Katie Hempenius continues to be a leader, four years after graduating as an inaugural member of the Technology Leaders Program at the University of Virginia School of Engineering and Applied Science. The 2012 Systems Engineering grad is passionate about sharing her experiences with students so they will know what to expect of life beyond Grounds.
Hempenius, a software engineer at Fitbit in San Francisco, visited the Engineering School on February 3 to give a talk entitled “Designing the Future of Health.” She sat down with us afterward to discuss her insights.
Q: We enjoy hearing from our alums after they graduate. What have you been up to?
A: After I graduated in 2012, I worked as a systems engineer at BIT Systems in Northern Virginia. Then I moved to the West Coast, and I spent time building software at a healthcare startup and teaching software engineering before joining Fitbit four months ago. I’m one of the leads for Women Who Code in San Francisco, and I am really into fitness and reading. I miss being able to visit Grounds as much as I used to, but I still try to remain connected to other alums.
Recently, Professor Reid Bailey (associate professor in the Systems Engineering Department), who heads up the Technology Leaders Program, reached out to me and asked if I would come back to talk about my experiences. I was really happy for the opportunity.
Q: What led you to Fitbit?
A: It was important to me that the company I work for make a product that I believe in. Fitbit has a great mission, and I love seeing how it is having a positive impact on people’s lives. I also found the growth and innovation going on right now in the wearables market to be really exciting.
Q: What were some of the important points you wanted to convey to students in your talk?
A: I was so glad I was able to come back, because it is really helpful for students to talk to grads and people in industry about their experiences. As a student, you always have questions about how you’re going to apply what you’re learning in the future, and I think alums can really help with that.
I wanted to share what the engineering design cycle looks like in practice, and how that differs between a start-up environment and the environment in a more established, larger company. I shared five things I’ve learned from “building the future of health:”
Good UX can be deceptively hard. Delightful user experiences (UX) don’t happen by accident. Creating them requires a solid understanding of the goal you’re trying to achieve and frequently requires making trade-offs and re-conceptualizing the problem at hand.
No product or design is 100% customer-proof. Despite your best efforts, some things that seem foolproof to you will not seem foolproof to your customer, and you’ll be challenged to improve your empathy and communication skills.
Supporting “everyone” is a lot of work. As a software engineer, there are multiple aspects of the user’s environment (e.g. their device, operating system, browser, and screen size) that interact to create their end-product experience. Assuring consistency across all of these permutations takes work, particularly in regards to testing, and you should be conscious of this tradeoff.
Limit the scope. What you don’t build is just as important as what you do build. Everything you build has an associated opportunity cost in the present and associated technical debt in the future. Sometimes being a better engineer means saying “no” rather than yes, or building the minimal viable product (MVP).
Spend more time thinking than building. Try your hardest to fully think through the problem at hand before you dive into implementation. As engineers, when we build things, we’re taking an idea, an intangible solution, and bringing it to life. However, implementations can only be as strong as the mental model that they’re built upon.
Q: What are you proud of?
A: I’m really proud of the path I took to get where I am today and the breath of experiences it encompasses. To me, it demonstrates that I can tackle a challenge and excel regardless of the environment or technical domain.
Q: How has your education at UVA Engineering helped you in life after graduation?
A: I felt that UVA did a really good job of teaching engineering in context, so it’s not just something in the textbook, but it is something that’s applied in the community and in life. We had opportunities as students to work on actual projects, and I think this makes you a better engineer. There’s certain complexity and unpredictability to real life that can’t be captured by the textbook alone, and UVA did a great job at providing us with these types of valuable firsthand experiences.
I also think UVA students are very active and engaged on grounds, and that inspires you to keep active and engaged after you graduate.
Q: How would you encourage fellow alums to stay involved and support UVA students?
A: As a member of “industry,” think about how you can bring your ecosystem and experiences back to students. Beyond getting involved with recruiting, see if your employer would be willing to host an information session, resume workshop, or sponsor a capstone project.