“You’re not supposed to know everything right away. But you have a lot more to offer than you might think. If you want to do it, go out and do it!”
– Kelly Cavner ’19
Hometown: Iowa Falls, Iowa
Majors: Computer Science and Economics
Campus Activities: Study Abroad Student Ambassador; Assistant, Central College Human Resources Office; Computer Science Club
Internship: Information Technology, Pella Corporation; Application Analyst, Principal Financial Services, Inc.
Scholarships: Presidential Scholarship, Computer Science Award
Career Goal: Software Engineer
Kelly Cavner ’19 was the only girl in her high school’s coding class.
“I loved the problem solving, how different it was from other math and science classes,” she says. “I tried to tell my girlfriends about it, but they said, ‘Kelly, that’s weird!’ When my high school teacher told me ‘You can major in this in college,’ I knew exactly what I was going to do.”
Four years later—and before even graduating from Central—Cavner is something of a tech prodigy. She had two corporate technology internships under her belt. She won the Women in Technology Scholarship from Principal Financial Services, Inc. (pictured above), along with kudos from that company’s chief information officer. And Principal offered her a full-time software engineer position—“my dream job,” Cavner says—following her graduation in May 2019.
It may sound neat and linear, but Cavner says her route to success was highly individual. She credits Central for giving her the confidence and the tools to achieve on her own terms, in her own way.
Cavner is the antithesis of the Big Bang Theory-style, introverted-and-awkward tech nerd who spends all his waking hours staring at a computer screen. She’s engaging, vivacious, creative, relentlessly social. Ask her a quick question in an email, and instead of answering it in a sentence, she’ll likely stop by to talk about it.
“Stereotypical computer guys don’t like to talk,” she says. “I like to talk.” While her classmates made their keyboards rattle, she’d say things like “How does this work? Why are we doing things this way?”
“I took a test on how your brain works,” Cavner says, “and mine was different from all the men who took it with me. My confidence went down. I wondered whether I should even be doing computer science. Freshman year I was either crying or close to it sometimes. I thought, ‘I’m dumb. I’m the only female in this class.’
“Professor of Computer Science Stephen Fyfe ’87 had faith in me,” she says. “He talked me up, made sure I wouldn’t quit. I wouldn’t still be a CS major if he hadn’t. Eventually, he helped me see that I didn’t see things the way others did, so I’d tackle problems by a different route. It wasn’t always as efficient, but it surfaced more problems and led to better solutions. He helped me realize that was a strength. Meanwhile, if I was struggling in class, he’d say ‘If you need a review, just let me know.’”
Something else boosted Cavner’s performance: studying abroad in Bangor, Wales. “In the Outdoor Pursuits class, we went sailing, surfing, caving, gorge scrambling and waterfall climbing,” Cavner says. “We took field trips around Wales. We visited castles. All with people we didn’t know, from different countries and majors with different ways of thinking. We bonded, we came to trust one another. Being out of my comfort zone—in different environments, with different people, tackling different challenges—really developed my confidence. For three weeks, two of us traveled around Europe together. We planned the trip, handled the currency changes, the navigation, the languages, the culture. When you’ve done something like that, you can really take care of yourself.”
She got to test that confidence at her first summer internship. She worked for an international corporation in Iowa with engineers from India to build a database that tracked manufacturing processes. “I wanted to go figure it all out myself,” Cavner recalls. “It hit me really fast that I didn’t know what I was doing. It taught me to ask questions, and that you’re not supposed to know it all. I learned a ton.”
Her second summer internship was with Principal Global Investors in Des Moines, Iowa, as a software analyst on the global funds team. There she was in her element: “We didn’t have offices, just ‘neighborhoods’ with rows of whiteboards and wheelie chairs. We were always talking, never alone. We worked really well together. It was a supportive, friendly environment and I fit right in. There was a coding competition with teams of interns, guys and girls, collaborating. Our team won.”
Still, when the company offered her a job to begin after her graduation from Central, she was stunned and a bit scared. “I haven’t shown you my tech skills,” she said to her hiring manager. Her manager responded, “Kelly, we can teach you more tech skills. I’m hiring you for your soft skills—you connect with everyone on your team, you ask questions, you communicate. Those are the things that I like about you, and that we can’t teach.”
“I learned that I’m meant for IT,” Cavner says. “Getting that job offer really grounded me. It showed me that I was on the right track, that I had something special to offer and that my moments of frustration when I didn’t feel good enough were just part of the process.”
She’s even joined Fyfe on trips to local schools to talk to young girls about opportunities in technology and computer science. She felt like she was talking to her only slightly younger self. She started to take on the role for them that Fyfe and Professor of Computer Science Robert Franks played for her.
“Everyone at Central is so supportive. They push me, they encourage me, they share their connections with me, they help me get internships. They understand who I am and the value of what I am good at, even if I don’t fit the stereotype. They teach me to always try, that you’re probably a lot smarter than you think you are and have a lot more to offer than you realize.”