Carnegie Mellon University

Alumna Neha Gautam on Curiosity, Representation and Her Rewarding CMU-SV Experience

April 10, 2024

Alumna Neha Gautam on Curiosity, Representation and Her Rewarding CMU-SV Experience

By Evan Lybrand

INI Communications

Solving complex technical problems has always been a passion of recent Information Networking Institute (INI) graduate Neha Gautam. As she prepared for the 2024 Women in Cyber Security Conference (WiCyS) to share the results of her research applying large language models to detect fake reviews in e-commerce, Gautam reflected on how her experience at the INI led to this point.

Gautam first learned about the INI while working at Cisco, the digital communications company, on the CISCO Voice and Webex team. In her role as a network consulting engineer, she connected with one of the many INI alumni working in the industry, who encouraged her to apply to one of the INI’s bicoastal programs in information security and mobile and IoT engineering. 

Gautam is a 2023 graduate of the Master of Science in Information Technology - Information Security (MSIT-IS) program. The MSIT-IS curriculum prepares graduates with skills in technical security and privacy solutions, preparing them to design and implement secure systems and services using state-of-the-art techniques.

neha_sv.jpgLike all students in INI bicoastal degree programs, Gautam spent her first semester at the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) main campus in Pittsburgh, PA. She then moved to the Carnegie Mellon University in Silicon Valley (CMU-SV) campus for the following two semesters to complete her studies. This transition became the highlight of Gautam’s INI experience, because it offers a tight-knit community and access to alumni who live and work nearby. “You get to interact and connect with everyone there on a much more personal level,” she said. “It’s also great to meet and make connections with alumni.”

With the largest concentration of high-tech companies in the United States, Silicon Valley is an ideal environment for students who hope to become engineers in cutting-edge organizations or entrepreneurs with their own ventures. Many INI alumni work and live in the area, too, offering students the opportunity to grow their network and learn from industry leaders. Some of these leaders also teach INI courses and had a major impact on Gautam.

Patrick Tague, an associate teaching professor, is one such professor who made an impact. Tague is co-advisor to CMU’s competitive hacking team, the Plaid Parliament of Pwning (PPP), along with INI Assistant Teaching Professor Hanan Hibshi. Tague’s guidance and support were invaluable to Gautam and the team as they took on the challenge pof the MITRE Embedded Capture-the-Flag (eCTF) cybersecurity competition. Gautam was a member of the 2023 team that defended the PPP’s title.

Another INI professor, Cynthia Kuo, was an influential mentor during Gautam’s experience. Kuo is one of the key figures involved in Practicum, a core part of the INI bicoastal program curriculum. Practicum is a semester-long capstone experience that brings together INI students and industry professionals to tackle challenging problems in real-world settings.

In Gautam’s Practicum project, she and her partner worked with the city of Portland, Oregon, to increase the transparency of city contracts. The team developed a proof-of-concept dashboard to clearly share data with the public. Gautam thrives in environments where she can combine her technical knowledge with interpersonal skills to improve systems. Because the Practicum project was her first experience as a tech lead, she sought advice from Kuo, her project advisor. “She guided me through how to be a technical lead and how to go out there and express my opinions,” said Gautam.

neha_cmu-moon-rover-team.pngNeha Gautam (far left) with the CMU Iris Lunar Rover Mission Operations Team. 

In addition to her Practicum project, Gautam also took advantage of the opportunities INI students have to attend conferences across the U.S. Of the many conferences Gautam has attended, Women in Cybersecurity (WiCyS) stood out as the most rewarding. “It was my first security conference in the U.S., and it was exhilarating to see so many women in tech coming from so many different backgrounds and supporting each other,” she said.

For WiCyS 2024, Gautam presented recent research inspired by her INI coursework and experience as a technical product manager intern on the Innovation and Automation team with Walmart. Her work addressed the biases found in data used to train large language models to detect fake online reviews on e-commerce sites like Amazon and Walmart. Many of the tools and techniques she used for her research came from her artificial intelligence (AI) applications and security course taught by Associate Teaching Professor David Varodayan.

While her coursework provided the methodology, Gautam’s internship with Walmart provided the idea. Gautam secured her internship while exploring opportunities at one of the many in-person career fairs at CMU. She met with several hiring managers to learn about the various professional roles that students with her background would be qualified to do. This willingness to learn and curiosity are qualities that Gautam believes everyone should strive for. “I think being open-minded to learning and being able to use the skills that you developed at the INI and the experience you’ve gained, having that mindset, is going to play out well,” said Gautam.

In addition to staying curious, she also shared the importance of building a strong network to learn and build connections. The INI provides an ever-growing network of alumni in various fields and industries, a resource that Gautam relied on as she explored different roles and prepared for technical interviews.

Gautam’s dedication to research and exploration is the last piece of advice she would give to current and prospective INI students. To get to the place you want to be, she said, you need to understand how to get there. Discovering how others secured a dream role is an excellent way to learn. 

Above: Neha Gautam at the Carnegie Mellon University Silicon Valley Campus.