Beyond code: a value-driven educator, researcher, and entrepreneur

Mary Kilcoyne

Mar 22, 2024

Two women in graduation gowns holding an award

Gladys Mercier, MSSM program director, presents Fang with the degree’s Return on Education Alumni Award at the 2023 MSSM Diploma Ceremony.

Before preschool, Catherine Fang was already working in the tech industry—unofficially, of course.

Her father, who specializes in large scale risk assessment via math modeling, was her first mentor. When he brought work projects home, he found a keen pupil in young Fang.

From him, she learned not only to appreciate the beauty of data architecture and the do-less-to-achieve-more nature of the algorithms but also how to execute: she soon began assisting with the editing process by cutting and retaping software punched tape in the evenings.

This early introduction, coupled with an innate talent for analysis, primed Fang to study computer engineering, ultimately earning her Ph.D. in the subject and leading to a successful career in the software industry.

Fang is the co-founder of AiCare, a cutting-edge AI and cloud-powered healthcare and medical platform, and a distinguished service professor of the Master of Science in Software Management degree program, from which she graduated in 2011.

Fang’s official career began in software development and progressed to data intelligence. While working on a global consumer product though, a pivotal moment changed her trajectory from engineering to product.

“My team designed and coded a robust product, working diligently for months. But once we launched it into production, not one priority bug was reported. That made us happy for a little, but based on our experience, we knew it wasn’t possible for no issues to arise,” Fang recalled. “No one was using that feature! That was a trigger point for me. I didn’t want to be given requirements and just build anymore. I need to work with the customers and understand their needs.”

When that opportunity surfaced shortly thereafter, Fang seized it.

A consortium of 500 US newspapers partnered with Yahoo! to streamline targeting for advertisements, generating an influx of requests and needs from customers. Fang pitched herself to be the liaison between the customers and the engineering teams and began attending customer meetings and designing requirements. She also assessed the customers’ workflows to identify redundant and unnecessary feature requests.

“This experience was so rewarding because I got to understand the pain points and reshape the process. It gave me a sense of satisfaction to see my efforts impact the product pipeline and, of course, our company and customers’ business bottom line,” Fang said.

It also cemented her interest in product management, which is what attracted her to the MSSM degree program.

Learning while working enabled her to apply theory to practice immediately, seamlessly stitching her academic and professional worlds together.

Before being recruited back to CMU-SV as faculty, Fang ascended to senior product and architect roles at Yahoo! and LinkedIn, filing multiple patents along the way.

“To make a real social impact, we need to build solid solutions. To ensure those solutions are sound, they must be grounded in research. Research is essential—even in industry,” Fang said.

She is currently the associate editor for the IEEE Reliability Society, for which she publishes her research (e.g. Risk-Informed and AI-Based Bias Detection on Gender, Race, and Income Using Gen-Z Survey Data), peer reviews submitted papers, and organizes IEEE’s conferences and events.

Her path has been guided by three main principles: a value-based framework, open-mindedness, and embracing the present.

“I’m always able to anchor on value: how do I enhance my value and what value can I offer others. Seemingly complicated decisions, relationships, or projects all boil down to value exchange. This framework helps me to prioritize my work and simplify my decisions.”

In the fast-paced software industry, adapting to change is a necessity.“Every day I’m learning something new—whether it is technology, design, implementation, or business models. My fellow faculty and I have extensive industry and domain backgrounds, so we evolve our courses to match industry needs,” Fang shared.

Fang was honored with the degree’s 2023 Return on Education Award, a recognition of how she has applied her education for professional success, inspiring students to the same.

“Education is not confined to textbooks and lectures; it’s a lifelong journey of curiosity, growth, and contribution,” Fang said.