LA-based software engineer Matt Hambro graduated from the Carolina-Duke Graduate Program in German Studies in 2019. During a recent online event entitled “Life After Grad School,” Matt spoke to current CDG graduate students about his experiences adapting to the world of software engineering and offered advice to students considering careers outside the university. Following the event, Matt kindly agreed to the following short interview in which he summarized key topics from his talk.
You’ve done a lot since you left the Carolina-Duke Program and North Carolina in 2018. Tell us a little about where you’ve been working over the last few years and how you found those experiences.
I started working full-time during the last year of my dissertation in 2018. I worked for a small managed service provider (MSP), which managed many companies’ daily IT tasks, such as installing and maintaining networks, keeping computers up-to-date, and resolving hardware or software issues. I drove all over Los Angeles, working with everything from one-person businesses to 200-person businesses, small metalworking shops to kombucha brewers, and film studios to tech start-ups.
Later that year, I began working on the IT helpdesk at another company, handling tickets as they came in from employees. The work was generally simpler than at the previous company; often employees just needed a keyboard or access to software. In 2019, I started working on the Developer Experience (DevX) team, which was responsible for maintaining the platform and tooling that developers use to develop, test, and deploy their code. This company was fun to work for because it was small and scrappy, and there was a lot of freedom to do whatever you thought would make an impact.
Things were going very well until Covid hit in 2020. My entire team was cut amid mass layoffs. Fortunately, recruiters in LA already knew about the layoffs, and there remained a strong demand for the type of coding/IT skillset that I had been learning. After about a month, a recruiter landed me a job at a significantly larger company on the Cloud Engineering team. The work was like what I had been doing before but focused on a narrower range of problems with more depth. One of the exciting things about this company is the scale of the projects. Our applications are used by many people, and it’s clear how our work makes things easier and saves time for our co-workers.
What inspired you to pursue your current career and what steps did you take to transition into it?
I chose my current career because I enjoy building things, whether by hand or in software. The work was initially more physical, installing networks and working with computer hardware, and is now entirely writing software. One of this field’s other benefits is that there are enough jobs and growth that it’s possible to find work in any city. Having to move to find an academic job was not appealing to me, and I wanted to have more choice over where I would spend the next few years.
I took many steps to transition. When I was mainly doing IT, I completed all the early CompTIA certificates. These build a base knowledge of how computers work and communicate, as well as some of the common pitfalls to avoid when configuring them. Later, when I started focusing on software, I took some certificates in Amazon Web Services (AWS), which are similar except targeted at AWS’s cloud services. What I like about this kind of learning is that there’s room for it even when you have very little time. When I was working in the office, I could squeeze in reading and practice exams on the bus during my commute.
I also did a lot of hands-on learning, both on the job and at home. I came up with fun projects to stay interested and curious. In the month after I was laid off at the start of Covid, I bought a soil moisture sensor and a small single-board computer. We have a lot of plants, and I am bad at taking care of them, so I built a monitor to send me an e-mail whenever they are low on water. I also stored a history of the soil moisture readings in a database so I could graph them over time on a website, which was fun to visualize.
As we learned in the Carolina-Duke program, combining both structured learning with more open-ended projects is a great way to build skills and memory.
How did you find the move from academia into the world of software engineering? Have the skillsets you developed while in the CDG program retained their usefulness in your new line of work?
I found the move to be relatively smooth, and I think there are many important skills that transferred from the program.
The formal pedagogy training in CDG is incredibly valuable. Studying the science of education allows you design curricula for yourself that are tailored precisely to how you learn. It also helps you to see when your explanations are hitting home or not for co-workers and gives you muscle reflexes for how to correct if needed. In several of my jobs I’ve been tasked with producing training materials for new hires at the company and being a teacher is a huge help for these kinds of projects.
I think there are many skills that transfer from the dissertation as well. The dissertation is impossible to finish in a crunch, so it forces you to understand how to break up a large, complex, long-term project into smaller milestones and tasks. It demands careful time management and motivation strategies. The dissertation also trains you to assess arguments and make decisions that involve a lot of inputs and noise. Being able to qualify, compare, and decide between competing arguments is useful in many fields.
Lastly, having experience with presentations in front of large audiences of peers is very useful. In many jobs you will need to present findings or a proposal, address contradicting points of view, and incorporate feedback. Conference presentations help you to understand the audience’s perspective and see these kinds of situations as an opportunity to collaborate and expand your own understanding.
What advice would you give to current graduate students who are thinking of pursuing career paths outside the university?
My advice is to treat whatever field you choose to pursue as your new dissertation. Build an overview of the field, become familiar with the experts, and create a plan for developing your specialized knowledge within the field. I think it’s also important to pair this with hands-on work as well. Coming up with a few projects or exercises as milestones can be very helpful.
It’s also important to take note of how your new field differs from the academic setting. This can be true for things as mundane as email signatures to things as central as how work is prioritized. Understanding mannerisms and values is incredibly important in a new field. It may be the case that certain things that were very important in academia have less value in your new field, or there may be shared values, but simply not enough time or resources. Reading the room, being flexible, and challenging your assumptions are all essential.