In 2015, Archana Senthilkumar was a software engineer in India, working at Genesys, a company focused on the cloud customer experience. By 2018, she was a graduate student at UCI in the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS), working on a mixed-reality experience in an Informatics AR/VR Theater course. By 2020, she had a master’s degree in computer science and a new career underway at Walt Disney Animation Studios. These days, the technical director is busy being interviewed for the New Indian Express newspaper about her role in helping bring to life the animated film “Raya and the Last Dragon.” Learn more about Senthilkumar’s journey from Genesys to Disney and why she wants you to start asking more questions.
What first sparked your interest in software engineering?
To be completely honest, my interest in software engineering came about only after I started my first job. I knew I wanted to be in STEM, because I really enjoyed science and math in school and I was drawn to the idea of solving problems with science, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. That first job as a software engineer was unrelated to my bachelor’s degree in electronics and communication engineering, but it was an instance of taking the best opportunity that came my way, and I’m glad I did. It gave me an understanding of computer science and how it was used in the real world to solve real problems.
What led you to pursue a graduate degree at UCI?
Once I realized the versatility of software engineering, the idea of combining computer science and any other field I was interested in took a strong hold. A master’s degree seemed like the best option to explore my interests, and UCI was especially appealing to me because of the adjacent programs in game science and informatics. I liked that the variety of courses offered from these departments emphasized real-world uses of computer science and not just the fundamentals.
Speaking of real-world uses, while at UCI, you were also a summer intern at JPL, correct?
I spent three months interning at NASA JPL, and that was an amazing look into how computer science was used in space research and everyday needs of JPL employees. I was most intrigued with the team that developed AR/VR tools for scientists as a way to view and process images taken by their rovers and satellites.
And that internship followed the six-month AR/VR course you took at UCI?
At UCI, I applied to and got the opportunity to be a part of Professor Tanenbaum’s collaborative AR/VR project class. We worked along with the Apples and Oranges theatre production company, and I led a team of eight developers, artists and user experience designers to develop a virtual reality prequel experience for the company’s new musical “Higher Education.” It was an incredible learning experience in combining narratives and technology, as well as people and project management.
You’re now a technical director at Walt Disney Animation Studios. What’s a typical day like?
Some days you’re developing animation tools and software features, other days you are providing technical support to artists in the thick of production, and more often, you are doing all of it at once. We are usually able to pick the problems we want to work on and sometimes you figure it out in five minutes, sometimes you’re in the deep end for days collaborating with many artists and technical directors for a solution. I enjoy the unpredictability of the job, and besides that, it’s always a moment of joy to be a part of the effort that brings a director’s artistic vision to life on the big screen.
What has been your favorite “big screen” project so far?
The journey is just beginning, but my favorite project is the recent “Raya and the Last Dragon.” It has the sentiment of being the first project I worked on start to finish and being an intense learning opportunity. The movie is based on Southeast Asian cultures, so seeing familiar and unfamiliar parts of that come to life in small details was so interesting to see. Most of all, I enjoy my team. They are incredibly talented and so much fun to work with.
Is there a female role model who has inspired you?
I’ve always looked up to Michelle Obama and more recently, I enjoyed her book Becoming, where she talks about navigating her family and career, pivoting at various points to accommodate new interests and needs. Her drive to always be curious, always ask questions and find a way to make an impact no matter where she was is so inspiring, and I’m trying to develop that mindset in my own life. I’m always trying to observe and learn from the incredible women I work with and the people around me every day.
Any words of advice for prospective computer science students?
Ask questions. It’s the best piece of advice I’ve gotten and it’s still the one I struggle with the most. For some of us, it’s difficult to raise our hand, to speak up or ask questions — even more so when you feel like you’re the only different person in the room. But we need to push ourselves to ask more questions because it’s the only way to understand more, learn more and break down barriers.
— Shani Murray