The Diversity and Inclusion Task Force presents Excellence in STEM, with Sebastian Echeverria, Senior Software Engineer at Carnegie Mellon University.
In this interview, Sebastian shares what attracted him to software engineering. He also offers advice for those who aren’t native English speakers and feel afraid of making a mistake while speaking English.
Keep reading to learn more from Sebastian Echeverria.
Why Did You Choose Your Current Technical Field?
Sebastian Echeverria I have always been amazed by computers, and by the amount of things that can be done by programming. Software engineering is a job that can be used to contribute to almost any other field, helping different people solve some of their problems with the use of computers. That is one of the key things that made me choose a career as a software engineer: we are problem solvers, which requires creativity on our part, and it is something that is constantly throwing challenges at us. Unlike other types of engineering, programming lets you do almost anything, as code is malleable and can be used to create anything you can imagine. My older siblings are also Software Engineers, so I got to see from them some of the amazing things that could be done in that job, and they inspired me to follow in their footsteps.
What does a typical day or week look like for you as a Senior Software Engineer?
Sebastian Echeverria A typical day depends on the type of projects you work on. In my case, I work at the Software Engineering Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, so part of my work tends to be a bit more research-oriented than the average software engineer. In general, the job of a software engineer is to understand a problem, figure out a way to solve it using computers and technology and implement that solution. Depending on how far along in a project you are, your typical day can vary too.
At the earlier stages of a project, you will spend more time talking with customers and planning out the project, as well as designing the overall architecture for your system. Once you are in the middle of a project, a typical day will start coordinating with other members of your team, where each one recaps what they have been doing, what they will work on that day and any issues they have. You then take whatever part of the project you are working on, and start thinking about how to tackle it.
This thinking process can be individual, helped by tools like whiteboards, notes, or visual design tools, and it can sometimes be grouped, by meeting members of your team and tackling together the best way to move forward. Then you usually write some code to test out that part you are trying to solve, and run it multiple times, tweaking it a bit each time, until it works as expected. You may have to show your working code to customers or other team members, and get their feedback either about how it looks from the outside (mostly from customers) or how to improve it internally (from other team members).
In my case, some days will involve research, thinking about new ideas and looking into new technologies, and learning as much as I can from them to see how they could be applied to different problems. Most of the time your work will be very rewarding, as you end up having a program that is able to solve your customer’s problem, and you were able to create that solution with your team.
What’s been your greatest professional challenge as a member of the Latino community, and how did you overcome it?
Sebastian Echeverria As a member of the Latino community, one of my greatest professional challenges had to do with the language. Even though I am a fluent English speaker, since I am not a native speaker I tend to think and react more slowly when talking in English. This doesn’t affect the results of technical discussions for the most part, and most of the time this is not really noticeable. But it makes team building and team bonding more challenging. Sharing jokes or reacting to general comments can be more difficult, and it may at times leave you a bit out of the loop. Usually, a higher level of effort is required to truly bond with your team than what would be needed if you were speaking your native language. And being able to properly work with a team is critical for success in software engineering projects.
What is one piece of advice you can give Latino students and/or early career professionals?
Sebastian Echeverria Related to the challenge I described in the previous question, I would say that, if English is not your native tongue, practicing speaking in English as much as you can, both in technical discussions as well as in non-technical ones, is a sure way to get better. Sometimes people avoid speaking in English when they are not fluent because they feel afraid of making mistakes, but this will not allow you to improve. If you are having issues expressing yourself in formal meetings and discussions, practice constantly to get better. Same thing with informal meetings. After a while, things will get so much better you will mostly forget you used to have these issues.
What do you miss from your country of origin?
Sebastian Echeverria I was born in Chile, and two things that I miss are the shared cultural background, and how people tend to be warmer in my country. Even though with globalization the cultural background is not as different as it used to be a century ago, there are still inside jokes, historical references, and sayings that you miss or get lost in translation while living and working in another country. Similarly, even though most people are friendly in the United States, people in my country tend to befriend you more easily, and you end up feeling closer to them more quickly.
What would you like to tell people about your country of origin?
Sebastian Echeverria Chile is a wonderful country. It is not as well-known as some other countries in South America, but it has so much to offer. It is a long and narrow country, and its climates range from the driest desert in the world in the north, through template valleys in the middle, to forests and lakes in the south, and even glaciers and constant snow in the far south. It has many beautiful natural attractions for tourists. Santiago, its capital, is a very modern and busy city, and many software development companies, such as Microsoft and Google, are installing offices in it. There is a lot to discover!
About Sebastian Echeverria:
Sebastian Echeverria is a Senior Engineer at the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. He currently is part of the Tactical and AI-enabled Systems Initiative. Sebastian has over 15 years of experience working as a software engineer. He worked in the software industry for over 8 years as an engineer, architect and manager. He managed a team of software engineers working to develop a lidar and ML-based wood measurement system and successfully deployed it in five different countries. Sebastian worked with the Software Engineering Institute for over 4 years as an independent contractor, researching cloudlet and mobile technologies for the edge, before starting to work with it full time. He is currently working on researching edge technologies, with a focus on Internet-of-Things standards and security, and applying ML techniques to the edge.