How Computer Science Student Hayley Ma Found Her Passion Through Coding
As part of a military family, LSU senior Hayley Ma moved around often growing up, eventually landing in Mandeville, Louisiana, for her final years of high school. As she pondered her college options, her parents were preparing to head out of the state for work, leaving Ma with a difficult decision about where to continue her education. Ma ultimately decided to stay in Louisiana and attend LSU, attracted by the TOPS scholarship program and the engineering opportunities at the university.
Ma enrolled as an industrial engineering major, but as her first year progressed she started to doubt whether it was the field for her. “I didn’t find as much passion for it as I thought I would,” she says. “It was nice but it just wasn’t for me.”
The experience was not all for naught. In fact, it helped propel her into the field of computer science, where she has excelled.
Ma says her interest in programming started as she found herself drawn to the underlying computer processes of some aspects of industrial engineering. Over the summer after her first year at LSU, she started learning on her own about coding, fascinated by the myriad uses for programming. “I decided to switch my major and ever since then I’m really glad because I really like it,” she says.
Even though she had tinkered with coding, Ma made the switch to computer science without any formal training or background in programming. She was, however, comfortable around computers, as she had spent time building them with her hobbyist grandfather. “All the computers in my house were assembled by my grandfather and me,” she says.
That lack of formal training made her first year a challenge as she struggled with introductory classes in computer science. ““It was scary at first. It was a completely new and novel experience,” she says. “Now I look back on it and think it was so easy, but then I didn’t get why any of this goes together.”
Ma says her breakthrough as a programmer came during an Advanced Data Structures class, where she faced complex projects that required more effort to complete than her early assignments had. “The projects got harder and just required a lot more time,” she says. “In Advanced Data Structures I was coding every day. The amount of coding I had to do forced me to learn.”
In addition to her regular studies, Ma has been active in a number of campus organizations, including the LSU chapter of Women in Computer Science, The Association for Computing Machinery Student Chapter and the Society of Peer Mentors.
She’s also active in the Vietnamese Student Association, which she credits for helping her build connections outside of her professional field. The organization hosts social functions like hiking trips and food demos, and also organizes charity fundraisers.
“Since all of the other clubs I’m in are engineering- or computer-science-based, this club is nice because it lets me think about other things and makes me a more well-rounded person,” she says.
Over the winter break, Ma worked as an intern with Tri-Core Technologies, a Baton Rouge-based IT consulting company specializing in custom software, networking and website design. She says that position allowed her to learn the in-demand programming language C#, which uses many of the same principles of the Java language she studied at LSU.
Ma will head to Boston this summer for an internship with a large IT firm, a position that grew out of a meeting at a campus career fair. “I had been to the career fair at LSU a couple of times and I didn’t get anything, but this time I got a few interviews,” she says. “I think it was the practice from going — I learned what to do and what not to do.”
Ma says the company is helping implement a new cannabis taxation system in Massachusetts, which is permitting recreational use of the plant in 2018 for the first time. Ma says she hopes the experience with the complex project will give her the information she needs to choose a specific career path once she graduates.
“It will be exciting; it’s a big project,” she says. “I’ve never worked on a really big project with a bunch of other people before. It will be new interesting to see what you do when you’re a part of something bigger.”