Taylor Leese, Class of 2008: “Try to learn as much as you can and be humble.”

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 careers and leadership roles.

Taylor Leese University of Chicago MPCS

Taylor Leese, Class of 2008, is a Director in Platform Engineering at Twitter. In this profile, he describes what it’s like to lead a group of 70 people, how it’s helped him grow and learn, and why people skills are just as important as technical skills for the growth of your career.

What does a great day at work look like for you?

The platform organization supports all of the other functions, so it kind of depends on the day. I have 70 people in my group and I manage people all over the world. I do a lot of 1-on-1 meetings – I’m in meetings all the time, basically. 

I work to set direction and strategy across different teams, so that I can focus on the bigger picture and make sure we’re all aligned. 

The way that we measure progress is that we set yearly goals and quarterly goals by tracking objectives and key results (OKR). If you reach 70% of your OKR, that’s considered good; 100% is great, but you might be holding something back, and if you only reached 30%, obviously something went wrong. The OKRs are intended to be somewhat ambitious. So a great day is when you can move forward in the process as it relates to those goals.

What do you enjoy most about your profession?

Twitter is a place for positive impact and we’re a well-intentioned company. The size of the company is good too - we’re not a startup, but we’re also not a behemoth where it feels like you can’t get anything done. You tend to get to know most folks and it feels like you can really push things through. 

As a manager, working with a team of this size and figuring out processes has helped me grow and learn. It’s fun.

Which programming language/technical skills do you use most often at work?

While there are days I would love to lock myself in a room and write code, I don’t do programming anymore. Twitter uses programming languages like Scala, Java, Python and others depending on where it falls in the stack. 

Did you come to MPCS with a computer science background? What motivated you to apply and enroll?

My undergraduate degree was in computer science. I had an internship at the Department of Energy at Livermore Lab, and then moved to the Berkeley Lab, which was more science focused. 

I actually moved out to Chicago because my wife was starting the Computer Science PhD program at UChicago. I really liked the MPCS because of its part-time option. It was a big draw for me because I wanted a Masters degree but I also wanted to keep working. By that time, I was working in more of a project management/analyst-type role.

The MPCS kept me fresh and kept my skills warm. There were gaps that were filled - things I didn’t get in undergrad – and things that were good refreshers, like the Algorithms and Distributed Systems courses. 

What about the future of the computer science/tech industry most excites you?

As a manager, it comes down to getting people to work together and to move in the same direction. So what excites me is getting these smart people to solve hard problems to improve products that will do good in the world. To me, it’s more about how you apply it and the value that you’re providing.

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

Totally. It’s really hard to find part-time, technical programs like the one you find at the MPCS, and while it’s not easy, it’s doable even if you don’t have a computer science background.

What is your favorite memory from your time as an MPCS student?

We didn’t have any classes together because we were on different tracks, but I did end up graduating with my wife, which was cool. 

I remember working on a distributed systems project. We were using MPI and we were seeing the diffusion of heat through a data visualization tool. You could see the heat dispersing and it was a really cool example of something that could be implemented and was tangible. 

What was your favorite MPCS course? Why?

Algorithms and Distributed Systems. I felt like these were really useful refreshers. The information I got in those classes really sat with me and I was able to digest it more.  

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

One of my first jobs out of grad school was a software architect role, and the MPCS is a big reason why I got it. The University of Chicago name holds a lot of weight in the Chicago area; people really respect it. 

And over time, as I’ve gotten into more leadership roles, I think it’s helped me keep my skills fresh. I was able to keep working and keep progressing throughout the program. 

What is a piece of advice you’d give someone considering applying to MPCS?

It’s a great program, especially if you don’t have a CS background and if you need to go part-time. The professors are all well-versed in their subject areas. The UChicago alumni network is really strong, so take advantage of that. 

And as someone from California, be prepared for Chicago winters: Get 4-wheel drive. 

Do you have any career advice for someone who's pursuing a job in your current field?

There’s a lot of competition for roles and interviewing is a skill. My brother told me something that always stuck with me and that is, “You only have to succeed in one interview.” You have to accept that you’re going to fail some of those interviews until you start getting better at them. 

It’s a marathon and not a sprint. Try to work with people who will make you better. Having a good mentor early in your career is super important. Try to learn as much as you can and be humble - you have to be willing to admit mistakes. And you should always be a little bit uncomfortable. Find ways to stretch yourself and push yourself.

For people who are looking for more of a leadership role, you need a solid foundation. Work for 5-10 years before moving up - don’t rush.

I also think it’s important for people to realize that beyond all the software, it’s just people. How you work with folks is just as important as your technical skills.