First-generation American had planned to become a doctor.

Share story

Karin Tsai, 27, is a software engineer at Duolingo in Pittsburgh.

Q: What is Duolingo and what do you do there?

A: We’re a free language-learning platform. We earn revenue by charging for language certification tests for individuals and businesses. Currently, I code our new flashcard app, which we call Tinycards, and that part of our website.

Q: What is your background?

A: My parents are from Taiwan; I’m a first-generation American. My dad is a mechanical engineer. As a kid, I would play educational computer games and design greeting cards for my friends on the computer, but I didn’t start programming until college. Initially I majored in chemical engineering at Princeton in the hope of attending medical school.

Q: How did you come to major in computer science?

A: As part of the engineering school at Princeton, I was required to take an introductory computer science course, which was my first real introduction to the field. I fell in love with it and used my coding assignments to procrastinate when it came to other homework. I minored in neuroscience and engineering biology in case I might still want to be a doctor, but decided I should do what I love and switched my major.

Q: How did you find this position?

A: I’ve been studying for a Ph.D. in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University since 2012. My adviser, Luis von Ahn, now our CEO, started Duolingo with a partner as a teaching project and asked me if I wanted to work on it along with other students. Now that I’ve finished my coursework and am writing my thesis, I work full time at the company.

Q: You were honored for your work.

A: Last November I got to travel to Ireland with a colleague to meet the country’s president, Michael Higgins, who thanked us for keeping the Irish language alive. We attended a ceremony at the Irish White House with some of the volunteers who contributed to the courses.

Q: What have you gained from working here?

A: When I was at Princeton, I was somewhat insecure because I started coding so much later than my classmates. I’ve proved that I belong in this field, I can succeed in it, and that when it comes to important decisions in the company, my voice matters.