Carnegie Mellon University

Eduardo and Norma Frias Scholarship Winner | Vaithyanathan Narayanan

Vaithyanathan (Vaithy) Narayanan was awarded the 2020 Frias Scholarship and won the 2020 Student IT Architecture CompetitionVaithy took a moment to share some insight into his leadership roles and experience with the MSE program. 

What leadership activities did you take on this year, and what motivated you to assume those roles? 

I took on the VP role in the Master of Software Engineering Leadership Initiative (MSELi) because I didn’t really participate in any extracurricular activities in my undergrad. I was just focused on academics and didn’t really go out of my comfort zone. By becoming involved with MSELi, I was forcing myself out of my comfort zone. I also thought MSELi was a good way for me to get involved in fun activities and events that could be helpful to students.

Registering for the architecture competition was a big decision because it required a substantial time commitment, on top of an already rigorous academic program. And it had its own set of deadlines. I saw it as an opportunity to gain more experience with architecture.

For my studio project, I’ve been leading the architecture, and planning and tracking activities for my team. I wanted to get involved with other opportunities that would allow me to apply what I’ve learned in the software architectures course. I also had some exposure to that type of work during the architecture competition, so I thought I would try to lead my studio team in that area. 

Why did you decide to apply to the MSE program? 

In my search, I was mainly looking for programs that built on existing work experience. I did not come from a research background; I had, what I would consider, three years of good work experience. 

At the company I worked for, I got a chance to keep improving and to work on different technologies. I started off as a member of a bug fixing team and didn't have much visibility within the company. In the last year and a half, a new team formed and I had the opportunity to get involved with the entire software engineering life cycle. There was a major company wide initiative to migrate from monolith to microservices so that’s when I got a lot of exposure to different practice areas of software engineering. 

That’s when I learned that there is a lot more to software engineering than just coding. It’s a lot of skill to actually ask the right questions to gather requirements. “Is it a good plan? Are we creating the plan so that we can meet the deadlines? Is this architecture good enough?” I felt like all of these concerns are addressed in this program. 

To top it off, I realized that architecture is my passion. I consider the software architecture course to be a highlight of this program.

What does leadership mean to you?

The way I see it is that it is not about making the project your own, but kind of acting as a catalyst, to start a conversation with the team by saying, “I foresee a new problem in the future, maybe we should go in a different direction. Or maybe we should start asking more questions about a topic.” 

While I’ve taken ownership of certain practice areas — like architecture, planning and tracking — it doesn’t mean that I’ve done all the work by myself. Rather, I lay the foundation for the work, identify the template, or pattern to follow, and develop guidelines on how to proceed. Saying, “This is how I see the timeframe for the whole year.” I try to move the conversation and the process towards the goals or the concepts that we are following so that the team can be productive.

How do you think your experience prior to the MSE prepared you for the leadership roles you’ve taken on in the MSE community? 

In the last couple of years prior to entering the program, I was the scrum master of my team since I was the only one who was retained from the old team and the only one who had domain knowledge. I had to take on that leadership role. I had to communicate with clients and other stakeholders . 

Naturally, having only two years of work experience and not a lot of background in software engineering I made a lot of mistakes. But I learned and tried to adapt. 

Sounds like what Mary Shaw calls a “reflective practice.” 

Yes. The mentors and the faculty in the MSE program have created an environment where there is no right or wrong solution to a problem. The emphasis is on reflection, and identifying how you could do it a different way in the future. That approach motivates us, as students, to experiment and to learn from our experiences. 

How do you think winning the scholarship will affect your remaining time in the program? 

That’s a tough question. One of the criteria mentioned in the scholarship award letter was participation in activities other than academics and trying to see where concepts can be applied in real life. I think one of the things that I did, both in the competition and in my studio project was to try and apply what I have learned. When I took the lead for architecture and planning, one of the things that is stressful for my team is that there are no strict guidelines for the studio project. Each member of the team has software experience, but we may have approached each of these practices in a different way. The natural tendency is to follow what we are accustomed to. I try to make sure that we follow what we have learned in the program. Even though it has taken a lot of time and has been tough, and we got things wrong initially, the important thing is we tried. Going forward, I won’t hesitate to experiment.