Nicholas Flees, Software Developer at Barksdale Trading Group, Class 2014

University of Chicago Masters Program in Computer Science alumni 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 esteemed alumni use their applied skills 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.

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Nicholas Flees, Class of 2014, is a Software Developer with the Barksdale Trading Group at WSP Commodity Trading. Nicholas shares a typical day in the life of a software developer at a trading firm, why he chose The University of Chicago and how it felt to cross the stage with his degree in hand.

Did you come to MPCS with a computer science background?

Not really. My formal computer science education was limited to a C++ course I took to satisfy a prerequisite as an undergraduate math major at the University of Michigan. Informally, I had spent a few years teaching myself to program in several different languages prior to entering MPCS.

What motivated you to apply and enroll in MPCS?

Programming, particularly in Excel VBA, was a very valuable tool for me in the beginning of my career. Naturally, the complexity of the projects I worked on increased over time. I began to rely increasingly on my ability to write code, to automate tasks, and to produce analysis. I found I was starting to spend a lot of my free time broadening my technological skill set. Eventually, I reached a plateau and looked into academic programs to help me reach the next level. It was then that I discovered MPCS.

What was your favorite MPCS course? Why?

I genuinely liked every class I took, but my favorite was Algorithms. It was exactly the kind of challenge I hoped to find in a CS masters program. Professor Gerry Brady was fantastic and her TAs were extraordinarily helpful in learning the material.

One of the biggest differences between following a path of self-study and pursuing an academic degree is that the degree inevitably requires students study material they may not have encountered on their own. I probably would not have studied algorithms on my own (especially after realizing how hard it is), and that would have limited what I was capable of doing as a programmer--possibly without my realizing it.

What is your favorite memory from your time spent as a MPCS student?

The moment I returned to my seat after walking across the stage to shake President Zimmer’s hand and receive my degree at Convocation was my favorite memory of MPCS above all. I opened the cover to look at the degree and reflected on how hard I had worked and how much I had learned. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

How has your MPCS education helped you achieve your professional goals?

The degree I earned gave me the credentials I needed to be considered seriously as a candidate for my job (and others like it). The University of Chicago brand gave me an advantage over other candidates in getting my resume read by hiring managers. Most importantly, MPCS gave me the knowledge, experience, and confidence to:

  • be selective about the companies and positions I would consider,

  • interview effectively and demonstrate competence before industry experts,

  • learn quickly in a new position, and

  • make a measurable contribution to the goals and objectives of my company.

What does a typical work day look like for you?

I spend the majority of my time developing and maintaining a software application used on our firm’s four trading desks. This involves working closely with traders to understand how the application enables them to make better and faster trading decisions, and how it might be improved for future releases. I typically spend the balance of my time collaborating with colleagues on a cross-functional team of traders, analysts, and technologists solving interesting quantitative problems, developing prototypes for tools, and producing analytical work.

What do you enjoy most about your profession?

My profession is challenging, exciting, and competitive. It encourages creative problem solving.

Would you recommend MPCS to others? If so, why?

Yes, emphatically! There were so many reasons I might have talked myself out of enrolling (the cost, the time commitment, the workload, the stress, etc.). I am so thankful that I ignored them. Every sacrifice was worth making. Every expectation was exceeded. I discovered interests I didn’t know I had. I developed skills beyond the goals I had set. It changed my life for the better.

What is a piece of advice you’d give someone considering applying to UChicago’s Masters Program in Computer Science?

Do it. Resist the temptation to talk yourself out of it. The experience is worth the challenge and the sacrifice. If you’re considering applying to the program, you’re most likely looking for a way to broaden your programming skill set and to increase your marketability to employers (or to investors if you’re founding a startup). This program is an excellent way to accomplish those goals.

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