Alumni Spotlights

Alumni Spotlights: getting to know our CS graduates

There is no question that the Department of Computer Science is home to amazing faculty, staff, and students. I wanted to provide an opportunity for those inside and outside the department to learn about what our Alumni are doing past graduation. The Alumni Spotlight provides a platform for CS graduates to share unique backgrounds, experiences, and stories. After reading, I know that you will agree- our graduates are incredible. 

Thanks for reading! - Martin Marquez, Director of Academic and Support Services


Meredith Larabee

Meredith Larabee earned her Bachelors degree in Computer Science in Fall of 2019. She is originally from Tucson, AZ and moved to Tempe, AZ to work as a Software Development Engineer at GoDaddy. Prior to earning her degree in CS she obtained a bachelors degree in Chemistry and a master's degree in Educational Leadership and Policy from the University of Utah. During her time as a CS student, Meredith worked as a section leader for CSC 110 and a course coordinator for CSC 120. She also served as the Vice President of the Women in Information and Computer Science club (WICS). Outside of school she loves to cook, travel, watch tv, and listen to podcasts. 

1. What is your current occupation? How long have you been in that role?
I am currently a Software Development Engineer at GoDaddy. I have been in this role for 7 months.
 
2. How did the UA computer science program prepare you for a career in computer science? 
 I learned so many programming languages and concepts that laid the groundwork for this career, but the best thing I learned in my CS courses was how to learn computer science and how to approach programming. In my current role, I program in a language I never touched in school (C#). But because of the programming skills I learned in my courses, picking up a new language is the easy part. I spend a lot of time in my job thinking about the best way to design the code I'm writing so it will be easy to read, reusable, consistent with our code base, and (of course) perform accurately and quickly. These are concepts that were reinforced in every CS course I took at the U of A.
 
3. What advice would you give recent graduates looking to get into your field/area?
Pay attention to the skills you build doing group projects. If you're a software developer at a company of pretty much any size, you'll be working in teams to accomplish your goals. This means collaboration tools/techniques like Git and Agile as well as "soft skills" like communication and teamwork are key. Try to get some sort of work experience coding as soon as possible, whether it's an internship, a student position, or something else. Writing code when there is no assignment spec or answer key feels a bit different so it's good to get some varied experience with it!
 
4. What sub-field(s) in computer science excite you? 
The most exciting things to me about computer science are building something from scratch, and knowing how things work. These apply to a ton of sub-fields, so there isn't necessarily one thing that I'm passionate about. I love having variety in the programming I do and being able to see the finished product.
 
5. Are there any faculty that you would like to recognize as having an impact on you 
(personally, academically, etc.)? If so, how did they have an impact on you?

Every faculty member I took a course from and worked for in the CS department had a huge impact on me. I think I went to the office hours of every professor I had at least once, and they were all kind, knowledgeable, and very invested in my learning process and the subjects they teach.


Benjamin Gaska

Benjamin Gaska obtained his Bachelor's of Science in Computer Science in Spring 2016 and his Masters in Spring 2017. Benjamin received an outstanding senior award in Spring 2016. 
 
1. What is your current occupation? How long have you been in that role?
I work on Google Drive Dataprotection Team (DDT) in Boulder, CO. I'm responsible for designing infrastructure for protecting user's data from access by Google. Practically, this has meant a lot of API development, as well as some Domain Specific Language development for other engineers in Drive.
I have worked here two years this month.
 
2. How did the UA computer science program prepare you for a career in computer science? 
I appreciate the strong emphasis on Theory that was given in the department. A lot of specifics, like knowing this language or that framework, is very task specific and something you tend to need to learn on the fly. Being able to think abstractly about problems, and how to connect them to other known problems, is the single most useful skill I think I have. I increasingly think that this sort of managing of complexity is the core distinguishing feature of CS as a field. The strong emphasis on Theory courses I received at UA has helped me immensely with reasoning over the often under-defined problems of engineering.
 
3. What advice would you give recent graduates looking to get into your field/area?
Find projects to do. If you're a recent graduate and you're looking for work, find time to develop your coding interests. There's lots of wonderful open-source work out there. Or even just finding white papers that interest you and implementing it. Not only will you develop your own skills, you'll have a useful item on your resume to show off your competence. You'll also develop interests and opinions in your field, and that also comes through in interviews. People appreciate that.
Also, understand recursion. It's so useful in interviews because it often leads to elegant solutions. It's so useful in design, because it allows you to efficiently reason over very abstract spaces. 
 
4. What sub-field(s) in computer science excite you?
I haven't changed that much, so I still love Programming Languages/Compilers and NLP. Most areas that allow for a beautiful melding of theory and practice. A recent topic I've been pushing for at my company is also Model Checking, a really interesting topic that I think will get more and more important in the field as it progresses.
 
5. Are there any faculty that you would like to recognize as having an impact on you (personally, academically, etc.)? If so, how did they have an impact on you?
I appreciated the huge swath of faculty I worked with, but I'll keep it brief. I 100% have to give huge thanks to my advisors, Dr. Strout and Dr. Surdeanu. They patiently guided me through all of my research both undergrad and during my Masters. They have known suffering because of that commitment.
 
I would also like to call out Dr. McCann for leading the Section Leader program which gave me many early opportunities and certainly led to my early internships. And gosh, he's just a nice guy.

Tom Marthaler

Tom Marthaler graduated from the undergraduate program at the University of Arizona in May 1999 with a double major in Computer Science and Physics. Tom started his career in the defense industry doing ocean science research and working on satellite systems. He transitioned to doing web analytics and data mining for advertising startups which landed him at Amazon where he has worked on fulfillment system optimization and promotions validations.

1. What is your current occupation? How long have you been in that role?
Hi! My name is Tom Marthaler. I graduated from the undergraduate program at the University of Arizona in May 1999 with a double major in Computer Science and Physics. I started my career in the defense industry doing ocean science research and working on satellite systems. I transitioned to doing web analytics and data mining for advertising startups which landed me at Amazon where I’ve worked on fulfillment system optimization and promotions validations.

My current title at Amazon is Senior Software Engineer working out of the Amazon Tempe Software Center located in Downtown Tempe, AZ right on Tempe Town Lake. I’ve been at Amazon for 2.5 years, where I’ve been able to transition between leading a team as a Software Development Manager as well as focusing on individual software deliverables as a software engineer. 

2. How did the UA computer science program prepare you for a career in computer science? 
The main thing that the UA computer science program taught me was to force myself to understand complex computational problems. Before studying CS, I had focused on scientific computing and numerical methods. I had never really understood hardware issues or dove into language structure. I struggled through CS252 (a C is still a passing grade!) and learned how compilers and computation language design worked in CS453 (I still have fond memories of ‘lex’ and ‘yacc’).  My degree from the UofA CS curriculum created a foundation for me to understand any computational issue, from building AWS databases, algorithmically optimize supply chain systems and build machine learning models on huge datasets. 

3. What advice would you give recent graduates looking to get into your field/area?
Coursework does not always prepare you for the tech interview process and preparing for the tech interview does not always prepare you for being successful in tech. If you want to work at a large tech company, the long and short of it is that practicing “whiteboard” (and their on-line equivalent) interview questions is required. If you want to be successful as a software developer in tech though, you need practice building software systems. The skills that you learn building software systems and practicing leetcode questions are definitely not the same. My advice would be to study leetcoding questions enough to pass an interview, but focus on creating a real application. What you learn building, deploying and maintaining(!) a real application will help you out tremendously in the long term and you will learn skills that are not taught in any lecture. 

4. What sub-field(s) in computer science excite you?
The thing that excites me is not a Computer Science sub-field, but rather the application of current technology to non-technical domains. There is tremendous impact to be made without the need for cutting edge research, just applying computational automation to a series of everyday problems to make life better for everyone. The technology that already exists can be used in tremendously impactful ways across a gamut of social, civic, educational issues; someone that understands software computation and hardware creation just needs to get creative building solutions! As a CS student, there are a ton of ways to volunteer for this as well - participate in one of the hackathons around campus (HackAZ is every January!) or checkout social media for ways to help out.

5. Are there any faculty that you would like to recognize as having an impact on you 
(personally, academically, etc.)? If so, how did they have an impact on you?
The main faculty that had an impact on me was one not directly in the Computer Science department. I participated in a Federal Work Study program as an undergraduate for 2 years working in the College of Architecture. I had the opportunity to work with Dr. R. Brooks Jeffery, a professor of architecture, to bootstrap the image data in the Imagen database[it’s still operational at http://imagen.arizona.edu/!]. This required many hours in the College of Architecture archives performing manual data capture and data correction, but at the end of my work study program all of the Architecture archives were digitized and searchable. The data-focused skills and attention to detail learned on that job under Dr. Jeffery have lead to a successful career in data science and software.