Anisa Ray, MCIT ’22, studied rhetoric in college and then worked as a test prep teacher, getting students ready to ace their graduate school entrance exams. Today, she’s a newly minted graduate of the online Master of Computer and Information Technology (MCIT Online) from University of Pennsylvania and a software engineer at Palo Alto Networks, a multinational cybersecurity company with more than 85,000 customers around the globe.
We sat down with Anisa to learn more about her journey from teaching GMAT tips to writing code that protects businesses worldwide.
What were you doing before enrolling in MCIT Online?
After college I went into teaching test preparation for people taking admission exams for college or graduate school. It started as a temporary thing, but then it became a longer-term thing. I’m also an artist, and the test prep work was flexible enough that I had a lot of time and energy to do art.
What prompted you to pursue a career change?
I reached a point where I felt that I wasn’t growing as much as I wanted to, and the challenges were no longer new. I really liked working directly with people, but I could feel that it wasn’t the final step
So I went back to the drawing board. I’ve always been interested in learning new languages—I’ve studied Italian and Greek—and I also enjoy problem-solving. For example, I used to create time- saving tools for my students. Combining those two interests led me directly to computer science.
How did you make the transition?
I had no experience in the field at all, so I started by taking Computational Thinking for Problem Solving, Penn’s free class on Coursera. That course really sparked my interest, and I had a lot of fun. So I decided to go for it, and I applied to MCIT Online. I was so excited that I read the entire textbook for the Computer Systems Programming class before getting my admission decision!
With just one course under your belt, did you feel prepared for MCIT Online?
Yes. The program was hard but doable. The material progressed in a logical way that I could follow, especially the programming classes. Once you learn the syntax and understand the sequence to execute it, then it’s just a matter of putting it all together. It was like climbing a steep hill for two years where all you have to do is put one foot in front of the other—it’s tiring, but it’s very clear what the next step is.
What was your experience like as an MCIT Online student?
The remote aspect of the program was wonderful for me. I loved the flexibility of being able to watch
videos at my own pace. I could watch them at double speed or watch them over and over again. It fit
perfectly into my life, and I thrived on it.
Did any faculty members have a particular impact on you?
The program has really high-quality faculty overall, but Dr. Tom Farmer is particularly beloved. He’s a great communicator and his lessons are really well designed, but he also emanates kindness. And when you’re jumping into something new and intimidating, having that support means a lot. He recorded a video for us at the end of class to honor and encourage us, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who cried watching it! Overall, he really inspired me.
You were a teaching assistant for Computer Systems Programming. What was that experience like?
Being a TA was great. It reinforced the course material for me, and it deepened my skills because I was debugging other people’s code. That’s an important skill because when you start a new job, you’re mostly editing and looking at an existing code base, not doing anything from scratch.
Also, people are really appreciative of your help. That’s what I loved about being a teacher prior to joining MCIT Online, so being a TA was a way of connecting my past to my present and future. I really enjoyed helping people overcome the challenges they were facing.
What are you doing now that you’ve graduated?
I’m a software engineer at Palo Alto Networks, a cybersecurity company, where I work on cloud-delivered security. We work with organizations and governments to make sure that their people are connecting safely within the network and to the internet.
I wanted to do something that felt meaningful and to contribute to something far-reaching and hopeful, so I’m where I want to be. Our products are used by massive organizations all over the world, and the company is even helping in Ukraine. It’s cool to be a part of something so positive.
What got you interested in cybersecurity?
I’d heard a lot about hacking, and I thought it would be empowering to learn how to get a computer to bypass what it was intended to do. When you understand its vulnerabilities, you understand its true nature. So I took a cybersecurity class in the program, and that was instrumental in helping me get the job that I have.
How did MCIT Online set you up for success?
The program totally changed my life. I went from having no computer skills to being able to apply for software engineering jobs at a serious company and pass their interviews, which were really rigorous. I have this career in front of me now that wasn’t even in sight before, and it’s what I want to be doing. That’s really powerful.
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