
Asked what she learned here at the Jacobs School, Lee’s first answer is persistence. “Rick told me to keep trying” after she didn’t land an interview for an internship, she said. Ord remembers things a little differently. Lee was already quite persistent before becoming his student, he said. “In one word: attitude,” Ord said. “Brina had the right attitude.”
Lee successfully took all prerequisite undergraduate computer classes while tutoring Introduction to Java and Discrete Mathematics as a volunteer. She then officially became a computer science master’s student and became Ord’s teaching assistant for the same Intro to Java class where she had been a tutor. This was her favorite experience at UC San Diego, she said. She learned how to better communicate, explain the issues, teach and mentor. “It’s exciting to see a group of young minds learn something new and discover their passion for technology,” she said. “I’m a huge advocate for everyone to learn how to code, no matter what industry they are in or will be in the future.”
During her time at the Jacobs School, Lee also worked on a master’s project with computer science professor Ryan Kastner. She built a wearable device called Droop, which helped identify bad posture. “It was 100 percent Brina’s idea, and it spanned several CS topics, including embedded systems, human-computer interaction and mobile computing,” said Kastner. “It also showed how computing can make an impact in everyday life.”
Camaraderie was another thing Lee gained from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering. Many of her former fellow undergraduate and graduate students now work at Facebook and keep in touch. “The great thing about the Jacobs School is that we graduate as a team and we still work as a team,” she said. “We try to understand tech problems together.”
The camaraderie goes beyond one company and extends to Silicon Valley as a whole. Alums see each other at birthday parties and weddings. “One team, one dream,” she said.