Computer science and engineering alums share career advice with students

Panelists discuss advantages of start-ups and established companies, give tips on staying current in an evolving field

4/29/2013 - By: Kirstin Swagman
Computer science and engineering alumni Computer science and engineering alumni share career insight and experiences with about 90 students and faculty. Photo by Sam DiMuzio.

A group of about 90 computer science and engineering students gathered on Friday to get career tips and insights from a panel of accomplished computer science and engineering alumni.

The panel, titled "Small and big: Working for start-ups versus large corporations," allowed current undergraduate and graduate students to get an inside look at the realities of the job market in the tech industry. 

Computer science and engineering majors have a lot to be optimistic about when considering the job market. Salary and employment data from organizations such as The National Association of Colleges and Employers consistently rank computer science and computer engineering near the top when it comes to employer demand and earning potential.

But graduates in the rapidly changing tech industry also face a dizzying array of options, from small start-ups to established corporations such as Microsoft.

Friday's panel, which featured alums with experience in both settings, gave students a chance to learn more about what it takes to succeed in diverse career paths.

"The biggest advantage of a small company is that it really forces you to step up to the plate all hours of the day and night to become the best at what you are doing," said Jeff Chao (M.S. 2011), who was the fifth employee at Mobsmith, which specialized in mobile advertising technology, before becoming the engineering lead at Post+Beam in San Francisco.

While larger companies generally offer better benefits and provide more flexibility for employees, panelists cautioned against choosing a company just because of the perks.

"The flexibility you have in your job and your lifestyle is directly proportional to your responsibility in your job," said Ben Lucchesi (B.S., M.S. 2002), chief software architect at Granicus.

Although a larger company may offer more financial stability, Eric Jennings (B.S. 2003) said he was able to support a family and pursue his passions through various start-ups, including his current venture, Reno-based Pinoccio, a company that manufactures wireless microcontrollers.

Jennings has used a combination of savings and various side jobs to pay the bills while pursuing his own business ventures.

"I don't think it's the easy route," he said. "But it's incredibly rewarding."

When asked about the biggest challenge to starting a company, Jennings responded, "Probably yourself. Probably getting over the fact that you could fail."

While working in a start-up may involve more risk, the panelists all said success in the rapidly evolving tech industry requires passion and persistence.

"There's tons of competition," said Chao. "Engineers are a dime a dozen. You need to surpass your peers. What that entails is persistence."

Saam Talaie (B.S. 2004), who works on machine learning at Apple, said when he hires new engineers he looks for individuals who can demonstrate their passion for the job.

"We want people who can code, but are they really interested at the core or are they just looking for a 9 to 5 job," he said.

A number of panelists encouraged students to get involved in open source projects as a way to demonstrate their passion and also to broaden their horizons and gain experience on different types of projects.

"Our industry is changing so rapidly right now," said Hector Urtubia (M.S. 2003) who works as a senior software engineer at PC-Doctor, Inc. in Reno. "You have to keep up. You have no choice."

Keeping up, according to some panelists, means staying mobile in the job market.

"You learn the most when you first join a group," said Chris Miles (Ph.D. 2007), a senior prototype engineer and UX designer at Microsoft. "If there's not a strong reason to stay [after two years], go. You'll move up more if you change companies."

The panelists credited their computer science and engineering education with giving them the necessary tools to adapt.

"When you see a big problem, you're just struck in awe and you don't know what to do, but then you're like, ‘Hey, school taught me how to break things up,'" Chao said, describing how the analytical framework he learned at the University helped him adapt to new problems in the workplace.

Talaie left the students approaching graduation with one key tip.

"Keep in mind that you're awesome," he said. "Don't undersell yourself."


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