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Saniya Lakka BA’20 turns her computer science degree into a dream job at Nike

by Linda Lenhoff,

Saniya LakkaDespite applying to nearly all of the colleges in California, former Gilroy resident Saniya Lakka BA’20 knew she wanted to attend Willamette University as a Computer Science student. Her father had bragged about his experiences in Oregon for years, and once she began investigating the college, she was ready to sign on the dotted line.

“I saw a lot of really great ratings about the professors at Willamette, so that was a selling point for me — as well as the small class sizes,” says Lakka. “I went to a small high school in Watsonville, and I was used to having a relationship with my teachers. I wanted to keep it that way.”

Lakka said that the professors she studied with influenced her success and career choice, especially professor Haiyan Cheng. “She brought me to the idea of data science, which I didn’t think I wanted to do yet. Professor Cheng really helped me get there.”

Lakka, who also minored in Math and Studio Art, points to the project-based Computer Science Junior Seminar (which she took as a first year), for directing her to this field. “We got exposed to a number of different tools and at the end did a big project, so it was like a pre-thesis class. I was able to add those skills to applications for internships.”

Lakka also believes that the small classes at Willamette truly benefit Computer Science students. “It’s useful to be able to connect with your professors given the small class sizes,” she says. For example, “Professor Cheng was the one who posted the Nike internship, so I worked with her and was able to get it.” Lakka is also pleased that she was able to take classes with more senior students. “During my first year, I was in class with seniors. I picked up skills from them that I still remember now. I don’t know if you’d see that blend of different ages as much in other schools.”

Lakka’s activities and paid work as an undergraduate at Willamette also allowed her to explore her field. She worked on campus as a help desk technician, served as an Introduction to Python tutor, and did data entry. “I was able to get jobs on campus that I knew I would want to pursue in my career. There’s so many opportunities to seek out on campus that allowed me to get to where I am.”

But it’s Lakka’s internship at Nike, achieved through Willamette, that especially shaped her future. “My internship at Nike was in the Enterprise Data and AIML space, which a lot of my machine learning courses focused on.” AIML, which stands for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, is an XML-based markup language meant to create artificial intelligent applications. “After the internship, Nike offered me an opportunity to return in a rotational program, which allowed me to try out different technology teams within the company.”

Lakka also acquired a Master’s of Science from UC Berkeley last May. She said support from Nike helped her get into the program.

As a machine learning engineer, Lakka works in the supply chain optimization space. “I’m basically building machine learning pipelines and delivering models.” Her favorite part of the job? “There’s never a dull moment: We keep learning new tools and things we need, and I think I got the skill to do so at Willamette. Studying at Willamette helped me learn to pick up tools very quickly.”

Lakka recently appeared on a Willamette alumni panel, addressing undergraduates’ questions about her field and reconnecting with old friends. “It was nice to see all my peers in Machine Learning and different fields as well. I think that the students asked great questions about how to get to the next steps, which is not surprising: I know Willamette students are great at asking questions,” she says.

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