Dian Rosanti – Stanford Symbolic Systems

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Interdisciplinary study is a new concept for most international students in the US, Indonesians included. Dian Rosanti, Stanford BS ’09, is one of the few who take this academic path. In this interview with Indonesia Mengglobal, Dian shared her experience studying Symbolic Systems, and her choice of career path after finishing school.

 

Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I was born and raised in Jakarta, but I’ve lived in the Bay Area for almost 7 years now, since I moved to attend Stanford. My short career has revolved around tech startups, and I’m currently on the Product team at Flipboard. My goal is to eventually bring this experience home and contribute to the emerging tech startup ecosystem in Indonesia. I’ve also had a deep appreciation of unique spaces and exceptional service for as long as I can remember, so I dream of one day exploring this passion through the hospitality industry, and running my own boutique hotel or restaurant.

What is Symbolic Systems? What are the practical applications of the major?

Symbolic Systems (SymSys) is a small interdisciplinary program at Stanford. Founded in the 1980s, it is a relatively young program. The name of the program itself is rather obscure, and I must admit that the SymSys website describes it most succinctly and most accurately:

“Symbolic Systems attacks age-old questions about the relation between mind and the world… computer systems, robots, and people are all examples of symbolic systems, agents that use meaningful symbols to represent the world around them so as to communicate and generally act in the world. The notions of symbol, meaning, representation, information, and action are at the heart of the study of symbolic systems. This common core of notions arises in a variety of fields including artificial intelligence, computer science, cognitive psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and symbolic logic… Its majors are required to take courses in the Departments of Computer Science, Linguistics, Philosophy, and Psychology, as well as courses designed specifically for the program.”

 

When and how do you learn about Symbolic Systems? Why do you choose it as your major?

I actually didn’t learn about Symbolic Systems (SymSys) until the beginning of my junior (3rd) year. I had been struggling with choosing a major, seesawing between Management Science & Engineering, Economics, and Psychology. Time was running out to declare a major, and I started reaching out more aggressively to friends and upperclassmen for advice. Throughout this process, I described myself as a design-oriented, tech-savvy person interested in human-computer interaction but not nearly technical enough for a CS or engineering major. Almost every single person pointed out that SymSys probably had a number of different options that might strike my fancy. After a long discussion with a good friend whom I really respected (and was a SymSys major himself), and calculating that I could complete the major requirements with minimal effort, I made the jump and joined the department.

From your experience, what’s the good and the bad in interdisciplinary studies?

Interdisciplinary programs tend to be more flexible, in that you can easily choose to concentrate on disciplines that you are most interested in. For example, I concentrated on Human-Computer Interaction. Within that concentration I chose to focus less on computer science, by opting to take as many design/psychology/ communications courses as time would allow. Concentrations in the SymSys program span a wide range of interests, including Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Science, Applied Logic, and Computer Music.

With the help of an advisor, you can even design your own concentration (“Individually Designed Concentrations”). A couple of major drawbacks as an international student: When I didn’t want to do OPT for a summer internship, I had to jump through many hoops to make CPT work. With a traditional technical major (like CS or electrical engineering), it is easy to find a course and a professor/advisor from your own department. Being that SymSys is a relatively new interdisciplinary program, I didn’t really have a department, and SymSys had no CPT courses of its own, so I had to propose a creative workaround that involved a CS course instead (I was on really good terms with a CS professor, so it worked out well). Describing my major and my expertise in H1-B applications was also challenging, given the non-traditional nature of the program. Finally, because I started the coursework so late in my undergraduate career, I’ve always felt like I achieved breadth without the depth. In my ideal world, I would have liked to specialize more in cognitive science and information architecture, and taken more project-based courses that focused on the practical aspects of Human Computer Interaction, such as CS147: Intro to Human-Computer Interaction Design. But given the limited time I had until graduation (I even took an extra quarter to finish my coursework), I had to focus on just the core requirements.

YouNoodle, Quid, Flipboard… You’ve been working at several small companies after graduation. Why did you choose startups instead of big, established company?

I’ve always liked to take the road less traveled :-) And no, I wasn’t one of those entrepreneurial students who joined BASES (Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students – red) as a freshman and have always known that they were going to pursue a career in technology. In fact, I wasn’t sure what I would be doing after graduation. But the stars aligned for me to fall into the startup world: while I was at a career fair, I was approached by a startup who wanted me to sign up for their service…I told them I’d do it only if they took my resume. I eventually connected with their co-founder, who was transitioning into YouNoodle. He hired me for YouNoodle, where my role as a research analyst provided me with a crash course in tech startups. For the next year or so, I learned everything I could about the diverse spaces within technology startups: everything from advertising, payments, consumer internet, mobile, cleantech.. YouNoodle was where I discovered that technology products really excite me, and paved the path to my career in tech today.

What is it like to work in one of the hottest startups in Silicon Valley?

It is exciting, crazy, fast-paced and exhausting. Like many startups, work tends to consume your days, nights and weekends. But most of all, it is humbling. Every day I have the privilege of working with some of the most talented people in the Valley. Every single person is super passionate about and excellent at what they do, and 110% committed to our vision.

What does your typical day look like?

There is no typical day :-) Some days I’m trying to make sense of usage data to report back to cross-functional teams, including the product team. Many days I am picking engineers’ brains, trying to determine trade-offs between different product decisions or release timelines. These days I’ve been focusing on internationalization and localization, which means I’m usually ear-deep in string files, learning the many different ways you can say “retweet” in 10 different languages, managing translator teams, and working with our engineers to build internal tools that will improve our localization processes.

Any advice to high school students who are thinking about their majors?

Don’t focus so much on what you (or your parents, or society) think you *should* major in or what you *should* be good at. Take a step back and think about what you are passionate about, and go from there. Do a lot of a research. Reach out to friends, upperclassmen, peer advisors, professors. Don’t be shy. Be flexible and be open to change, but plan well. Different majors have different course requirements, some required courses may clash with electives you are interested in exploring, and vice versa. Advanced planning will help you make time to take interesting/elective courses while finishing your required coursework on time.