Alumni profile: Sierra Katow, A.B. ’16
Approaching the writer’s room as a computer scientist
Engineering courses teach more than facts and technical skills. Students also are exposed to a mentality: a structured, sequential approach that equips engineers with the critical thinking skills required to address a challenge.
Sierra Katow (A.B. ’16), a television writer, actor and stand-up comic in Los Angeles, uses the problem-solving approach she learned as a computer science concentrator at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) to help her every day in the writer’s room.
“The way that I speak about writing, I’m always trying to figure out what the problem we’re trying to solve is,” Katow said. “Then maybe I can pitch the joke that will actually be the puzzle piece that fits into the script, satisfies the problem and is funny.”
Katow developed an interest in both coding and stand-up comedy as a high-school student growing up outside of LA. She started going to open-mic nights when she was 16 years old, and the chance to be near Boston’s comedy scene was one reason she chose to attend Harvard.
She continued developing as a comic while studying CS at SEAS. She was co-president of the Harvard College Stand Up Comedy Society, vice president of the Harvard Lampoon, and performed stand up on and around campus.
“The tough thing about Harvard is that it’s a lot of really talented, really smart people, and it’s hard to keep up or feel like you’re doing anything right,” she said. “The interesting thing about comedy was that I really drilled into this niche that I felt I was good at, and I felt I could offer to my community of classmates.”
Studying computer science led Katow to a number of tech internships.. She worked as a fullstack engineer intern at both Myspace and mobile app company WhipClip, as well as a design and front-end engineer intern at music and entertainment news outlet SpinMedia.
Katow knew she wanted to pursue a career in comedy, but making it in Hollywood is never guaranteed. Computer science provided her a means to support herself as a freelance coder, to have a place to live and pay her bills while performing at clubs.
Computer science also became a mental release for Katow. She was a CS student who did comedy as an extracurricular activity at Harvard, but once comedy became her job, CS became the hobby.
“What was fun about having the freelance coding thing was that it was a different part of my brain,” Katow said. “I wasn’t doing anything complicated in the coding sphere, so finishing these pretty doable tasks made me feel like I accomplished something that day. If things weren’t happening in the comedy realm, if I didn’t get that audition or I didn’t have a good set that night, it was a good way to balance the challenges.”
Katow made several television appearances as a comic while at SEAS, including on an episode of “Last Call with Carson Daly” and “Last Comic Standing” in 2015.
She got her first break in Hollywood post-graduation when she landed a writer’s assistant gig with “Take My Wife,” a comedy series that aired on the Seeso streaming service in 2018.
“I didn’t feel like a writer when I entered the writer’s room,” she said. “I was a comedian, but coming from the work perspective that I was used to interning at tech companies.”
Katow’s career has continued to grow since then. She had a recurring acting role on “The Sex Lives of College Girls,” a 2021 HBO series, and her writing credits include “Earth to Ned” on Disney+ and an upcoming untitled animated project at Netflix.
Wherever her career takes her next, she’ll use the knowledge and mentality she learned studying computer science at SEAS.
Matt Goisman | email@example.com