Mike Hardy on CS, Finances, and Risk

Rice CS alumnus Mike Hardy
Mike Hardy is a small business consultant living in Ecuador. The Rice University CS alumnus (B.A. ’99) has a high tolerance for risk, a passion for living well, and a knack for knowing when to simply laugh and change directions.

He took his first risky leap after two years at Rice. Hardy said, “I switched from pre-med, then to HPER, and finally into computer science as a junior but still wanted to finish in four years. I can’t recommend that! I was taking 18-24 hours of interrelated courses per semester and it was really hard. I even failed a class and had to take it again.”

In spite of the accelerated pace, he said it was important for him to fully understand computer architecture, operating systems, and compilers.

“The hardware level courses really got me thinking. They allow you to peek down into the machine and think the way the machine does. Using a breadboard — well, that was eye-opening. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the operating systems course. You know exactly how the whole system works and if something breaks, you don’t have to wait for someone else to fix it.”

During his career, Hardy would often be the only team member who could fix systems-level problems, but he first felt the pressure of keeping a system online when he was a work-study student in Rice’s Geology Department. He was helping elementary school teachers relay information from their research quarters on the Antarctic ice sheet back to their classrooms via a public Internet still in its infancy.

“As a student, I had to read RFCs (request for comments) to figure out how the Internet protocols worked, and I learned what it meant to run a production system. Sam Carter (Jones ’00) and I built what you would call a blogging system now, using a Linux, perl scripts and email gateways. But when things went wrong, I had young kids leaving me sad notes. Talk about pressure!”

It also got him thinking about uptime and reliability. He said, “After that, I never really thought of security or stability as ‘someone else’s problem.’ In the real world, if something bad happens, you are all at fault. When I came out of Rice, I was more employable because I knew these ancillary things that made me an asset to a team: system administration, security, how to interface with clients and users.”

Hardy was still two courses shy of his degree when he got his first job offer. He took another leap, accepting the full time job with the condition he could work in locations near universities long enough to take his remaining courses and walk with the next graduating class at Rice.

Rice degree in hand, he headed to Silicon Valley and worked for two different startups. “And now I have a lot of stock options that are worth absolutely zero,” he joked. Hardy and two friends launched a contracting business when they realized that contractors earned more consistently reliable wages than startup employees.

“Looking back, we were our own small startup. I was the one managing the business, paying taxes, running payroll. It didn’t seem like it had anything to do with computer science, but it was another set of new skills. Then the dot com bust happened and everyone fired their contractors first.”

Once again, Hardy seemed unfazed by the ground shifting under his feet. He recommends other students always bear in mind they already have the tools they need to succeed.

“You are a Rice CS student. You can build your own operating system! If you take a risk and you fail, where are you? Probably the same place you were before taking the leap. You are still employable.”

He took a full-time software role with a well-funded company during the downturn. Then several of his former colleagues reached out to him about starting up a new consulting startup. Hardy did the math and took the chance, but this career leap ended up being much greater than he could have guessed.

“I was brought on for programming, but as the company grew there were problems and we needed a new CFO. I wanted to try changing to a finance career at the time. I had already owned my own company and done the finances there, so I went to the other owners and said, ‘let me try.’

“They gave me a chance primarily because I was honest about my inexperience. I told them, ‘We are already in trouble, give me two months. It will be obvious if it’s not working.’ They agreed and in the course of a month, I read many of my sister’s (Kris Hardy, Jones ’95) old business school books. I wished then I’d taken at least one accounting or business course at Rice! I stayed as CFO until we sold the business.”

Hardy circles back to his advice for other programmers. “If I had failed as CFO I would have been disappointed, but I could have returned to my previous role as a programmer. There’s no better way to learn what you can do than by trying new things.”

His latest career leap occurred in 2016. Hardy and his wife decided to find a different school system and sold their San Francisco area home. But instead of buying another home, they moved to Ecuador. He said, “When we took the leap to live abroad, we figured if it didn’t go well, we’d just move back and pick up where we left off.”

CS alumnus Mike Hardy and family

Mike Hardy (BACS ’99) now chooses opportunities that allow him to spend time with his family and live abroad in interesting places.

These days, Hardy does more financial consulting work than programming. Although he said it is very easy for computer scientists to work remotely these days, he doesn’t recommend leaving the U.S. as a career choice. Living abroad works for Hardy because his earlier savings allow him to take life a lot slower these days.

“The U.S. is still the center of gravity for the software industry, and personal interaction is important so it is better to be there,” he said. “But wherever you go, just remember to evaluate risk correctly when you take a chance. If a negative outcome looks the same as your current situation, why not try?”