Carleton computer systems engineering graduate Thusha Agampodi (BEng/02) is an Engineering Manager at Magnet Forensics, a digital investigative technology company in Ottawa. At a recent Alumni event in Kanata North, where Magnet Forensics is located, Thusha’s conversation with Carleton Engineering’s Corporate Relations Officer Robin McLaughlin evolved into a visit to a local high school.

Agampodi, along with a current Carleton engineering student, spoke to a class of ninth grade students about Carleton’s programs, the transition from high school to university and on to the working world, diversity in the field, and overcoming self-doubt. The audience was engaged and curious, and Agampodi left feeling inspired. Afterward, she inquired about visiting her own former high school next time.

Graciously, Agampodi also answered some of our questions about her career, her time at Carleton, and the importance of diversity in engineering.

Carleton University: In hopes of painting a picture of your days before Carleton- when did you develop an interest in STEM- do any childhood memories stick out?

Thusha Agampodi: My dad worked in the engineering department at a university. On some weekends, he would stop in at the university and take me along. I saw students working on their projects, the cool science equipment they were using, the libraries full of books. I was hooked. I cherished those visits.

In Grade 10, I took my first computer science class. We learned to write code in Turing. I loved it. The logic, building something and seeing the results pretty quickly, was all very satisfying. After that, I knew I wanted to do something with computers.

CU: What drew you to Carleton’s computer systems engineering program?

TA: Carleton Engineering had a great reputation, the best scholarships, its location in my favourite city, as well as the fact that it’s a contained campus surrounded by the river and the canal. It made the best impression during my campus visits.

CU: Which professors do you recall as influential to your education?

TA: Professor Trevor Pearce. His second-year class was tough for so many of us, but he was a great teacher. He expected nothing but the best out of all his students. We worked very hard in that class, because it was clear that he knew what he was talking about.

I have great memories of my calculus class with Professor Angelo Mingarelli. He had so much energy and passion for what he was teaching. Plus, he was funny! He made calculus fun, and that’s no easy task.

CU: Can you describe one (or more) fond memories from your time at Carleton?

TA: My fondest memories are of the friendships I made throughout my time at Carleton. While I didn’t think of it fondly at the time, I have good memories of late nights in the Minto Centre and Mackenzie building, finishing assignments with team mates.

I built a robot as my fourth-year engineering project. At the end of the project the robot had to fight to capture the flag of a competing robot trying to capture the flag at our end. That was an exhilarating day. I don’t remember if we won – but I remember how much fun we had.

CU: How have your studies at Carleton helped you prepare for a career in software engineering/leading teams?

TA: My engineering degree taught me about producing quality software and hitting deadlines. All the group projects taught me a lot about working in teams, and what makes a team successful. More importantly, I found that during my degree, I was taught how to learn. I wasn’t taught a particular programming language, I was given the fundamentals I needed to learn any programming language, and the general problem-solving knowledge I use to this day.

CU: Could you tell us a bit about your role as Engineering Manager at Magnet Forensics?

TA: Magnet Forensics was looking to open a second R&D site, and I got this amazing opportunity to build a team in Ottawa. I’m so inspired by everyone who works here. We build software that helps our customers make a big difference in everyday lives.

As the engineering manager and the site lead at the Ottawa office, I’m learning so much so quickly, and I have to wear many hats. We’re building a new software product here, and we’re building a highly functional team. At the same time, I’m trying to get the word out to the Ottawa tech sector about our small company so that we can hire the best in Ottawa.

I also get opportunities to represent Magnet at events in Ottawa. One of my favourites was when I attended a State Dinner at the Governor General’s residence this summer, where I talked to the GG, some MPs, and the Prime Minister about the work we do.  I also had the opportunity to talk to Sophie Trudeau about her initiatives in empowering women, and I’m hoping to collaborate more on that in the near future.

CU: Could you tell us about a project that you are involved in or one that you have especially enjoyed working on?

TA: I’m really enjoying the project I currently work on – we’re building an app to find digital evidence from cloud sources, like social media and data storage platforms. We have to keep up-to-date and learn about all the latest, most popular platforms and support them in our app, and it’s a great challenge.

Before Magnet Forensics, I worked at BlackBerry for 12 years on some great projects. One of my favourites was BlackBerry Blend- one of the first multi-platform consumer products the company released.  It gave the user the ability to get their email/sms/bbms on iPads, Android tablets, PCs and Macs.  The team loved working on it because of all the different technologies we used. The users loved it and there were a lot of positive blogs and user community. It was great to be a part of it all.

I think that above all else, what makes a project successful is the team on it. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some talented, collaborative individuals who come together to build a great team, and it’s such a pleasure going to work with them daily. I feel we accomplish so much because of the trust we have built.

CU: What do you think the future of software engineering/digital forensics looks like?

TA: There’s a lot of talk about AI these days. It makes sense, there’s so much data out there, more than a human can parse through, so in order to get the data we need quickly, we will need some intelligence build-in to make sense of it all. This definitely applies to digital forensics.

Self-driving cars are being talked about everywhere as well, so I’m looking forward to seeing where that goes. Pun intended!

I’m also hoping that there will be more diversity in tech in general, in terms of gender, ethnicity, and general life experience. I want to actively do my part in making this happen.

CU: Why is supporting Carleton’s recruitment efforts important to you?

TA: In the industry, all the great companies are talking about how to get more diversity into tech and why there aren’t many women going into STEM fields, and it’s a big priority for me as well. Everyone I’ve spoken to at Carleton seem to care about this topic. As an alumna, I’m happy to collaborate with the university to make progress on this. Grade 9 is special for me. I moved to Canada in grade 9, and I didn’t speak English. On the high school visit, I talked to the students about how my engineering degree gave me confidence during moments early in my career, when I doubted myself.

I want to talk to students about the doubts they might have if they don’t see anyone that represents them in the STEM fields. Confidence comes with experience, but I still have moments of doubt when I walk into a room and I’m the only woman there. I want students to understand what the industry is finally starting to realize: the best teams are the diverse ones, and they build the best products.

As a human, you should be able to choose whatever career you want, without these stereotypes that make you hesitate at such a young age.  If I could inspire even one young person to consider a STEM field by setting a good example as a female leader in tech, I’m happy to do that.

CU: Being in a position to hire new graduates, what key attributes are you looking for? What advice would you offer to new graduates as they enter the workforce?

TA: We’re looking for people who are collaborative, passionate, and can learn quickly. As a new grad, we hire you for your potential and we are happy to help you reach it. Compassion and empathy would be great.

Advice for new grads: Ask to meet your new team before you accept. It might not always be possible but it’s worth asking. Be ready to learn from your team. Always be accountable to your word, and own your mistakes. That will help you build trust with anyone you work with.

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