When Lisie Michel '09 isn't writing computer code or fighting cyber predators, you can find her practicing circus acrobatics on the Boston Common, stretching in contortion class, or heading to ballet, taking her back to her roots at Walnut Hill.
At the mere age of 23, Michel has become an official Googler—working as a software engineer in the Cambridge, Massachusetts office. For those of you whose perception of the Google lifestyle is solely represented by Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson's buffoonery in The Internship, Michel summed it up from personal experience: "Anything about Google that is portrayed as good is probably true, and anything that is portrayed as bad is probably not true." And boy is that an accurate statement. The work environment is engineered (no surprise) with perfection so that you are able to focus on what you need in order to get your work done. If you need to work out, there is a gym at hand; if you need food, there are two dining halls and an infinite number of micro-kitchens; if you need sleep, there are nap pods; if you want to swing in a chair made out of lava, play life-sized chess, or even pretend to be Frasier Crane in a Cheers-setting, you can do those things as well. Lindsay Moncrieff, Walnut Hill's Development Associate, had the chance to see in all in person and hear from Michel about how she keeps dance and technology equally present in her life. After Moncrieff's short but whimsical hour at Google, during which Michel took her on an exclusive tour of the entire "jungle gym," she concluded that the entire experience was most comparable to a five-year old's first visit to Disney World.
Though Michel's career trajectory may not be linear—and through describing her work, linear is the last thing she is looking for—it is one that serves as inspiration to students and alumni who may choose to apply their arts education in alternative ways.
Michel first set foot in the Walnut Hill dance studios when she was 9 years old, and from that moment, she was hooked. As Clara in Walnut Hill's The Nutcracker (in both the 6th and 7th grades), she was in awe of the high school dancers, especially Breanne Starke Clarke '04 (now Director of Walnut Hill's Community Dance Academy), and dreamed of someday being just like them. Well, her dream came true and six years later she graduated from Walnut Hill—during which she became the "pretty in pink" Sugar Plum that the next generation of young dancers emulated.
But her experience at Walnut Hill was choreographed with nuances that sparked her desire to veer off the traditional path of a highly trained ballerina. In addition to her ballet classes, Michel took all the advanced math and science classes that were offered (plus one more math class through Harvard Extension) and was very involved in the Jewish community. When considering her postsecondary options, she dipped her toes into several possibilities. "I had a lot of other things that mattered to me that I could tell would get pushed to the margins of my life if I was going to dance professionally," she explained. Michel attended a few ballet company auditions and submitted several college applications, but it was ultimately a full scholarship to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, that tipped the scale.
A special perk of her Vanderbilt choice was that it just happened to have one of the nation's best non-degree dance programs. She had the unique opportunity to perform a variety of roles, including Dawn in Coppélia and the third Odalisque from Le Corsaire, training under Thomas Shoemaker, former principal dancer at Miami City Ballet. When she arrived in the country music capital, she encountered a pivotal class and teacher that inspired her to make a tough decision and take the next leap. When considering what she wanted as a major, Michel took an Intro to Engineering course, but what she did not expect was for the unit on Computer Science to become her calling. Her professor had an eerie resemblance to Elle Woods from Legally Blonde—pink heels, blond hair, cute glasses—but she would talk cyber security, cryptography, and code breaking, words that quickly became music to Michel's ears.
Four years later, with a double major in computer science and math, a minor in philosophy, and as if she wasn't busy enough, a master's in computer science, Michel was ready to "fight the bad guys" and took a job at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory in their Cyber Security and Information Sciences division. Now, as a software engineer recruited by Google, Michel spends her days developing the software Google uses to detect and eventually catch malware (or "spam," as we call it).
It may seem as though computer science and ballet are on opposite ends of the spectrum, but Michel has found that the two are quite synergistic, noting: "It's not that CS is particularly artistic, but rather that ballet is very technical. Writing code is like executing pliés and tendus. You have to do a lot of repetition in order to produce anything that looks pretty. Everyone still takes ballet, even if they go into modern or contemporary. The same applies to writing code. No matter the application, you always need clean technique."
Michel's experience can serve to encourage students with diverse interests, or those pursuing an unexpected path. She advises: "Think big picture. Ask yourself, 'What are all the things I care about in my life and what are the trade-offs if I pick one or another? What would my life look like 10 or 15 years down each path? What do I want my family to look like?' The options you have for your lifestyle and family are very different as a dancer than as a computer scientist. You have to look beyond the first layer, at the secondary and tertiary effects of a career choice. The challenge is to balance practicality and passion."
As Michel shows, the technique, skill, focus, and drive that it takes to be an artist are invaluable qualities in the professional world. Next time you see an unintelligible string of code, remember the common qualities needed to conquer algorithms and arabesques, programming and pirouettes.