Alex Lamas: Preparing for the Real World of CS

CS alumnus Alex LamasRice was just one of several universities that CS alumnus Alex Lamas considered, and it wasn’t high on his list until he participated in the Vision program.

“Vision is an annual program where ethnically diverse applicants can explore what it’s like to attend Rice,” said Lamas. “Marshall Wilson, my overnight host, was a freshman computer science major, and I had the opportunity to sit in on some of his classes.

“For me, the deciding factor was the amount of effort the university put into outreach during my visit. And it wasn’t just a few people — everyone was asking if I needed help finding something or someone. It was such a welcoming environment, I knew if I was admitted, I was definitely going to choose Rice.”

Lamas enrolled in COMP 140 and COMP 182 during his first year at Rice and said the two courses solidified his decision to major in computer science. But it was COMP 310 and 410 that provided him a glimpse into what he considered the “real world” of working as a software engineer.

He said, “Working on the Chat App project in COMP 310 was completely different than all the previous assignments in our curriculum. There was no grading rubric. We just had a specification of the end-product and had to collaborate as a class to get there.

“The entire class was split into four large teams. Each team designed and presented an API, and then the class voted on which proposal to implement, which ideas to incorporate, and how to approach building the final product. We were empowered with ownership over the entire process. That course made a big impact on how I envisioned myself working in the software industry.”

Lamas then signed up for a senior design course in the spring of his junior year. “COMP 410 is the software engineering methodology class taught by Stephen Wong, who brought in representatives from an outside company. They acted as our client and presented us with a product to deliver.”

Once the students heard their client’s pitch, it was up to the classmates to organize themselves and determine how to build the product. Lamas found the experience and his work as a developer to be very rewarding.

“For me, the class was a simulation of the real-world software engineering process,” he said. “I was a developer working on a testing, integration, and automated deployment framework for our product. All the different teams had various services they were working on, and it was very fast paced.

“We didn’t have much time to piece things together, so part of the challenge for my team was to ensure that everything came together into a single operational product we could deliver to our client.”

Beginning his freshman year, Lamas worked on side projects to increase his application development experience. He joined Rice Apps, an undergraduate group that builds Rice student-focused tools like the Wellbeing App.

“The Wellbeing App started as an initiative brought forth by Dean Hutchinson and the Student Association,” he said. “The idea was to collect wellbeing resources scattered across various websites and to consolidate them into a single app.”

As the group began collating content like servery menus and Wellness Center options into an iPhone app, Lamas focused on the application’s backend. “We were building the API that connected the mobile app to all the Rice resources. Another team worked on the user interface (UI) for the phone while a different group worked simultaneously on pulling all the information from various sources to send to the user.”

Lamas worked with Rice Apps until he graduated, and said the last part of the Wellbeing App he tackled was developing a mobile ‘blue button’ to serve as a handheld version of the towers found across campus.

“The goal was for students in need of RUPD assistance to push the blue button on their phone instead of needing to locate the nearest physical tower. We neared completion of the feature, and the next step was to build a web portal for RUPD to interact with button pushes. Obviously a lot of planning and coordination went into that app.”

Now a software engineer at Bazaarvoice, Lamas enjoys the opportunity to work on different aspects of their technology stack. The Austin company connects consumers, brands, and retailers through retail e-commerce platforms, and Lamas wants to understand all of it.

He said, “I want to know about more than just the component I am currently working on. I want to understand how what I’m building will interact with the world around it, and to learn how the different technologies will fit together. Working at Bazaarvoice is great because I gain insight into how everything works –from what a user sees on their screen to how we’re storing every piece of data in the backend.”

He advises current CS students to learn how to communicate what they are building to others, because becoming successful in the software industry will require more skills than just programming. “You only spend part of your day coding, said Lamas. “You spend the rest collaborating with other developers and managers to get the task done.”

Talking about his progress is one of the things Lamas likes most about his work. He said, “One of the things that excites me is our team’s weekly demo. I get to show my app to this room full of people who will critique and (hopefully) commend my work. A good day at the office is when I knock out a new feature or two, and at the end of the day everything runs smoothly.”