Spencer Chang Tackles Hard Problems

Spencer ChangSpencer Chang, a rising sophomore at Rice University, wants to tackle hard problems. “I got involved with the Rice team for Code for Good because I wanted more exposure to work on real world problems,” he said. Code for Good was a hackathon sponsored by JPMorgan Chase in February where teams of four to six students worked on one of two Houston-area community projects.

Many hackathons provide an open landscape in which individuals and teams work on any project that captures their interest. “The main difference in Code for Good,” said Chang, “is that two non-profits come in and describe their problem. You have to solve something that is already a known issue.”“We stayed up for most of the night in the JPMorgan office complex, but we had giant notepads and a genius bar with their developers. They could help with almost any problem you were having.”

Students receive input from CS professor Luay Nakhleh

Students receive input from CS professor Luay Nakhleh

But the most significant take away for Chang, “was the relationships built with the Chase people as well as the non-profit. I talked to the Chase senior developer there, and he invited me down to talk with their developers.” Even though a mobile app won first place, Chang’s team was invited to speak at their non-profit’s home office. “Our project won second place, and they gave us the opportunity to pitch their home office, where we discussed the possibility of implementing our solution to upper management.

In follow-up discussions with a JPMorgan Chase recruiter, Chang learned they don’t take freshmen as interns, but he was encouraged to keep in touch for future. This summer, he will intern in Houston at PROS instead. “Their internship is pretty nice,” he said. “Their teams pitch individual projects to the interns, then the interns get to pick a new project they are passionate about every three weeks so we can experience different tools and languages.”

Spencer Chang in lab group with Alex KimChang encourages other students to explore CS at Rice, regardless of their previous experience. “What makes CS so great,” he said, “or at least the part that appeals to me, is the balance between both sides of your brain — creativity versus logical, analytical thinking. There are so many different solutions to our world’s problems, it requires both sides of brain to come up with the optimal solution. And I like knowing that we can use CS to make an impact, creating solutions out of nothing.”

He also sheds light on the major’s rigorous reputation. “When you get here, don’t get discouraged. CS is a very competitive field, you can feel like you are falling so far behind your peers. I felt like I knew almost nothing compared to the people who came in with internships they did during high school. But just because you didn’t have those kinds of experiences in high school doesn’t limit what you can do in the future. Here I am, and I have an internship.”

Chang believes the best way to combat feeling lost is to just keep learning. “I worked on learning more every day, like learning HTML and JavaScript on my own,” he said. But he also promotes trying and learning new things with other students. “Get involved in different projects. I joined a friend who was working on an app for a non-profit in the fall. Do a little, learn a little more every day. It pays off. You look around one day and you’re caught up.”

Spencer Chang completed his first CS course as a freshman in Fall 2015.

-Juliann Bi, Computer Science Assistant Publicist