Parlaying an Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Degree into Software Success

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It was her mother, a chemist, who opened Tia Williams’ eyes to the wonders of science, and the possibilities of what can be accomplished in that field, with a little help from higher education as she worked in the Air Quality Lab at Georgia Tech. It’s why Williams, who came to campus as a chemical engineering major, switched to the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EAS), and became a member of the first EAS graduating class in 1996. 

So how did Williams, a self-professed data nerd, go from lab and field research analyzing air quality, to building a career in the software industry? By leveraging the programming languages she learned visualizing data, Williams transitioned into software engineering, vaulting up the career ladder inside industry giants Oracle and Salesforce over a 25+ year career. 

Now, her current position is Group Vice President of Design and Product Experience for San Francisco-based New Relic, which provides cloud-based tools that monitor all the software and technologies used in a platform, website, or mobile app.

“Many people have asked, why didn't I just major in computer science?” said Williams, the keynote speaker for this spring’s College of Sciences Student and Alumni Leadership Dinner. “I know how I learn — it's being connected to and loving what I am learning about. So my path, I felt, was easier because I learned computer science through my love of earth sciences. Because I cared about that domain, it was easier to pick up the programming languages we were using to model data.”

That is also part of her message to more than three dozen students scattered across the College of Sciences who attended the Leadership Dinner. While Williams made the jump from a career in earth sciences to internet technology, she shared with students that what she learned as an EAS major was foundational in her software career path. 

And the analytical and problem solving skills she learned in a lab — along with preparing presentations, public speaking, technical writing, experimentation, and strategic thinking — were transferable to fields within internet technology, she said. 

At the Leadership Dinner, Williams also shared how presentation and storytelling skills are a key component of landing customers and investors. “Convincing people to support abstract ideas is a lot of what we do,” she said, “you're most successful in software by understanding where the puck is going.

“There's often a calculated leap that you take — understanding trends of where the industry is going,” Williams added. “And then you have to convince the people around you that there's this opportunity over here, which they may not understand, or they may not necessarily subscribe to. We use a lot of proof-of-concept and vision work to try to tell a story.” 

Speed networking 

At the Leadership Dinner, several College of Sciences alumni also joined Williams for “speed networking” rounds with the students. One of them was Christa Sobon (M.S. PSYCH ‘96), a member of the College of Sciences Advisory Board and a program manager in Manheim Digital for Cox Automotive, where she leads IT and process change implementations.

“All of her (Williams’) points were incredibly salient,” Sobon said. “What I told a lot of my students was just, as a Tech student, so many of the skills that you get here are transferable and applicable in the business world. As a College of Sciences student, of course you also just get some of those more pure research skills that really are transferable — even though on the surface they might not at first glance appear to be that way, but they really are.”

And of course, the world needs more scientists, Sobon added. “Pure research work is wonderful. And we need pure researchers — I love them,” she said. “But also she was just showing them the myriad of possibilities of things that they could do.”

Williams reiterated that point for the students, listing the wide range of educational backgrounds of people she has hired into design, research, and engineering roles over the last 10 years. Their skills ran the gamut from bioinformatics and architecture to oceanography and law.

“It’s in your best interest to understand the fields that you want to go into,” Williams added. “If you have a background that doesn't quite map to what the typical pedigree is, then you have to be able to communicate how what you've learned, and what you've done, maps to what their needs are. If you're successful in doing that, then you'll be successful in making a transition.”

John Currier, a second-year neuroscience undergraduate major, was receptive to Williams’ message. “You know, you might find that you really liked something or you really don't. But when these opportunities come up, it's: How can you best adapt to make it to your advantage?,” he said. “It’s having those core skills — and then being able to use them for what you want to do — or for something that might come up out of nowhere.”

The Spring Student Alumni Leadership Dinner is part of a series of career education-oriented events hosted by the College of Sciences in partnership with the Georgia Tech Career Center. 

The events include Under The Scope, focusing on preparations for joining the workforce; Dinner With An Employer, which this spring has featured Sherwin Williams and WellStar Health Care; and CoSx Talks, lectures on lessons learned from College of Sciences alumni. More information is available by contacting James Stringfellow, College of Sciences Career Educator: 404-894-1923,, Georgia Tech Career Center


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