Interviewing real Computer Systems Engineers #1

Thousands of students have had to make the decision you are making right now. For those who have chosen computer systems, where have they ended up? In my next two posts, I will be asking key questions to previous Computer Systems graduates, to gain insight into what Computer Systems is like, and why anyone would choose Computer Systems.

First up this week, I’ve asked a series of questions to Andrew Chen, who is now a Venture Associate after completing his PhD in Computer Systems, and Travis Scott, a hardware engineer (not the rapper).

Andrew Chen

While at University, Andrew founded AURA (Auckland Unviersity Robotics Association), developed UN youth’s online diplomacy competition and completed his conjoint in Innovation and Computer Systems in 2014. He then completed his PhD in Computer Systems, and is now a Venture Associate, supporting investment in emerging science research in New Zealand.

Why did you choose to study computer systems?

Out of high school, I really wanted to do something in robotics. Originally I thought that meant doing mechatronics, but as I went through Part I, I realised that actually I liked programming a lot more than the mechanics and physics parts. I could have applied to do software, but decided that it would be good to have some hardware experience too. So I ended up taking Computer Systems, and it turned out to be a really good fit for my interests and skillset.

What is your most favourite project you’ve worked on?

In third year, there is a software design course which includes developing a peer-to-peer social media network, where the class collaboratively designs a communication protocol and then develops their own applications. It was quite fun to have our applications talking to each other, and it was the class where we all met each other and developed a community. I liked the project so much, that I ended up teaching it a few years later and tried to keep that collaborative spirit alive.

What advice would you give a Part I Engineering Student choosing their specialisation?

There are a lot of options, and none of them are inherently bad. Pick something that you can see yourself doing for the next couple of years, something that you think you might enjoy. You aren’t necessarily committing to something for life – I did an undergrad and PhD in Computer Systems Engineering, and now I mostly work in finance (although being able to code helps). The world is changing very quickly, so your studies are there to help you learn how to learn – you might as well pick something that will be fun and enjoyable for you!

If you’d like to find out more about Andrew’s research, you can read more here:

Travis Scott

Travis not only helps run Part II Computer Systems main design course (ELECTENG209) but works on hardware and software design for aircraft communication in New Zealand. He completed his degree specialising in Computer Systems in 2014.

Why did you choose to study computer systems?

Growing up I always had an interest in math and science, but I was frustrated by the abstract and theoretical nature of these subjects at school. When considering university study engineering was an obvious choice, as it allowed me to grow my technical and theoretical understanding but also learn how to use that knowledge to design solutions. During the first year of my Bachelor of Engineering at The University of Auckland I found that I was spending most of my time on my programming and electronics courses, so selecting the Computer Systems Engineering (CSE) specialization where these would be combined made sense. In my Part II design course we had to design an FM radio transmitter, and I still clearly remember the first time our design worked and we could hear our tune playing from the radio receiver – from there I have never looked back, and my favourite aspect of CSE is still that we actually get to build the designs we work on. We are fortunate that electronics are getting cheaper and more accessible, and in CSE we cover the skills required to develop both hardware and the software required to drive that hardware, which is very powerful when it comes to developing solutions to problems.

What does your current job involve?

As well as teaching part-time at the university I also work for a NZ-owned company which makes satellite tracking and communication equipment for aircraft. My role involves designing both hardware and software for new products. The hardware design ranges from creating and simulating new circuits, laying out printed-circuit-boards (PCBs), assembling and testing new designs, right through to verifying that the electronics functions as intended. On the software side I am responsible for writing the code that runs on the hardware I develop, enabling it to collect and send data about the aircraft back to the servers that our company is running. I work in a small team of only 4 people, so I am fortunate to be involved with almost all aspects of the projects. As it is a commercial role a significant amount of my time is also spent on reporting to the business and planning both my own work and the work of others in the team, to help ensure we are making products that our customers will be happy with, and that we will deliver these products on time and on budget.

What is your most favourite project you’ve worked on?

I’ve been fortunate to work on some really interesting projects in my short career so far and I’ve enjoyed all of them. Commercially the main projects I have worked on have included wireless power converters, solar power and battery management systems, sub-GHz wireless communication networks, and satellite tracking and communication systems. I have learnt many new skills and found challenges in each of these projects, but the aspect I enjoyed the most in all of them was the initial prototyping phase. In this phase we focus on taking a large range of requirements and developing solutions that will solve each requirement, and then integrating them together into a single design. This process requires a lot of investigation and iteration, and it can be very challenging (and sometimes frustrating!) to come up with an appropriate solution. Each time a new prototype comes back for initial testing it is both nerve-wracking and exciting – nerve-wracking because if it doesn’t work then you have just created a paperweight which cost thousands of dollars, but exciting because when it does work you have a design which can do something that up until that point in time had never existed before. The satisfaction of getting a new design working more than makes up for any frustration along the way!

What advice would you give a Part I Engineering Student choosing their specialisation?

My biggest piece of advice would be to really think carefully about which topics you are enjoying during Part I – it is much easier to be successful in your studies when you enjoy what you are studying, and it is almost impossible to build a career in an engineering specialization you don’t enjoy. That isn’t to say you will enjoy all of your study or work, but just that you should clearly be able to identify some areas of your chosen field that really motivate and interest you. As new graduates in a few years time one of the most important attributes you will have to offer prospective employers is your enthusiasm for the industry/role you are going in to. Many students find that the specialisation they thought they would choose at the start of their degree isn’t actually what they have found the most interesting during Part I, and that is totally fine! Along that note, don’t be afraid to talk to other students and lecturers about their experiences. They have all been in your position before, and most will be more than happy to give you some honest advice and feedback. The same goes for industry – if there are jobs or companies you are particularly interested in then reach out to those companies, most of them will be happy to let you know more specifics about what they do so you can make a better judgement about whether or not that is where you really want to head with your career.

3 Key Takeaways

  • If you enjoy programming but want to also learn about hardware, or find electronics exciting, you might find 3 years of Computer Systems an enjoyable time.
  • Computer Systems has a wide range of projects, ranging from creating a social media network to developing hardware for aircraft.
  • Pick a specialisation you think you’ll enjoy. You never know where you will end up, so you may as well have a bit of fun.

I hope you enjoyed these interviews! I know they have got me even more excited for my next 2 years of Computer Systems. Stay tuned for the next interviews, featuring a graduate who is now conducting research in the USA, and a graduate who is now focused on Software.