Spotlight on Sowmya Subramanian, MS ’97

Sowmya Subramanian’s enthusiasm for computer science is obvious in her words below. From a love of math and physics in school to an internship at Microsoft as a sophomore in college to UW-Madison Computer Sciences for a master’s degree, creativity and the quest for learning have led the way in her career and life. She says that she still draws on the courses she took at UW in her current position as Executive Vice President of Engineering at Warner Bros. Discovery. She encourages students to explore, meander and be curious!

What are you currently doing professionally? As Executive Vice President (EVP) of Engineering at Warner Bros. Discovery (WBD), I lead WBD’s technology transformation to build the next generation media and entertainment experiences. Part of this has included developing and launching Max in the US and international markets; defining and developing our data and ML strategy; and working across WBD’s leadership to make technology quintessential for our success.

What do you like about it? I love being able to apply technology to delight consumers, to unlock creativity of our content creators and drive business operations. The interdisciplinary nature of the job allows me to lean into my strengths while staying curious and learning; the company is truly going through a transformation on multiple fronts.

What motivated you to study computer science? I loved math and physics in school, was amazed by how I could program the computer to do things faster and better, and was fascinated by the endless applications. I vividly remember when I first dabbled with Basic and Logo as a middle schooler and wrote programs to solve math problems or make drawings! The creativity it unlocked is what drew me to computer science.

Why did you decide to attend UW-Madison? When I was a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College, I interned at Microsoft and worked with their Access and SQL Server teams. That was when I started finding database systems very intriguing and took more courses in large scale databases and did a senior research project on object oriented database systems. That led me to University of Wisconsin, Madison – as Professors DeWitt and Jeff Naughton were leading the charge in database/spatial database research. I got a fellowship, loved my campus visit, and went with that! My other choices were Stanford and University of Illinois, Urbana Champagne, but the UW-Madison program really resonated with my interests.

What was one of the most valuable experiences you had in CS at UW-Madison (a specific class, a project you worked on, etc.) and why? CS 739 (Distributed Systems) and 764 (Topics in Database Mgmt Systems) were instrumental in helping me build a very strong foundation in large scale database and distributed system design, in understanding the why and what behind a lot of the advancements in this space, and I still draw from these classes in my job! I also learned a lot from my advisor, Prof. DeWitt, and his research students – I still remember working on a spatial mine-detection algorithm for a DARPA funded special project.

What was your favorite thing about UW-Madison? We had a very strong and supportive community – I am still friends with so many of my grad school friends from Madison! I also enjoyed the open campus – it allowed me to explore subjects outside of the computer science department as well. I remember auditing a law course and a course in genomics ( I think ?) just because I was curious. 

What are one or two things you did at UW outside of your classes (clubs, study abroad, employment, conferences, internships, etc)? How did these benefit your education, your current career, and/or your life?  We had very strong ties with the industry, and I leveraged that as a student. I had return internship opportunities with Microsoft and interned at Oracle. I find internships invaluable in helping you round out your education and see the intersection of research and real-world applications. I was also on the CS admissions committee and attended Grace Hopper Conference with Prof. Susan Horowitz.  

Do you have any advice for current CS students? Invest time to learn your fundamentals and get hands-on experience in building/coding/designing, as this is what helps us not only keep pace as the technology rapidly evolves around us but also be a driver of the change. College is a great time to try out new things: be curious, meander a bit, try out different internships, have fun, as all of this helps shape you for life!

What do you like to do for fun? I road bike, swim, ski, help fundraise with leukemia and lymphoma society’s team in training, and love to travel with my family. We also have a great group of friends – we find time to hang and party 🙂