How a UCF Graduate Landed a Job at YouTube
By Nicole Dudenhoefer
Since middle school, Melissa Amoi-Belinda Smith ’11 has enjoyed tinkering with technology for various robotics competitions. Now, she works with digital products on a much larger scale as a user experience researcher for YouTube. Her impact in the tech industry, along with volunteer efforts in her local community and at her alma mater, recently earned her a UCF 2017 30 Under 30 Award. Her journey to developing the largest video sharing platform in the world started with UCF.
After years of participating in robotics competitions, Smith decided to attend UCF because of its strong engineering program, welcoming community and close proximity to her family in Ft. Lauderdale.
“I was in the Burnett Honors College, and that was a big factor in terms of my success at UCF,” Smith says. “It allowed me to get that big school experience, but also that small school community feeling.”
Although she initially wanted to pursue a career in robotics, Smith took an elective class her sophomore year, where she studied the human elements in technology. It was in that class that Smith found her true passion, user experience research, and the course of her life changed.
“User experience research is more important now more than ever,” she says.“No one is going to put up with using a poorly designed product.”
“User experience research is more important now more than ever. No one is going to put up with using a poorly designed product.”Melissa Amoi-Belinda Smith ’11
As a result of that course, Smith chose to study psychology, became involved in research at UCF’s Applied Cognitive and Technology Lab, completed internships in the field and went on to complete a Ph.D. at George Mason University. She says these experiences gave her the necessary skill set to land a job at YouTube, which is owned by Google.
In her role, Smith is responsible for analyzing existing features on YouTube, as well as researching and developing new features that fulfill user needs that currently aren’t being met. With a focus on “Watch Feeds,” her job consists of developing and conducting studies, analyzing data and presenting to stakeholders. She also works with project managers, designers and engineers to implement her findings into the platform.
The opportunity to work for such a big company is both terrifying and exhilarating, says Smith. With YouTube’s estimated one billion users, she sometimes worries whether people will respond well to her developments. However, as an active user of the platform herself, Smith says her work excites her because she gets to see new features in advance of their release — and because she knows her work has a big impact.
“There’s always this joke that YouTube is for cat videos and entertaining memes, but actually it’s very much an educational tool for many people around the world,” Smith says. “That’s really what I value about what my job. By making the platform easier to use, people — no matter what language they speak — can use it. People are now able to learn skills and languages that they may not otherwise have had access to.”
Although Smith ultimately pursued a different field than robotics, she is still drawn to the subject matter that first fostered her love for STEM. She actively volunteering in FIRST Robotics, an international program that holds some of its competitions at UCF. These efforts, along with participating in other local K-12 outreach events, allow her to help kids develop an interest in science and technology.
“I’m really passionate about bringing STEM to the next generation,” Smith says. “I feel like technology will impact our entire society, and I feel like we need to get more and more kids excited about it, especially girls. … I was fortunate enough to develop a love for science early on, and now I just want to bring that to the next generation.”