Political science major finds passion for algorithms

July 26, 2017

Maggie Xu didn’t initially plan on a career in computer science. However, the opportunity to work with coding tools during her undergraduate years led to a growing interest in the field, and to the ALIGN Master of Science in Computer Science at Northeastern University Seattle from which she recently graduated.

The ALIGN Master of Science in Computer Science program is designed for students with academic backgrounds outside of computer science, and draws students from fields as wide-ranging as humanities and social sciences. The program combines intensive coursework with co-op experiences that let ALIGN students put their newfound skills to work in the thriving tech scene.

Xu completed her undergraduate degree at Duke University, where she studied political science. “I had the opportunity to audit several computer science courses that related to my focus, which was methodology and empirical studies,” she says, through which she was introduced to programming. “Most of the time I applied basic machine learning knowledge to build regression models and make predictions. I wasn’t paying much attention to programming languages” initially, Xu explains. “However, the more I learnt and used, the more I got involved and interested. After a while I found myself spending days on coding and exploring and algorithms, and I realized it was time for me to change my major and pursue my passion.”

“Faculty is the first thing that comes to mind,” Xu says when asked what stood out about the ALIGN program. “The leading experts are able to offer cutting-edge technologies, and have connections that create bridges between school and industry.” Location was another perk of the program: “With all the tech leaders here, there are incredible opportunities for internships and jobs.” Finally, her classmates and the Seattle campus staff “are very warm-hearted, and make this campus feel like home to me.”

She particularly enjoyed her Algorithms course, taught by Dr. Zhifeng Sun. “Learning algorithms laid a firm foundation for my further studies and work,” she says. “Professor Sun walked us through complicated algorithms in a very clear and lucid way, as well as enlightening us with some of the fascinating real-world applications of certain algorithms.”

Xu adds that “co-op is one of the most significant parts of the program—Northeastern gave me the chance to explore what I am most interested in.” She completed a co-op at Zillow as a software development engineer, and a co-op at Amazon on the Kindle back-end infrastructure team the following summer. After her co-op with Zillow, “I signed a full-time offer immediately,” she says, noting that the Zillow team drew her in not just with the work she was doing but with the role the staff played in her own development. “My manager, mentor and people on my team were very supportive, and helped me improve my skills dramatically in a short period of time,” she says. “They are ready and eager to help me improve and excel in my career.”