By: Ric Telford, PMP Adjunct Faculty
Last semester I caught up with one of my former students, Lance Co Ting Keh. Lance graduated with a Master of Engineering degree here at Pratt and is now working in Silicon Valley. I was anxious to hear how things are going for him out in the “real world.” Here is what he had to say.
Ric: Lance, you gradated in May of 2015 from the Master of Engineering Program. Tell us a little about what you are doing now.
Lance: I work at Box, a Cloud storage firm that was actually founded by a Dukie as well! The CFO is a Dukie, Dylan Smith. I do Data Engineering there. Think of Data Engineering the middle ground between Business Intelligence and Analytics. Our job is to provide the toolsets and the data sets for Business Intelligence workers who want to make business data queries. A good example of a business data query is “among all our customers, which are the best ones to upsell next?” Data is stored everywhere, and the goal is to gather all this data and join it so that it can be queried.
Ric: Are your customers primarily individuals or businesses / corporations?
Lance: Box caters to businesses. Most of our sales are to businesses. It is a very sales-driven company, focused on selling to businesses. Duke, for example, is a customer of Box.
Ric: Being in Silicon Valley, what can you tell us about the technical skill requirements of the high tech world?
Lance: Coming out of school, the big difference I see now is that people expect well-rounded employees, not just one technical expertise. These days even if you specialize in one area, it is important that you understand all parts of the technology “stack” – mobile, front-end, data, back-end technologies, etc. It is good to have a good academic foundation of the hardcore computer science skills with real-world industry skills, such as how to build a web app or how do you maintain a repository. Not all schools are there yet, but Duke is doing a better job of teaching these more practical skills.
Ric: Outside of the technical skills, what capabilities do you find most valuable in your skill set and that of your fellow engineers?
Lance: “Soft skills” are very important. It is just as important to handle yourself well in the workforce, as it is to be able to build something. There will always be personal issues that come up, there is going to be conflict. Being able to navigate that and work in a team structure, being able to talk to people and being open in how you give feedback and receive feedback are all important capabilities. As engineers we are very passionate about what we do and we want to get the job done. Sometimes you get lost in trying to build something and you forget that the folks you work with are people to. Finding that balance and being able to do that “social dance” is a very big role in the day-to-day job.
Ric: What advice would you have for the new Master of Engineering class as they work toward their degree?
Lance: I would tell them to take advantage of as many classes as they can that they can’t take outside of Duke. Separate those things you can learn on your own from that which you can only get from a big university. I started doing this during my time at Duke and it helped me a lot. Take the hard classes that you know would take a while for you to sit down and crunch through if you did it yourself – things like Machine Learning and Bayesian Statistics. You can do these things yourself or on Coursera, but it is hard without a professor or people with which to collaborate.
Ric: Finally, can I have you do a little reflection? In thinking about your time here at Duke in the MEng program, what would you say were some of the most valuable experiences?
Lance: There are two things I would mention. First was the research experience. I am an academic at heart and I was fortunate enough to be able to move around to different labs and see how they operate. That academic approach to problems shaped the way I think and I believe I still think that way in industry. Second was the project experience. I learned a lot just from building projects with my peers. There are many things I built with others, both as part of class and as a fun project. These projects taught me a lot – not just the technical skills like writing code but also working with people as well. It is a high intensity environment in college and everyone is very busy. Personal conflicts will occur and l feel I grew a lot as a person in working with other people. It is something I take with me at work.
Here is a video clip of Lance giving advice about being on the job.