Technical career detours occur for a variety of reasons. Yelp software engineer and Rice University Computer Science alumnus Fuching “Jack” Chi (B.A. ’08) traveled the world for over two years, and shares his advice for staging a comeback.
“It wasn’t intentional,” he said. “I just planned to backpack in Nepal for the Mount Everest base camp experience. Then I decided to visit Southeast Asia and one thing led to another. Two and a half years later, I headed back to Silicon Valley.
“I was out of practice and struggled with the technical interviews for a couple of months. That was discouraging, but I also knew I was getting better with each interview. Through a connection from a backpacking friend, I was introduced to a startup and that was the break I needed.”
Chi had confidence he’d eventually get an offer because he’d already had two very different opportunities when he graduated from Rice. He had been drawn to Rice CS for its small class sizes and strong compilers program, and Microsoft offered him a chance to join one of their teams where he could continue refining his interest in testing compilers. Instead, he chose a research option that paid less than half the salary Microsoft offered.
“At UC-Berkeley, they were really ahead of the time, combining academic research with the needs of the tech industry. I met a professor at a conference and he was looking for someone to do hands-on work in their experiments. It was all in Python and I hadn’t programmed in Python at Rice, plus the research would give me solid experience in machine learning.
“It was a hard decision and one that my parents initially did not find comfort in. Who turns down Microsoft? But for me, it was more important to put my effort into doing what was most interesting to me at the time. Berkeley was also a paid opportunity to explore the rigor of academia without fully committing.”
Chi’s research focus goal was to circumvent spam filters in order to learn how to better defend against attacks. Using statistical Bayesian algorithms and inside knowledge of filters used to identify spam, Chi attempted to subvert spam training processes for email, Tweets, and other forms of social media. At the end of his research project, he determined he would not be happy in a PhD program and he began what became his travel sabbatical.
“I had saved up money while living in the Berkeley co-op,” he said. “But while I traveled, I looked for side work I could do online or in the community where I was living. Making web sites, selling coffee, running marketing campaigns through search engine and social media advertising. Anything that leveraged my problem solving and tech-savviness to make a living.
“Ironically, I ended up with a pretty strong portfolio of work. And like the travel, one thing led to another. I digitized someone’s movie collection and that led to a referral for a law firm’s digital media campaign. If someone wanted a movie or graphic that I didn’t know how to do, I found people who could. It was like running a mini consulting business while living in hostels and libraries.”
The strong portfolio and Chi’s improving interview skills clicked with the startup. He said their backend engineers weren’t interested in working on the front-end portions like making the programs work on a mobile platform or perform well on multiple browsers.
“They needed a front-end guy. They looked at my design work and asked about my real world skillset in web, SEO, and social media campaigns. Then they asked, ‘When can you start?’ See, when you’re making a comeback, you just need to find the right fit. That might be working on things the rest of the team doesn’t want to tackle.”
One startup led to another. Then, four and a half years after staging his comeback, Chi received an offer from Yelp to work as a software engineer in their Revenue team. He has transitioned to Yelp’s Commerce-Data team in his second year with the company, so it comes as no surprise that Chi recommends choosing opportunities with the most growth opportunities.
“Right out of Rice CS, you have tremendous potential and usually several offers. If you are choosing between two or three companies and the money is similar, think about the things you really want to do. It might be worth losing a little money in order to grow your skillset. For me, choosing the research gig at Berkeley was totally worth it.
“Career growth in the early stages is more valuable over the long term than financial reward. For me, that growth came through my work at Berkeley and living in the co-op there. I needed to grow socially as well as professionally and living with 100-200 people in a communal residence helped me get over my shyness. Living in that type of environment, you are forced to become involved, to become engaged in the student government that makes the co-op work.”
His social skills grew to include negotiation, and he had to accept assignments in areas of high need regardless of whether he had experience or not. From cleaning bathrooms and floors as a new resident to preparing meals for 200 or managing the IT network so people could do their homework, Chi assimilated life skills in the co-op as quickly as he mastered Python and participating in research at the lab. That adaptability, particularly his willingness to take responsibility for tasks others avoided, would pay off later as he staged his career comeback.
“I think my favorite role in the co-op was being a garden manager. I hadn’t realized how much I would enjoy being surrounded by plants and growing my own food,” said Chi. “Which leads me back to my advice for current CS students. Look for opportunities to grow.
“There is something to be said for the group you work with; you’re going to see them every day. Ask in the interview what problems they are solving and what their day-to-day routines are like. Would you think about those kinds of problems even if you weren’t getting paid to do so?”
For CS alumni looking to stage their own career comeback, Chi recommends – “Look for baby step wins. Build upon those smaller successes and iterate fast on failures but pick an area to focus on.”
“And look for the ‘yes and’ people. Those are the people who don’t just agree with you but build out the conversation. It’s like verbal tennis and it’s also common in improvisation. Keep building on the ideas. Those are the kind of people I want surrounding me.”