Career Nav #37: Looking for a Path Between Computer Science and Urban Planning

Career Nav #37: Looking for a Path Between Computer Science and Urban Planning

Written by Valeria Belén Cerpa Salas


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Cat Liao, Social media and Content Coordinator for Women Who Code, speaks with Valeria Belén Cerpa Salas, LEED for Communities Intern, U.S. Green Building Council. They discuss the trajectory of Valeria’s career, her experiences in the industry that led her to work in the urban planning field, and a recently completed project that looked at initiatives that would employ computer science to create more sustainable initiatives.

What sparked your interest in the intersection between computer science and urban planning?

When I finished urban planning and architecture in college, I found that I liked the intersection between those areas and that it could fit well with urban planning and lead me to projects related to technology.

At the same time, I was collaborating with my brother, who was a computer science major. I found that computer science brings a lot of tools for developing data research projects and could fill some missing gaps in urban planning studies and architecture. I started looking for new technologies and new ways of approaching both of these areas that I was interested in. I started in data, urban data analytics, and then web development, which is where I am today.

How long have you been in your current project?

I’ve spent two years on my latest project, Planning 20250 but overall, I’ve been working in computer science and urban planning for the last three years.

Can you tell us about your experience as an intern at the U.S., Green Building Council (USBGC) and the impact of sustainable initiatives in the industry? 

USGBC was an excellent opportunity to work directly in the field of sustainability. It’s an organization with many branches around the world. They taught me about the framework of underwriting systems for communities, and how that can apply to sustainability. I also learned about natural systems and ecologies, like material resources and energy or greenhouse emissions.

That experience gave me the opportunity to work with JavaScript, frameworks where I could code visualizations diagrams that at some point could help USBGC to display their data in a more visual way. It was an enriching experience. What I took most from it was talking with sustainability people about tech.

What was your experience leading a multidisciplinary team in the Resilience Fund Fellowship project?

The Resilience Fund focused on social issues such as crime, security, and extortion. They were looking for an integrated mapping tool for tracking the hotspots of crime, especially in public spaces and cities. I worked with an interdisciplinary team of computer scientists and lead a team of architects and urban planners in the development of that.

The main things I learned were managing budgets and schedules, organizing online meetings,  and identifying the main skills of each member of my team. I wanted my team to feel comfortable doing their work and performing what they specialized in, as well as in our primary mission.

Are you working with government organizations on that specific topic? 

We spoke with local municipalities and some crime research observatories. I also liked that the organization gave you mentorship support in the field which is really important in the tech field. Especially developing these tools, it’s essential to receive mentorship from other experts, hear what people from the tech field want to offer to the task, and exchange information as a learning experience for both parties.

This research is going to be important globally, too, as it could potentially help so many different countries. 

Definitely, this tool was developed for Peru, which is my country but of course, this tool can be something unique for tech which can apply to different environments and organizations.

How have you navigated the challenges of moving from architecture to the tech field? 

The challenge is that when you see a new area. The experiences I had networking, even with a Google search, allow you to find a community. Much like Women Who Code, where you see professionals from different fields working in these interdisciplinary areas between both fields.

That is an important lesson I learned. Look around the world, you can see so much inspiration in your work. I started with volunteer projects. You meet others, and then you start inspiring others.

There will be people in your community asking you questions about how do you work in this intersection of fields. What tools should I learn? That was the main challenge. Now I see more information and I can also answer questions for people in my area. I can create a more extensive community.

I know people in the world from an architecture background want to go into tech and you are an excellent resource for someone looking for that. 

I see many examples from architects that are working in areas where they want to learn about data science, some architects doing web development. They ask about what transferable skills should they be learning.

Tech communities like Women Who Code are so good because they welcome that, and they give you information from the events or the podcast. It’s important for us with a non-traditional tech or engineering background to learn from the community. It’s a total change of mindset and perspective.

How have you approached self-teaching and continuing your education in your career development? 

Self-teaching was so important. You have to practice the code by yourself. Look for tutorials and videos, especially when you don’t have an engineering or computer science background. Choose your program and language. Choose the pathway you want to follow in tech. We also have the challenge of how to transfer our skills.

Continual education is important because you can never stop learning. As technology evolves, you have to keep up. But t’s important to manage a balance. This can be overwhelming from the beginning. You see a lot of information available, and you want to do a lot of projects, but it’s essential to take care of your mental health. It can be hard.

There are also thoughts about changing your career and you have to think about whether you should leave what you have learned in the past.No. My, my opinion is that you can keep what you have done before, but also, Maintain or look for that balance in your life.

These opportunities are always available, especially in the tech field. You can follow this career transition and be good with yourself mentaly.

What initially drew you into transitioning your career, despite knowing that it would change so much of your life?

It was a mix of different things. Talking with people, saying my ideas. That led me to, to start thinking about ways we could connect in these areas. And also it was at some point crazy because I thought, okay, I don’t have references in there, and maybe can I start something? But if I in the process fail, I will learn from the experience, definitely. And I will have a new approach for urban planning and architecture.

My main advice is that you are not alone in the area. You want to mix, to transition. You want to combine your knowledge – lawyer, doctor –  you want to combine with tech, use the tech skills, learn to program. You are not alone, because there is a community that would like to support you.

I have learned a lot from listening to videos. It’s been such a rewarding experience and made me feel that I’m not alone in this field. I feel like maybe these crazy ideas at some point could have, a positive impact in my community, which make me happy about that.

How important is mentorship in your personal and professional growth to you? 

So important. I remember my first mentors were, well, first of all, my brother, who I asked about computer science. But secondly, I started joining some mentorship programs where I met people who could discuss these questions. Would I have an opportunity to develop this? Are you entering a programming class? Even tutorials where you could ask the instructor different career questions or how to transition your idea into future projects.

This mentorship process means you can learn a lot from the other person, but they can also learn a lot from you too. In my experiences, I could learn a lot of mentorship advice, especially, and it felt like it was part of a community.

How much of your network is online or in-person?

70% is online, and 30% is in person. The quarantine was long, so most of my opportunities were online. However, tere are sometimes meetups in college, in computer science faculties, organized meetups. And they are free for anyone who is interested in tech.

What advice would you give to women looking to enter the tech industry and pursue a career at the intersection of computer science and urban planning? 

My advice for women entering tech  at the intersection of computer science and urban planning is just to be yourself. Value your ideas. Your ideas are so important. You can’t imagine how much of a positive or huge impact impact your ideas can have for the world.Everyone is different and we can have a positive impact on technology.

My other advice is to value the lessons learned. You can use these transferrable skills in computer science and tech. And you can bring and refreshing ideas for a project. Never stop asking questions, joining networking events, and looking for a mentor. It’s so important.

Be patient and don’t stress in this process. If you work hard and do your best at the end, it will be rewarding.

In the recent years, there are new modern careers like emerging. You will eventually have your opportunity to show these skills you have learned in the past. That is how you innovate. Keep going because you will have your, your opportunity.


Speaker: Valeria Belén Cerpa Salas, LEED for Communities Intern, U.S. Green Building Council
Twitter: @valcerpasalas
Instagram: val.cerpasalas

Host: Cat Liao, Social Media & Content Coordinator, Women Who Code

Producer: JL Lewitin, Senior Producer, Press and Digital Content, Women Who Code