Julia Schwarz.

As an undergrad, Julia Schwarz, 25, first studied physics. But a sophomore year computer class inspired her to change her major to computer science. Now this 5’4”ish small-framed, pixie-haired wonder finds herself co-founder — and the only woman employee — of Qeexo, a 12-person company that makes the touch-based technology product, FingerSense. The company has offices on Centre Avenue here in town and in San Jose, CA.

Schwarz, a Carnegie Mellon University graduate with a new PhD in Human Computer Interaction, was recently named to Forbes Magazine’s 30 under 30: Science. The list highlights 600 twenty-somethings across the country in 20 fields from art and manufacturing to finance and education. Here’s what makes her tick:

How did you come up with the name Qeexo?

Funny story — we needed a name and my co-founder Chris (Harrison) insisted that we have a good domain name to go along with it. He had this list of names that are available for websites. We later found out it comes from the word, “qeex” which means “analysis” in Somali.

After graduating from the University of Washington, why did you chose CMU to pursue your PhD?

Actually it was a really difficult choice. I had a friend here, we had already done some really great work together over a summer internship, and I just really liked the atmosphere. Obviously, it’s the best school for human computer interaction.

What’s your passion?

I think one is obviously my company. That sort of consumed my life — that and the PhD — for the past two years. I like thinking about how we can use computers to augment human intellect, how can we use computers to help us think and create. I believe in this idea that right now, a computer is our phone. It’s like this shiny rectangle that we hold and we look at, but I don’t think that’s what computing is going to be in 20 years. I think it’s going to disappear into our world. I think it’s this medium that pervades everything and that it’s not going to be something you look at. It’s just going to be everywhere, and you won’t have to pull out your phone to access information. There are a lot of things that are trying to do this right now. Google Glass is a step in that direction. I want to be a person who is thinking about inventing these things basically.

What are you working on right now?

For our company, the most important thing for me personally is to see FingerSense in a phone or in a tablet. For me personally, (it’s important) to make something that other people find useful and make a positive impact.

And you have developed apps?

They are kind of like side projects, while I was doing my PhD, on evenings and weekends. I’m very glad that I did them, and I do see them as a personal success, but they don’t have a million users or anything. The one I found interesting was the one that helps you take selfies (called Headshot). A lot of lower end phones don’t have front facing cameras so people end up doing that thing where they hold the phone up and try to guess where their head is going to be. I made an app that uses face detection. It finds out where your face is in the image. That one has gotten a number of downloads.

When you do something for fun after you are 80 percent done you lose interest and go on to the next fun thing, but really, if you make something excellent you need to spend twice as much time tweaking and polishing, and that’s what I want to do for FingerSense.

And when you’re not in front of your computer?

I like to do these puzzle hunt competitions … you need to use cartography, Braille and decode things like secret messages to solve these puzzles. Recently we have become interested in these puzzle rooms (she’s successfully escaped both rooms at Pittsburgh’s Escape Room and has done others in New York and Philadelphia).

What’s it like for you in an industry dominated by men?

I’m lucky to know many guys that are supportive. But there are definitely not enough women in computer science. When you are making business decisions with guys … I don’t know what they’re thinking … I just have to stick to my guns. It’s hard, and I wish there were more role models in female entrepreneurs and technology to help and guide. One thing I’ve learned from some of my friends who are guys is that some of them are really tough so they’ve taught me how to be tough.

What do you love about Pittsburgh?

I grew up on the West Coast, and I really love that this city is full of historical buildings and stories. I really like the old buildings. I think they are so fascinating. I like that it’s easy to live here. I don’t know if I’ll stay. It’s hard to justify if you’re in technology because there is just a lot of talent on the West Coast. But this is really an up-and-coming city. So many companies are starting here. It’s an exciting place.

Laurie Bailey

Laurie Bailey is a freelance writer who has reported for many local publications. When she isn't writing she serves as a media consultant for nonprofits and other local companies.