Kendell Byrd '17, a computer science and economics major from Flossmoor, Ill., has long had a fascination for science and technology, as well as a love for theater and comedy. In this interview, she discusses the people and forces that have influenced her path, what motivates her to work so hard, her experiences in tech as a software developer at Jawbone and JP Morgan, and her forthcoming internship with Facebook this summer. Throughout her various pursuits, Byrd has shown a strong curiosity for the world, an adventurous approach to life, and the desire to advance the human condition through technology.
How did you get into computer science?
At my high school, we didn’t have school on Wednesday. Wednesday was Inquiry Day. We would get to do research projects or entrepreneurship work. My senior year I did a robotics project called “Advancing Communications for the Disabled,” which was inspired by my principal who had ALS.
This project focused on figuring out ways to enable people who don’t have vocal boxes or can’t use their arms to communicate. During this experiment, we played around with a bunch of EEG technologies, brainwaves, and we started constructing and building an eye writer, using the Playstation camera to track your eye movements.
Also, my advisor was the head of the entrepreneurship program and sometimes, instead of working with him in the lab, I would go with him to 1871, an entrepreneurial incubator and hub in Chicago.
The first day I went, I was like “What in the world!” It was all of these brilliant people and entrepreneurs working on amazing things. I immediately asked him if he could pair me up with some company so I could start learning about this whole entrepreneurship thing and computer science. That’s when I started learning about coding, and thought it would be neat to start to learn HTML and CSS.
Why Swarthmore, especially if you were so into computer science?
It’s a smaller school, so you get so much attention. My boarding school was 192 people in each grade. I really love small, intimate environments and being able to know all of my professors, students on a personal level.
My first semester at Swarthmore, I went to the head of the Engineering Department and I was like, “Hey can I do research with you!” He said, “Sure let’s meet in my office.” Instead of interviewing me and making me go through all these processes like they have at bigger universities, he gave me 10–15 projects that he was working on and told me to just pick one. The openness and how much professors care really makes a big difference.
I knew that I would get a pretty similar computer science education wherever I went in terms of the material, so the intimacy was more important to me.
Also, I love being able to take a broad variety of classes. To be table to take Compilers and Systems as well as Acting 001 and Psychology in the same semester is so great.
What is your advice to incoming freshmen to make the most out of their time?
“Act like it’s impossible to fail” is a quote I like to use when people ask me for advice. Explore, try out new things, don’t be afraid to reach out to people. Learn, ask questions, just be curious about the world, be open to meeting new people, and new ideas.
What does a successful Kendell look like when she graduates?
That is a fantastic question! That is literally the question I am currently facing and unsure about. But, I know it’s totally fine to be unsure about what I do after graduation. Currently, I would be interested in doing more software engineering or product management work at companies that want to serve and connect people together.
I also am interested in working at a startup. When you’re in your 20s, my parents told me it’s a great time to start a startup or work at a startup. Take risks.
Read the full interview.