Many people don’t think that software engineers write much other than incomprehensible letters strung together to create code.
Not so, says Allison Kaptur ‘05, a software engineer who has worked at Dropbox and is now with Pilot.com, a bookkeeping platform.
“I do a lot of writing,” says Kaptur. “I have to put together documents that are intended to describe a problem and help convince my colleagues that we need to tackle it, and my writing must be persuasive.”
“Writing and finding my voice was a skill I learned at Colorado Academy.”
‘You weren’t forced to specialize in one thing’
While Kaptur honed her writing skills in CA’s English classes, she also gives partial credit for her writing prowess to someone unexpected: her volleyball coach, Guy Garcia. As part of “an experiment,” Coach Garcia had his players write an essay after a match. It was only supposed to be a one-time assignment, but Kaptur didn’t exactly follow that instruction.
“I did it for the entire season,” says Kaptur. “It was partly personally reflective and partly to write about how we performed as a team.”
“Coach Garcia didn’t understand why I kept turning in essays all season,” says Kaptur, laughing.
At six feet, she was a natural on the hard court and tennis court. She graduated with 11 letters in basketball, volleyball, and tennis. That’s not all. Kaptur also participated in theater. The chance to both play sports and explore her thespian side was, in Kaptur’s words, “very CA.”
In fact, during her Junior year, she and a few other girls were on the Volleyball team and also cast in the play, The Laramie Project. The team made it to regionals, and the big game was scheduled for a Saturday night—the same night as the play. Rather than force the girls to choose between sports and arts, her coach called the director, Stephen Scherer, and the performance was moved to Sunday.
“I can’t imagine that happening anywhere else,” says Kaptur. “I valued that [at CA], you weren’t forced to specialize in one thing.”
‘Whatever lights your fire’
When she started at Yale University in 2005, she found that, as an astronomy and physics major and Division I Volleyball player, there were fewer chances to explore. She admits, “everything was kicked up several notches in intensity.” But still she says, “CA set me up for success.”
She again credits athletics for helping her develop an internal moxie. Coaches expected players to try their best, knowing full well they weren’t always going to prevail. After a loss, Kaptur recalls the coaches giving players a fleeting chance to bemoan a poor showing, and then it was back to practice the next day. Those resiliency lessons sank in, and Kaptur, despite an incredibly grueling college schedule, excelled in astronomy and physics and her chosen sport. One highlight: Kaptur posted 13 kills in Yale’s five-game win over Dartmouth during the 2007 season, a career high.
Her major was “fascinating,” says Kaptur, but she sensed that pursuing a career in astronomy and physics lacked urgency. She saw too many brilliant professors toiling away for years, writing grant proposals and unable to truly effect change.
So, after graduating, she took a job with an equity research start-up based in New Haven, Conn. Mind you, this was 2009. Financial markets were booming until they weren’t. Still Kaptur says, “it was interesting,” but ultimately not the right fit.
In 2012, she applied to The Recurse Center in New York to study programming. The unique program offers no curriculum and requires no tests. Students take on projects based on “whatever lights your fire.” She was hired by Recurse after completing the course and stayed for three years before moving to San Francisco to work for the file hosting service, Dropbox, a true start-up complete with ping pong tables, happy hours, and bean bags. She stayed for two years before moving to her current employer, pilot.com.
‘No one has done great work on something they hate’
She says that because pilot.com is a small company (she’s employee number 5 of 50), she has a strong sense of why her work is important to the company.
“I’m fewer steps removed from whether the company succeeds or fails, and I’m writing software that allows bookkeepers to work more efficiently,” says Kaptur. Regardless, the most important thing to Kaptur is the fact that she is always improving her skills and solving problems every day.
“No one has done great work on something they hate,” says Kaptur, who encourages more women to enter the software engineering field. All too often, she hears from women who hesitate to choose a tech track career, because they are under the impression that coding isn’t a social career or that they’ve somehow missed the window, because they haven’t spent their formative years in front of a screen devoted to programming.
In these cases, she reminds them that software engineering is challenging and creative, and it is a career they can dive into and explore at any point in their lives.
It’s similar, she says, to her experience at CA when coaches and teachers, like Ruth Larson and the late Richard Kelly, were always supportive, always encouraging.
“At CA, I felt like everyone was in my corner,” says Kaptur.