Martin Zhou: Off the Beaten Path

Chao “Martin” Zhou isn’t afraid to take the road less traveled. The computer science senior landed an internship last summer in an industry not normally associated with technical opportunities, and in a metro area that isn’t included in the top 25 cities with the most tech opportunities. Zhou also took time to explore various majors before settling on CS.

“I was very satisfied with my engineering courses for my first two years and I explored a lot of different areas,” said Zhou. “So I didn’t come around to CS until the end of my sophomore year. That’s too late to get in all the classes I now want to take, so I’d like to stay for the professional masters program and complete courses like machine learning and web security – things you don’t usually get exposed to in the BA degree.”

Because Zhou was exploring multiple career and internship options, he signed up for a new program offered by the Center for Career Development. Zhou said, “Externships are shadowing opportunities, where you get to look inside a company and learn about their industry. The CCD’s externship program had connections with most of the firms and Rice alumni who were willing to host participants, so I signed up for the program and was matched with Labatt.”

Labatt Food Services is the nation’s tenth largest foodservices distributor, with customers in the food-away-from-home industry spanning five states, but Zhou was not familiar with them or with San Antonio, where Labatt is based.

“So I got on the bus to San Antonio and Labatt hosted me for a day of job shadowing and meetings,” said Zhou. “They spent one or two hours in the morning introducing the firm to me, then eight people working in different fields spoke with me for about a half-hour each. They talked about what their jobs were like and I was surprised at how many roles incorporated CS aspects – from business analysts to HR.”

Zhou was impressed with the employees’ friendliness and enthusiasm for their everyday experiences in the company. He also thought a lot about the differences in a job and his college experience.

“As a student, we don’t focus all our energy on just one thing, so I began to realize if I’m going to work on the same project for 40 hours a week, I want to be in a company where the employees are enthusiastic about their jobs. On the bus back to Houston, I was texting my mom, ‘I would be smiling in my dreams if they offered me an internship.’ Then at the next Career Expo, I walked up to the Labatt recruiters, handed them my resume and said, ‘Hey, I’m the guy who came to the one-day externship.’”

Zhou interned with Labatt for a summer and found that part of their their warehouses were already fully automated for experiment. “None of the boxes are handled by hand any more,” said Zhou. “It saves time and human resources. Labatt is focusing on software development because their analysis showed that type of investment could give them an edge.

“Essentially, I was helping automate reports to improve inventory tracking. I finished three weeks prior to my deadline and asked for another project, which led to some predictive modeling applications. That made me realize I wanted to know more about machine learning.”

Although he values his experience with Labatt and highly recommends the company to other CS students, Zhou is feeling the pull of cities and industries he has not yet explored. “I’ve tried the mid-size, stable company and loved it,” he said. “Now I’d like to try something a little riskier, and in a bigger city.” This summer he landed another internship at Zoom Communications Inc in San Jose, California.

He attributes his adaptability to tech roles in any industry to several of his Rice courses and experiences. “The courses that had the biggest impact on me were COMP 140 and 215. Those introductory classes opened up the world nicely for us. Rixner and Wallach were so enthusiastic about their jobs that it was easy to digest the material they presented. The problem sets are so well designed that newcomers won’t feel overwhelmed and every time I completed a project, it felt like solving a puzzle and gave me such a sense of satisfaction.”

That same satisfaction contributed to his enjoyment of the algorithm classes, COMP 182 and 382. “Those made me fall even more in love with CS,” he said. “Then a few of us felt we could train ourselves to more efficiently solve algorithmic problems by participating in the ACM competition.”

Zhou and two of his friends entered the competition as the Rice Mango team and completed six of the 11 problems, placing 19th of 67 teams in the 2016 Association for Computing Machinery’s International Collegiate Programming Contest (ACM-ICPC) for the South Central USA region.

“Thanks to Dr. John Greiner, we traveled to LSU and performed well. Even though we didn’t place as high as we might have liked, we really loved the competition. Like my CS homework, practicing for the competition was something I liked doing anyway. I don’t feel my time was wasted. Every time I finish a project, I feel I’ve completed another significant step on my path to becoming professional software engineer.”