Interviewing real Computer Systems Engineers #2

What do a software engineer at ASB and a postdoctoral research fellow at New York University have in common? They were both Part I engineering students at the University of Auckland just like you, who then ended up choosing to specialize in Computer Systems! Following my previous interviews, below we explore two perspectives of previous Computer Systems students who have pursued research or software engineering.

Vincent Wong

Vincent graduated from Computer Systems Engineering last year and is now working at ASB as a software engineer.

Why did you choose to study computer systems?

When I was a first year, I barely understood what any of the specialisations meant. I honestly didn’t even know what “computer systems” meant, but I knew I wanted to go into something related to computers, software or robotics. Thinking back, I would have made a pretty risky decision if I chose my specialisation based on the 50 word write-ups on the university website. Thankfully, I had a good friend who was in his second year of Computer Systems who helped me to understand the subtle nuances between the ECS specialisations. He tried to convince me that his specialisation was the best (as all engineers do) and, after much thought, decided to go with it.

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

I generally preferred the projects with larger software components. I don’t think I can choose a specific project as there are too many to choose from. I really enjoyed creating Flappy Bird in VHDL and deploying it to an FPGA. The Java project where we had to recreate Tank was very enjoyable (albeit frustrating at times) and taught me a lot about object-oriented software design. I could go on but this might turn into an essay before we know it.

What does your current role involve?

I’m currently working at ASB as a Software Engineer. At ASB, we encourage cross-functionality. This means engineers don’t simply code for 40 hours a day, but get to diversify their role into areas around their expertise. In my role, I primarily write back-end code but I also help design solutions, configure servers, automate the building and deploying stages of my code, and even monitor and maintain my code too.

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

Figure out where you want to be before anything else. I think this advice stretches far beyond choosing a specialisation. The idea is as simple as: If you don’t know where your destination is, how will you know where to start walking. It could be long-term or short-term, just have a goal (and make it SMART). “I want to learn Java” or “I want to be an engineering lead in 10 years” are both fine as goals. Just have one. Once you have a goal, then you can start thinking about the steps to get there (your choice of specialisation being one of them).

Benjamin Tan

Benjamin completed his undergrad in Computer Systems at the University of Auckland, and then went on to complete his PhD last year in Computer Systems. He is currently a postdoctoral associate at New York University’s center for cybersecurity, with his research focusing on security and its implications on embedded systems.

Why did you choose to study computer systems?

I’ve had a sense of wonder about computers since I was little, and so when I found out that computer systems engineering would reveal how we get from 0’s and 1’s to the amazing graphics and such on our desktop computers, I knew it was the specialisation for me! In the early days, I was drawn to the idea of logic and robotics (i.e., the ways one makes the robot-car able to navigate the maze (EE 101 lab?)), but it was processors design and embedded systems that really got me hooked. The awesome thing about studying CSE is the ability to go up and down all the layers in a computer system, from programming web-based/cloud-based stuff all the way down to custom processors in FPGA.

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

This is a toughie… it’s probably a tie between two projects. The first is a project I did in part III where we designed an arcade-style video game completely in digital hardware! We learned how to transform 0’s and 1’s into VGA graphics, and how to take in keyboard/mouse inputs at a low level to control objects in a digital system, and then make it all real on an FPGA. It was tough but open-ended, which meant we had to really learn and discover for ourselves what was going on, with the help of some awesome lecturers and TAs. The other project is one where we had to design a custom processor from scratch with the aim that it could be used to perform industrial control, sounds daunting when you’re in your first year of compsys, but something completely in your capabilities by the end!

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

As much as I like to joke about rivalries between different specialisations (Compsys FTW!), all areas of engineering are in demand and all areas provide opportunities to contribute positively to society. The most important thing is to choose areas that interest you, and then keep at it, no matter where you end up. While it’s important to think about what sort of jobs are out there, all engineering is engineering, but picking something only on the basis of  “so-and-so said it will give you a good job” without it also exciting you will sometimes end up being trouble. Having that said, keep an open mind! As I alluded to above, I thought that I wanted to do robotics, but it ended up being computer architecture and embedded systems that really excited me, the specialisations are really broad (at least in ECSE). Your interests and the world around will shift and vary over time. So be diligent and curious, always. Talk to your lecturers, read widely and deeply. After all, you’re right at the beginning of your journey!

Key Takeaways: Computer systems contains a wide range of projects that will support you in whatever you decide to pursue after your degree. Some ideas to help you make your choice:

    • Consider what your end goal is and tailor your specialization selection accordingly
    • Figure out what excites you
    • Talk to other engineers about why they chose their current career, and what they do every day