Computer Science alumnus Jesus Cortez doesn’t consider himself a trailblazer. “My brother is the family trailblazer in many ways,” he said. “He’s seven years older, and when my mom encouraged us to get a good education so we could ‘see the world,’ it was my brother who discovered and attended the Science Academy of South Texas (Sci Tech) and then went to Rice as a chemistry major; I just followed in his footsteps.”
Cortez pushed different boundaries and his interest focused on technology rather than science. Playing video games with his brother got him interested in software during his formative years, and their paths diverged by high school.
“My brother wasn’t really into technology, and joked about breaking the computer all the time,” said Cortez. “I thought the games were cool and fun but as I got older, I wanted to peek behind the curtain; I started modifying the files a little after I downloaded them.”
After completing computer science and other high school engineering classes at Sci Tech, Cortez decided he wanted to take the CS class again, in place of his remaining engineering class.
“The CS teacher found ways to modify projects to take advantage of my interest,” he said. “So when I got to Rice, I already knew I wanted to do CS. But I also liked writing, film and music, so my electives were in those fields.”
Cortez had also recognized that he learned best by doing, and at Rice he focused on project-based courses. “I learn by trying things and making mistakes and I need projects. So my first CS course was COMP 160, a video-game class with Joe Warren. That class gave me the chance to be creative and have control over my game.”
The standard path for CS students at Rice includes an optional senior game-design course with Warren, but Cortez decided to take it as a freshman. And take it again. And again. He took Warren’s class four times.
“Joe Warren let me take 460 in the spring of my freshman year even though I had only basic CS experience because I’d made a good game in 160 in the fall. Then Scott Rixner tried to be the voice of reason after I took 460 the second time. ‘It doesn’t make sense to keep taking it; you can’t keep getting major credit after you’ve taken it twice,’ he told me. But I took it every year I was at Rice, each time creating a new game and learning something new.”
He enjoyed the games he created, but it was his fourth-year project that made the news. His team developed a way to link multiple Wii balance boards together and turn balance exercises for young patients into a game.
“We worked with Shriners Hospital to develop and test our product,” said Cortez. “There were similar models in existence, but they were large and expensive. Our team of COMP 460 students collaborated with engineering students working on their senior design capstone project to create a portable, less expensive unit.”
His CS trailblazing wasn’t limited to video game courses. He also charted a new course in the mobile technology class taught by Scott Cutler. Cutler led the students through mobile app development with a course prepared for iPhone development.
“But I’ve always had an Android and I wanted to learn to make the app work on my own phone,” said Cortez. “So I approached Cutler, whose labs were already prepared exclusively for iPhone development. He was willing to let me try the Android version, but could only advise me to the best of his ability. He cautioned me that – in a lot of ways – I would be on my own.”
That fall, his Android app for following the university buses around the campus map was frustrating but successful: the university’s web operations team hired Cortez the following spring. They wanted to release an Android app like his for the Rice community and they hired him to add more features that semester.
After completing an internship in Austin with National Instruments, Cortez accepted a return offer and spent almost three years at NI before his trailblazing spirit led him to local startups. For the last two years, he has worked as a software engineer for Main Street Hub.
“We want to be the voice for local businesses,” he said. “Let’s say you own a small business, an auto mechanic shop, for example. Even if you are really good at that, your customers expect you to have an engaging online presence. But as a small business owner, you may not have time or expertise for that. Instead, we provide a do-it-for-you solution: pay us a monthly fee, and we create and manage your online presence. We respond to customer comments or reviews, both positive and negative.”
His work as a software engineer at Main Street Hub focuses on the tools used by content writers to manage multiple accounts every day, ensuring privacy and efficiency.
“I get really fired up when I can solve problems. I love looking at an issue we’re trying to resolve and thinking of an ideal way to get it done. But I also like discussing the solution with the team. We’re a very collaborative culture and solutions with merit can come from anyone.”
Cortez recommends current CS students find a way to work on projects, and take COMP 410.
“I learned so much about myself, about engineering, and about working in a software company in that class with Dr. Stephen Wong. Everyone in the class is working together on a single project. No matter how well you work on your own, you now have to work in a team and the whole team has to get things done,” said Cortez.
“Find the things you are good at and make them mesh with the things others are good at in COMP 410, because you act as a software company. You have a real customer and you solve their real problem. You’ll have a lot of long nights and heated discussions, and you’ll even deal with egos flaring up, which is totally how it can work in the real world.”