The University of Chicago Masters Program in Computer Science students push boundaries and innovate across many facets of industry. Whether it’s developing seamless UX interfaces, engineering software at Fortune 500 companies, working in big data or keeping networks secure, our students use their applied-skills education from the 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 internships.
Carla Garcia graduated from the MPCS in 2020. In her interview, she shares how the MPCS helped her pursue her goal of becoming a Software Engineer.
Did you come to the MPCS with a computer science background? What motivated you to apply and enroll?
I did not come to the MPCS with a formal computer science background. I previously attended Northwestern University and earned my undergraduate degree in journalism – a very different field!
While working at an advertising agency in Chicago, I enrolled in a full-stack web development boot camp. I had always been interested in learning to code, and I quickly fell in love with it. After my boot camp ended, I decided to pursue software engineering as a career.
In order to best set myself up for success in the industry, however, I first wanted to supplement my specific web development skills with more foundational computer science knowledge. The MPCS was the perfect program for me because it accepted students from non-STEM backgrounds, and it provided an ideal mix of theoretical and applied coursework.
I believe you had an internship at Paypal. Can you tell me a bit about your experience finding and starting your internship?
I was required to complete an internship in Summer 2020 as part of the MPCS 12-Course Specialization program. I applied to dozens of places, but I was most excited about the opportunity at Braintree, a global payments processing company owned by PayPal.
While choosing classes for Winter 2020, I was considering iOS Application Development and saw that the instructor, Susan Stevens, was an MPCS alum who now worked at Braintree. Even though I did not end up taking her class, Susan was kind enough to meet me for coffee, where we chatted about the MPCS, her career, and being women in STEM.
Susan helped get my application in front of the recruiting team, after which point I went through several rounds of behavioral and technical interviews to land the internship. The entire summer ended up fully remote due to COVID-19, but it was still a fantastic experience that led to a return offer at PayPal.
Can you tell us a bit about your role as a Software Engineer at Paypal?
At PayPal, I am a member of the Braintree Merchant Experience team, which is responsible for building and supporting the main user interfaces that our merchants use to manage their accounts and payments infrastructure. My team currently consists of one manager, one tech lead, and four engineers, though I have also gotten to work with product managers, designers, and engineers from other teams across the company.
A typical day involves developing new merchant-facing features and addressing any necessary bug fixes or service requests. We work across the stack in Ruby on Rails, React/Node, and Java Spring Boot applications. My team also does pair programming, which means that two engineers code together on one machine (virtually, for now) to implement a user story. I love this practice, as it allows me to constantly collaborate with, learn from, and get to know my teammates.
What was one of the most valuable experiences you had in the MPCS (a specific class, a project you worked on, etc.) and why?
I enjoyed so many of my classes in the MPCS. A specific one that comes to mind is Introduction to Computer Systems, which was a deep dive into how computers work. Over the course of 10 weeks, we learned how a high-level object-oriented programming language compiles down to virtual machine language, then to assembly language, then to machine code that ultimately maps to the logic gates that make up a chip. Although this knowledge does not directly apply to my job – I write code in a high-level language, with everything under the hood abstracted away – the class still made an impact on me. It gave me ample opportunity to solve challenging technical problems, develop my programming skills, and understand the why behind the way applications are built. On top of that, it was a lot of fun!
How has your MPCS education helped you achieve your professional goals?
The MPCS was instrumental in starting my career as a software engineer. Each of my classes exposed me to new concepts and technologies, which prepared me to succeed in interviews, at my internship, and now at my job. (Algorithms was one of my hardest classes, but it came in particularly handy for code challenges and technical screenings!) The UChicagoGRAD career development office helped refine my resume and pointed me toward job opportunities I had not yet found or considered. Lastly, the program connected me to a network of incredible professors, students, and alums, many of whom were happy to share career advice and make referrals.
Would you recommend the MPCS to others? If so, why?
I would absolutely recommend the MPCS to those who are interested in pursuing a career in tech, whether as a software engineer, a data analyst, a product manager, or anything in between. The program is excellent for all of the reasons I have touched on so far, but another thing I want to specifically call out is the breadth of classes. The core courses alone cover a wide range of important concepts like databases and networks, while electives provide opportunities to explore topics from mobile development to machine learning. It was always a struggle to narrow things down when choosing classes each quarter!
What is the best piece of advice you would share with someone who is deciding on whether to attend the MPCS or not?
My advice to someone deciding whether to attend the MPCS is to take advantage of all the resources that can inform your decision. If you are able, go on a tour of the UChicago campus and perhaps even sit in on an MPCS class to get a sense of the learning environment. Read through the course listings on the website and determine whether the curriculum aligns with your career goals. Reach out to the admissions office with any questions you may have, and get in touch with alums who can share their personal experiences in the program. Graduate school is a big commitment, and you want to be sure that this school is the best fit for you!