Hey, Siri. Let’s Make You Smarter.

February 07, 2019

By Rob Humphreys ’16MBA

Alfond Scholar Carmen Cheng ’18.
Photo by Scott Cook.

Life these days for Alfond Scholar Carmen Cheng ’18 means making sure one of Apple’s signature features is always getting better at her job.

If you’re reading this on an iPhone—or maybe there’s one nearby—swipe right on the home screen. That translucent search bar, the one with a microphone in the upper right corner, is technically part of the Siri search engine—even though most people type into it instead of using audio commands.

“Everyone thinks I’m working on the voice assistant,” says Carmen Cheng ’18, a site reliability engineer in Apple’s Singapore office since July. “When people ask me what I do, I just say, ‘I make sure your phone’s working’ and they seem to buy it.”

In reality, Cheng’s role includes analyzing network configurations to ensure Siri’s consumer systems are free of interruptions—which, in layman’s terms, means the right stuff pops up when you start typing. Not a bad first gig fresh out of college.

A native of Malaysia who grew up in Shanghai and had been to the U.S. only once before enrolling at Rollins, Cheng won a full-ride Alfond Scholarship, then double majored in computer science and critical media and cultural studies.

We recently caught up with Cheng to talk about everything from starting her career at the world’s most valuable company to researching pop songs alongside Rollins’ resident bluegrass-playing professor.

Carmen Cheng ’18 celebrating graduation with friends and fellow Alfond Scholars along the shores of Lake Virginia.
Carmen Cheng ’18 (far right) celebrating graduation with friends and fellow Alfond Scholars along the shores of Lake Virginia.

Sounds like you’re living the dream. How’d you land a job with Apple? “As an international student, I wasn’t sure where the next step would take me, so I applied to like 200 jobs all over the world. I applied to Apple early on and shoved it to the back of my mind. Around finals time, I got a text message from a lady who said, ‘hey we saw your app for the position and we want to interview you,’ and I was like, what, me? I went through three rounds of interviews, and I still can’t believe I work for Apple.”

How did your Rollins education prepare you to succeed at one of the world's most innovative companies? “As a site reliability engineer, I have to anticipate issues and outages before they happen. As a student, I made sure to build up my skill set by taking a breadth of classes including topics like artificial intelligence, computer networks, and computational photography. Because of this, I was able to participate and contribute to various projects my team has been working on to improve user experience and reliability of our services. Also, many of the computer science courses I took involved presentations, which really helped me gain confidence when pitching ideas during team brainstorming sessions and internal project presentations.”

What role did Rollins professors play in your professional advancement? “I was very grateful to my advisor, computer science professor Dan Myers, and to Valerie Summet, also a computer science professor. Both of them guided me through my last year of college when I’d just kind of fall into their offices and they’d give me advice on what to do on my resume and cover letters and stuff like that. Relatively few women work in tech, so it was nice to have a female professor like Dr. Summet there to have that perspective on things and what to expect.”

You and Professor Myers share a common bond around music. How’d that come about? “One day I walked into his office and saw a first-place ribbon for bluegrass picking, and I said, ‘I didn’t know you played guitar, so do I.’ So we started looking at artificial intelligence and music, and that was one of the most interesting things I’d ever done in computer science. That’s when I caught the research bug.”

That research bug led to a project through the Student-Faculty Collaborative Scholarship Program in which you co-authored a paper with Professor Myers called “Predicting the Popularity of Songs Using Musical Features.” What did you find? “Well, it has nothing to do with musical features. It has a lot to do with marketing and an artist’s popularity. The more popular you are, the more effective you’re marketed to the public, and the more chances you have of your song being a hit. Over the years, this hypothesis developed that basically said the louder the song goes, the more popular it gets—but we found the opposite. Through this project, I discovered I love doing research. Before it, I never really intended on going back to school after graduating from Rollins, much less pursue a PhD, but conducting research with Dr. Myers changed all that. It further bolstered my interest and skills in data science and analytics. I learned how to automate graph-making with Python and use machine-learning models to classify data sets. I also got to practice public speaking and writing papers for publication. Learning doesn’t have to be boring, and passions don’t have to be compartmentalized.”

What struck you about Professor Myers? “My first impression, I was intimidated by him. He has a naturally deep voice and he literally knows everything. He’d always have some type of answer to a question. I’m blown away by how much he knows. He’s actually really funny, though, and makes a lot of dad jokes in class. He’s the one who helped me merge my passion for social justice with computer science.”

Carmen Cheng ’18 presenting research that combined both of her majors at the Grace Hopper Conference, the world’s largest gathering of women technologists.
Carmen Cheng ’18 presenting research that combined both of her majors at the Grace Hopper Conference, the world’s largest gathering of women technologists.

How do your majors complement each other? And what’s the real-world impact? “Critical media and cultural studies is about social issues, and there are all sorts of gray areas. But in computer science it’s black and white—like what’s going to make the computer work and break. Rollins gave me the opportunity to explore both paths, and I don’t think I’d have been able to do that in a bigger school. Being in a liberal arts college, I could take classes outside my discipline and see how they matched together. That inquisitive nature definitely comes out at Apple. It helps me question why things work a certain way and how we can improve it.”

What were your first impressions of Rollins? Was the transition difficult? “I hadn’t really been that far away from my family before, so it kind of worried me. What if I don’t fit the culture? What am I doing here? But on the first day there was a welcome speech from a woman on the international committee, and she listed all the accomplishments of all the incoming students. And then she talked about me, and that’s that one thing that I held onto.”

What drives you? “I’m someone who looks at the future a lot and kind of imagines what it could be and what I could do. I follow American politics very closely, especially after 2016 and all the tragedies in Florida the past couple of years. All the activism about this generation with gun-rights issues and human rights—that’s what motivates me right now. I want to leave a footprint before I go, and every day it’s building up to that. I have a degree in computer science and a great education. I have all these privileges, so how can I use these to change things for the better?”

What’s next? “My next goal is to get my graduate degree and do research in computer science. I’m really excited right now about how social media data is being used in politics. I want to explore the unknown and find stuff out. I’ve applied to some schools and should know more by February. I do love New York and want to move there, so that’s always where I see myself. It’s the city that never sleeps. There are so many opportunities there, and I just have to experience it while I can.”

Students wearing caps and gowns walk to a commencement ceremony on Rollins College’s campus.

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