University of Chicago Masters Program in Computer Science alumni push boundaries and innovate across many facets of the industry. Whether it’s developing seamless UX interfaces, engineering software at fortune 500 companies, working in big data or keeping networks secure; our esteemed alumni use their applied skills and education from MPCS to problem-solve, create, and elevate the computer science field. Learn from their stories and discover how a CS background can prepare you for cutting-edge careers and leadership roles.
Lionel Barrow (class of 2015 and Head of Engineering at Tegus), Ali Hong (class of 2017 and Software Engineer on the Data Engineering Team at Braintree), and Paul Razgaitis (class of 2017 and Software Engineer on the Disputes Team at Braintree) talked with us about the Chicago tech scene, how what they learned at MPCS benefitted them in their careers, and what their favorite classes were.
Tell us what you do for a living.
Lionel Barrow: At Tegus, we’re a small startup team of 20. We’re responsible for primary research for investment companies. If you’re a VC looking to invest in an area or a company, you might want to speak to some people who are experts in that field. We facilitate that conversation as a service line of business and then we save the transcript, and sell access to those transcripts. We’ve grown very quickly. As Head of Engineering, I get to build a team and take things from there, but right now it’s just me and one other person. I’d been at Braintree for over 6 years, and it was fantastic, but I felt like I wanted to strike out on my own a little bit. This was a really cool opportunity.
Ali Hong: At Braintree, I’m a software engineer on the data engineering team. I aggregate a bunch of data from the applications that we run internally and try to consolidate all of the records and information that we write from all of those applications. We put it in a single data repository that we then add tooling around, to make it easier for users to query against a really large data set.
Paul Razgaitis: I’m also a software engineer at Braintree, but I work on the disputes team. When someone steals your credit card and you have a bunch of fraudulent transactions, the merchant is going to receive lots of chargebacks or disputes from you. Our team manages that flow of data among the cardholder, the merchant, and the processor.
How did you find out about the MPCS and how did it benefit you at work?
PR: We all worked at Braintree before, during, and after MPCS.
AH: Paul and I were both on the support team at Braintree and were interested in moving to engineering. We were trying to figure out (by talking to each other and through individual research) how best to get exposure and to facilitate that move. And right around the time we were having that conversation, Lionel was finishing his MPCS degree, so he ended up being a great resource for us.
Before we both graduated, due to going through the program, we were able to transition to the engineering team while we finished our degrees.
LB: The things I learned at MPCS helped me do a better job at work, which helped me get promoted, so that was good. At Braintree, there are a ton of people who have gone through the MPCS program at this point, so the odds are that you know someone. So if you’re interested, it’s really easy to chat with someone and ask for their perspective.
So whatever Lionel said to you must have been good!
LB: I had a background where I didn’t really study Computer Science formally in college. I was doing stuff that involved computer programming and then when I realized I wanted to make a career out of it, I really wanted to get some formal background. A lot of the classes at MPCS - Networks, Compilers, or Operating Systems, for example - were really good ones to take to set up that background so that you could really understand what’s going on instead of trying to figure it out as you go.
There’s a lot less “credential respect” in tech than there is in other industries. Just being adjacent to finance in my new job, they’re all about where you went to school, and in tech, they’re not as interested in that - it’s more what you can do. It’s great to have a degree from a prestigious school, but we actually did learn a lot.
PR: A lot of people ask the question, “Did you do this Masters degree just for the piece of paper so that you could say, ‘Hey I have this now. Promote me?’” and I would say there’s some of that, but you also gain the valuable skills you need to do the job.
Which programming languages/technical skills that you learned in the MPCS do you use most often in your workday?
PR: I recently had to do some frontend work; we had to build out a new application. However, most of my work is in the backend and I do a lot of work with Ruby.
AH: One of the things that I really loved about the MPCS was that I was able to use different languages for different classes based on whatever was most appropriate for the problem we were trying to solve. While at MPCS, I learned Python, Java, SQL… and I’ve definitely used all of those here at Braintree. It’s been really great to learn those new languages and assess the pros of that language and figure out when it’s appropriate to use. As far as my favorite programming language, I really like Ruby. I started off as a Python guy but have found Ruby to be really expressive. It’s kind of like writing English, where there’s a bunch of different ways that you can express something, and you have the freedom to choose the one that makes the most sense to you.
LB: I really like Elixir as a programming language, which is similar to Ruby. The MPCS gives you a lot of exposure to a lot of different languages. Programming languages are always changing - in 5 years, we’re all going to be running something that we’re not today. Learning these languages was a very valuable skill.
PR: There’s certainly a big difference between writing a language in school and doing it professionally. MPCS gave us the foundation to figure it out.
Describe a technical problem at work that your MPCS knowledge helped you solve.
AH: I think it’s similar to the language question; my experience was less, “Oh, that’s a thing I’ve seen before,” and more, “Oh, I’ve debugged something that was similar to this in one of my projects at school.” It was more about approaching the methodology to a problem.
PR: Yeah, what you learn at the MPCS gives you the confidence to approach problems you may not have approached before.
AH: That’s true. Going into operating system-level stuff, I would have definitely shied away from that before I started taking Marty Billingsley’s Introduction to Computer Systems class.
You all attended part-time. How was that experience?
LB: It was a lot of work, about two and a half years, but it was doable. You get a lot out of it and you still get to work. You see a lot of immediate relationships between what you’re doing at work and what you’re studying. I took a lot of courses like High Performance Computing which I found really interesting but wasn’t really related to my job [when I was working at Braintree]. But then I’d take a Networks class and all of a sudden at work, I’d understand what the infrastructure team was talking about.
I do think there were a lot of benefits on the side, with just being at the University of Chicago that I would have loved to dig into more. We went to a 3D printing lab for my IoT class and it was so cool.
AH: One of the things that I found interesting was that some of the people I got to know best in the program were full-time students who started at the same time I did. We took a lot of classes together - obviously, they were taking classes at a faster pace than I was - but as I was choosing classes, I could ask them, “Hey I know you took this class. What did you think? Did you find it valuable?” It actually got more helpful as my experience went on because it helped me curate the way that I finished out my degree.
What was your favorite MPCS course?
LB: I took Operating Systems with Anthony Nicholson and I thought it was the best.
PR: I was a big fan of Binkowski’s IOS classes and I actually TA’d for a while. I found it was a bit higher level than algorithms or other classes like that. You really get to see people’s creativity with the apps that they make.
AH: I would have to say Marty Billingsley’s Introduction to Computer Systems because it gave me the broadest survey of how a computer works, from the lowest level to writing a compiled language. I actually went back recently to talk in Zach Freeman’s Databases course and it was nice to be able to keep in touch with people from the program and see how things are going. I think when you first graduate, it can be like, “How do I apply all of this stuff that I just picked up?” In that Databases class, I was able to say, “Here’s how some of what I learned informed how I approach this other technology.”
How has your MPCS education helped you achieve your professional goals?
PR: Having MPCS credentials on your resume will open any door in the city. It’s up to you to know your stuff and get hired.
AH: There were definitely some really cool tech talks that I went to even after I graduated, like hearing Google talk about their Big Data technology. It was interesting from an educational perspective; it’s great that students get a chance to talk to someone from the company and get an engineer’s perspective on what it’s like to work there. The MPCS is really good about hosting content and inviting speakers, having alumni give guest talks, and there’s also a job and internship board.
LB: The University of Chicago Computer Science department also regularly hosts research talks and being in the MPCS allowed me to have the opportunity to attend and know what was going on.
What changes have you noticed in the Chicago tech scene?
LB: The Chicago tech scene is very clearly heating up. California has become so incredibly expensive that a ton of tech companies are fleeing to cities like Chicago or Austin or Denver. [Tegus] was founded in San Francisco two years ago and then they decided to move somewhere more affordable, so they ended up in Chicago. The tech community here in Chicago is seeing a really good intensification, but it still feels small to where you can likely get an introduction at most places. It’s definitely getting bigger and it’s super exciting. At this point, engineers have a 0% unemployment rate.
PR: There are a lot of job opportunities for us. We now just have to compete for apartments.
Would you recommend the MPCS to others? What is a piece of advice you’d give someone considering applying?
PR: It was great for me. The first time I sat down in the Intro to Programming class, I knew right away that I had made the right decision to go through the MPCS because I didn’t have a CS undergrad degree. It felt like I was really doing the right thing. I knew I was super interested in the material, so I had no problem spending hours on end learning it. Learning something you really enjoy - you can’t compare it to getting a degree just because. And once you get the building blocks out of the way, the MPCS offers some really cool classes.
LB: Do it but make sure you do everything you can to get the most out of it. It’s not just about being in the classroom; you have access to all of these really cool resources. You need to fully maximize your opportunities.