University of Minnesota
Master of Science in Software Engineering
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Alumni Stories

Claire Porter

Current Job:
Remote Sensing Scientist
Polar Geospatial Center

Claire's Story:

Master of Science in Software Engineering alumna Claire Porter not only works with some of the most powerful computers available today, but she is on the cutting-edge of polar climate change research working on a project that has gained the attention of former President Barack Obama.

Porter works at University of Minnesota’s Polar Geospatial Center (PGC), a research group that provides geospatial support to scientists and logistics personnel in the Antarctic and the Arctic. Through an interdisciplinary collaboration that includes the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the PGC is working to release 3-D digital elevation models of the entire Arctic in 2017. The project, called ArcticDEM, was formed following an Executive Order from President Obama that called for better coordination of national efforts in the Arctic as a way to better respond to threats posed by climate change.

Porter herself is part of a small group of 11 staff and six students at the PGC, but despite the center’s relatively small size compared to that of their partners, they provide important insight to the high-profile project. The NSF and NGA saw the center as a great addition and were enthusiastic about their proposal to use commercial satellite imagery to derive a 2-meter resolution digital elevation model of the Arctic.

“We are really well positioned to work on this project,” said Porter, “because of our background using commercial satellite imagery and high-performance computing to serve the scientific community. It was a really fortunate set of circumstances that gave us this opportunity.”

Porter’s role in this groundbreaking work is building data management infrastructure for the team.

“The datasets and tools I build allow my colleagues to better help researchers and planners in Polar Regions,” Porter said. “For example, I developed and maintain imagery processing tools to transform raw data into useful image mosaics or extract elevation models from stereoscopic imagery.”

A sample of the kind of imagery Porter helps develop is readily available to the public at NGA’s website. A more in-depth look at ArcticDEM can be found in the White House archives. For a comprehensive look at the Polar Geospactial Center’s aerial photography, satellite imagery, elevation models, or ArcticDEM itself, visit their website.

What are some unique challenges you face working on a unique and fascinating project like ArcticDEM?

I’m used to being able to carefully examine the products I deliver to our users. But, in this case, the volume of data overwhelms us. We can barely even look at each of the ~50,000 component datasets we’ve built that make up this project. We can’t rely on our eyes to verify that the product is good and instead we have to rely on statistical measures. It’s unnerving to release a finished product without visual inspection, trusting that the process will result in a quality outcome.

The elevation data built from the DigitalGlobe satellite images has a very high spatial resolution (2 meters, but, as you note, a much lower absolute accuracy of +/- 5 meters). We use a method of aligning the elevation datasets first to each other. Then, we combine that intermediate product with a laser altimetry point dataset that has a higher accuracy but is much sparser on the landscape. The combination allows us to make a product with the full spatial coverage and high resolution of the imagery with the accuracy of the laser-measured point locations.

Despite our best efforts, though, the pace of landscape change in the Arctic makes it really hard to ensure that our data are accurate. Especially in areas of rapid change, like the edges of the Greenland ice cap and northern Alaska, the elevation of the surface can change by several meters in a year. Such changes are not big enough to affect a lower-resolution dataset, but our measurements capture the differences in full detail. While it’s fantastic from a change detection perspective, the landscape changes introduce significant uncertainty into our final product.

What is it like working with one of the world’s most powerful supercomputers?

Most high-performance computing (HPC) systems are Linux command line systems, so it’s quite a shock to some of our students who’ve never seen a command line in their lives. It’s also very different to develop on a machine where your code is put into a queue and run at a later time. It can make the development cycle a lot longer and more frustrating. The most important difference, though, is the power that you have on these HPC systems. Because you can submit code that will run thousands of times in parallel, you can do a lot of work in a short time.  But, it’s just as easy to make really big, costly mistakes in a short time.

What drew you to software engineering as opposed to the other fields within computer science?

My background is actually not even in computer science. I come from Geographic Information Science and Remote Sensing with a focus on satellite imagery. I found I lacked the software engineering background to be an effective team member and leader in the small software development team at my work. I was ecstatic when I discovered that there already existed a field of study that would help me learn how to contribute better.

What were your early experiences with computing that inspired you growing up and convinced you to pursue computer science as a career?

I always enjoyed computers as a kid. My brother and I would play computer games on the IBM MS-DOS machine my family owned. In college, though, I was scared away from computer science by an extremely difficult (for me) introductory course. It was not until after I’d entered the working world that I found my way back to software development and coding as a joyful and engaging activity.

What is one of your fondest memories from your time at the U of M?

I met some dear friends in the MSSE program whose creativity, hard work, intelligence, and good humor continue to impress me today. I happily recall evenings in my teammate’s apartment where the four of us conducted heated debates over data models and design patterns while we hacked away at our homework. I remember eating Thai take-out while we discussed our ideas for the coolest new app. I think the network of peers I found through the MSSE program is a crucial part of why the program was so useful to me. Certainly, my friends made it a lot more fun!

What is it about computer science that keeps you excited and motivated for the future?

I got into software engineering because I love building things. The open source geospatial software field is advancing at a rapid pace. More and more, advanced image analysis techniques don’t require that you pay thousands of dollars for a proprietary software package. Anyone with a background in coding can leverage the tools available today. Plus, the open source ecosystem is more adaptable to high performance computing resources, allowing us derive useful information from a fire hose of incoming data. Building things just gets more interesting and more fun as the tools mature, especially in the geospatial side of computing.

Donald Sawyer

Current Job:
Software Engineering Leader
Target Corporation

Donald's Story:
Donald Sawyer works in the “wilderness” of big data. Working with Target’s Business Intelligence (BI) Engineering group and often leveraging complex distributed architectures, he helps process, store, and analyze the petabytes of data Target generates daily. When Sawyer was at the University of Minnesota, he was enrolled in the Masters of Science in Software Engineering program (MSSE) focusing on growing the skills required for leading these engineering efforts.

“I felt that before going to Target, the fields of BI and data science needed some help in building systems and tools that employed quality engineering practices,” Sawyer said.

Leveraging his strong passion for data science, his undergraduate background in artificial intelligence, and his recent experiences from MSSE, he seeks to build well-engineered data pipelines for one of the largest retailers in the United States. This work gives him the opportunity to analyze architectures and data models, implement robust testing, communicate technically complex systems through design, and, ultimately, lead agile projects.

Starting in 2017, Sawyer will join the Department of Computer Science and Engineering to help spread his deep knowledge on Big Data.

Tell us a little bit about working with large-scale systems, both in terms of the amount of data being mined and the computational resources being used on top of it.

The systems that are used for ingesting, storing, processing, and analyzing large amounts of data have a fascinating collection of architectural patterns that are different from traditional relational/transactional systems. Each component of a big data architecture has specific strengths and quality attributes it is solving for, thus requiring an understanding of whether it is best suited for storage, delivery, analysis, or some other use case. When choosing components of the system, one must understand what problem(s) each component solves, as well as what it doesn’t solve. Processing data at scale requires you to understand how to store data effectively so systems can leverage these data for analysis, while conserving processing resources.

The resources used for data processing and computation are not just one or two database servers. In many cases, there are dozens, hundreds, or thousands of servers in a cluster to handle the storage and processing. It is very important to design data storage and tools to leverage efficiencies, like splitting and partitioning, to be able to spread out the processing across the cluster in parallel.

Another note is that data doesn’t just come from tables, it comes from the “wild” (e.g. clickstream, logs, or APIs). These data require a lot of processing to cleanse or prepare for analysis and is difficult to do manually. I’ve found that building these systems requires a lot of automation and automated testing to ensure that data is being processed properly. It is very hard to find a bad data record among millions/billions of records if the testing isn’t automated.

What drew you to software engineering as opposed to the other fields within computer science?

I was a software engineer and architect for many years and I knew that having a well-rounded software engineering background allowed me to contribute in many ways beyond technical innovation. An architect is involved in just about every facet of software creation, including analysis, design, testing, and project management. First and foremost, I wanted to be able to be a person that could contribute wherever I was needed, rather than just the technical space. In addition, the MSSE program accommodated my schedule to minimize time away from my family and job.

What were your early experiences with computing that inspired you growing up and convinced you to pursue computer science as a career?

Growing up, I wanted to be a mechanical engineer or mathematician. I loved solving problems and figuring out how things worked and how to build new things. I was always interested in technology, but I assumed programming would be too hard. When I took my first computer science class as part of the M.E. major, I loved that I could solve any problem a variety of innovative ways, which tapped into my creative side. I realized that with the passion I had for computer science, success was much easier to attain. Lastly, I was always fascinated by the brain and was always reading about learning and cognition, so being exposed to artificial neural networks only drove my interest in computer science further.

What is one of your fondest memories from your time at the U of M?

I really connected with my classmates and professors. The students in the MSSE program had a diverse set of backgrounds and we learned so many things from each other. My fondest memory of my time there was the excellence that my classmates and I strived for to have the best deliverables, presentations, and grades. It was great to be around other people who valued excellence in what they did. I am very thankful for the relationships I’ve created with everyone in the MSSE program, and for Jenny for making life very easy for us.

What are some unique challenges you face working in a highly specialized technical field for a customer-focused retailer like Target, a company that usually is not the first to come to mind when one thinks of the traditional tech industry?

The largest challenge for a technical person like myself is trying to understand and communicate with business-focused individuals. I like to speak in bits, bytes, and code, and there are times when it can be frustrating to communicate because many of our technologies aren’t trivial to a non-technical individual. It is also very difficult to communicate the cost of a project to your stakeholders who finance your projects when you only know the end goal. On the flip side, it can be easy to understand the business because I love shopping at Target and I understand how a Target guest thinks. I can put myself in a guest’s shoes, literally.

What is it about computer science that keeps you excited and motivated for the future?

I love data and engineering. I love how we’re using huge scales of data to make smarter systems and help people make more informed decisions. It’s really fascinating to see how artificial intelligence, algorithms, and mathematics are being applied to everyday problems. For example, it’s amazing to think that using computer science we’ll find medical treatments that are highly effective for a specific 5% population, rather than just treatments that are effective 95% of the time across the general population.

Eric Lobner

Current Job:
Software Technical Lead
3M

Eric's Story:
Eric Lobner keeps people safe. Working with 3M’s extensive line of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)—which include everything from respirators to hearing protection to fall protection equipment—Lobner has helped introduce an innovation to this equipment that keeps millions around the world injury free. As Software Lead on 3M’s Active Safety platform, he has found a way to make protective equipment smart, connected, and personal. Digital technology has started a revolution in the PPE and safety industry that is providing new-to-the-world tools to enhance worker protection. This advancement is so key to the multinational conglomerate, Lobner was recently honored with 3M’s Corporate Technical Excellence and Innovation Award, which recognizes the accomplishments of scientists and engineers from all technical organizations within the company.

Before Lobner was changing the dynamics of safety in work places worldwide, he was a student pursuing his computer science degree. Shortly after completing his B.S. degree, he worked as a project engineer in 3M’s corporate research and development laboratory. It was during this time he had the opportunity to learn about the many ways he could apply software and computer science principles to solve real-world problems. With that in mind, and still working full time, he enrolled in and completed University of Minnesota’s Masters of Science in Software Engineering program (MSSE), a degree that helped lay the groundwork for the innovations he comes up with today at 3M.

“The knowledge and skills I learned during the MSSE program allowed me to successfully fulfill assignments within 3M of increasing complexity and importance,” said Lobner.

What drew you to software engineering as opposed to the other fields within computer science?

I chose software engineering because I enjoy translating knowledge, techniques, and tools from the software engineering discipline to fit within the real-world constraints that exist when developing real systems for real users. Software Engineering as a discipline recognizes the challenges of building systems for the real world and provides the tools and techniques to navigate these challenges to produce the best and most valuable output possible for a user.

What were your early experiences with computing that inspired you growing up and convinced you to pursue computer science as a career?

In junior high school I took a summer camp where we learned how to build HTML web pages. After that class I continued to become more and more interested in computing and programming. In high school I took every class related to computing; I also had a great teacher who mentored me and helped me understand how to move forward with this as my profession. Entering college, there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to continue working with computers and building software applications.

What is one of your fondest memories from your time at the U of M?

One of the unique aspects of the MSSE program is that most students were current professionals in a software engineering role. In addition, many faculty have a strong professional background and have a very wide and varied set of real-world industrial experiences. The combination of both the students and the instructors led to an incredibly valuable learning experience. In-class discussions were always chalked full of valuable insights by the instructors as well as the students.

What are some of the challenges you currently face being a software tech lead at a company as large and diverse as 3M?

3M as a large and diverse organization traditionally has been a company that sells many physical “things”—anything from abrasives, healthcare products, construction materials to adhesives, as well as the well known line of office products. When you think of 3M, you don’t generally think about software or digital solutions; but in reality we also have many systems that have software and electronics as a critical component. The biggest opportunity I have as a software lead is to find the perfect balance that exists between 3M’s world renowned physical products and the countless opportunities that can be achieved when combining these traditional strengths with cutting-edge software and computer science technologies.

What is it about computer science that keeps you excited and motivated for the future?

The most exciting thing about the field of computer science is the countless ways that people are changing the world with knowledge from this field. Connected digital systems, massive scale computing, and data analytics put computer science right at the center of many of the most important inventions of recent history and certainly will provide the knowledge necessary to enable the next generation of world changing inventions. It is incredibly exciting to be a part of this new revolution that changes the world on a daily basis.

Sue Van Riper

Current Job:
Doctoral Candidate
University of Minnesota

Sue's Story:
“When I first took my course in computer programming in college I thought to myself ‘This is what I’m going to do,’” says MSSE alumna Sue Van Riper. Van Riper had taken programming classes in high school, but it was when she got to college at Winona State that she truly connected with computer science. Since then she has received her undergraduate degree, her Masters degree in Software Engineering and is now working on her Ph.D. in the Biomedical Informatics and Computational Biology (BICB) program. Before starting at the University of Minnesota, Van Riper had been a programmer, and had her own consulting company. After the Y2K recession she began working for a financial institution. It was while there that she began looking for graduate programs in computer science. “I was looking for a challenge,” Van Riper says. At that time, she was living near Duluth and working remotely. When it came to her search for a graduate program, location and schedule were a major factor in her decision-making process. “One of the things that attracted me to the MSSE program was the schedule, the format and that it had a cohort,” she says. “I also appreciated that the program was designed for working professionals.” Van Riper also adds, “I also wasn’t sure that I was ready to give up working in order to go to school.”

It was while she was in the program that she became interested in computational techniques for better medical diagnoses. Now in her fourth year of Ph.D. study, Van Riper’s research uses identification and quantification algorithms in proteomics to discover new diagnostic biomarkers in saliva. The group is looking for biomarkers for oral cancer, with the hope that someday these could be used to create an at-home diagnostic kit.

When she is done with her Ph.D., Van Riper says that the ideal for her would be “some sort of combination of teaching and research, as a professor, an adjunct, a postdoc or even industry bioinformatician. There are a number of ways to make it work, but my preference is to stay in academia in or near the Twin Cities.” She enjoys the sense of satisfaction that she gets from teaching, “there is that moment when the lights go on and you can see that the students get it. It’s especially rewarding in a field that is abstract as computer science.”

Right now, she finds that academia fits her personality. She sets her own schedule. As she puts it, “I can work 80 hours a week however I want.” She adds, “But you have to feel passionate about it. It’s rewarding, and I’m happy doing this work.”

Jim Pichler

MSSE Grad:
2004

Current Job:
Senior Director
Digital River, Inc.

Jim’s Story:
“Ever since I got my undergraduate degree in Computer Engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1992, I had always wanted to go back to school at some point to get a Master’s degree in a related field. This goal was always a little bit more of a personal goal that I was wanting to achieve to help me feel like I was doing a good job towards continuing my education and getting to the next level. I thought that getting my Master’s degree would affect my career only slightly given that I had already moved up quite a bit over the years within Digital River. But once I did get my graduate degree in Software Engineering, I was very much pleased to find out that I had achieved significant progress towards both my personal and career goals. Personally, I felt gratification that I had set out to do something difficult and had persevered through full time work plus full time school which can be a challenge in terms of having limited time to do fun things. During the two school years, I did sacrifice social activities but felt tremendously satisfied knowing that studying time really meant something special towards achieving my goals. Looking back it really wasn’t a big deal for those two years to not go a few extra trips or a few extra events; it was really worth it to focus on school and to learn the material that was presented to me.

“But, the unexpected result of getting my Master’s degree on my career was simply what I would state as ‘context’. I had been doing software development and software lifecycle project management ever since I got my undergraduate degree in 1992, which amounted to about nine years worth of experience before I went back to school. Going through the program helped me to be able to put a framework around the experiences that I had, and to properly reflect on things that I had done and their place in the world of software engineering. I understood now why it was so difficult to bring about software process change, and also how important things that I had done naturally really were in the whole picture of managing a software project such as estimation and planning. As I went along in the program, the educational material could be easily placed into personal experiences of mine, hence really helping to complete my full circle of context with the software engineering world.

“And now the added benefits as I move forward in my career are to have a solid set of software engineering fundamentals, to be able to refer back to the principles via real experience that I have gained, and to help me in my current work to have a full picture of things in order to make the best decisions I possibly can for the projects that I am working on for increased benefit of my company. I think my ability to manage software projects and to predict things that may go wrong is ten times better than it was pre–Master’s degree, and I really feel completely prepared for all the things that can go wrong on a project and to be able to turn things around for the better to have a lot more successful projects that are delivered on time and on budget. I take a more disciplined approach to my every day tasks and I am always trying to quantify aspects of software engineering project to align to the business goals within our organization, which I feel I am completely more successful at doing with my Master’s degree in software engineering from the U of MN Software Engineering Center.”

Jason Nikolai

MSSE Grad:
2002

Current Job:
Customer Environment Test Team Lead
IBM Corporation

Jason’s Story:
“I joined IBM Global Services in 1998 with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. My role when I started at IBM was a multidimensional database consultant. After a couple of years, I changed roles and became an eCommerce consultant within IBM Global Services. While working at IBM, in 2000, I started taking courses in the MSSE program. During the final semester of the MSSE program, in 2002, I changed careers within IBM and moved into the IBM software development lab test organization. I have been in test and quality assurance since that time.

“The knowledge and experience gained from the MSSE program helped me to make the change from consultant to tester. Since the job change in 2002, I have taken on many different roles within the IBM test organization. Currently, I am the team lead for the IBM Virtualization Engine Customer Environment Test team. Our team utilizes IBM Virtualization Engine technology in complex customer–like environments to ensure product quality prior to the release of the product.

“Although the drive from Rochester to Minneapolis was painful at times during the winter months, I made it to class every week. The MSSE program offered excellent courses in difficult subjects and provided a forum for social and business networking with other technology professionals. Ideas generated from discussions with students with diverse backgrounds proved to be beneficial for expanding my knowledge of software engineering. Furthermore, course work and interaction with other students helped me solve problems at work.

“The courses provided by MSSE offered a balance of technical and process knowledge. Undergraduate programs are good at teaching computer science theory and programming, but seldom focus on the difficult problems of software quality and development process issues. The MSSE program provided me with the knowledge to accelerate my career in quality assurance and software development.”

Larry Zalesky

MSSE Grad:
2001

Current Job:
Senior Principal Engineer
Deltec (Deltec promoted Zalesky the same year that he completed his Master of Science degree in software engineering.)

Larry’s Story:
Larry Zalesky decided to attend the program with his wife, Pam. The two worked collaboratively on a Plan B project to explore the software issues behind the use of palm pilots in drug delivery. The Plan B project was the start of work that continues today. Larry said, “I wanted a degree with a technical emphasis. I liked the software engineering classes in design and was able to take ideas from class back to work.”

Megan Graham

Current Job:
Business Analyst
Target Corporation

Megan’s Story:
The master of science degree in software engineering supplemented Megan’s job experiences, giving her a solid foundation to grow her career. She said, “I learned about software engineering as a discipline, and that has helped me to develop into a more well–rounded software engineer.

“Each week, I brought something new back to work with me that I could use immediately. There was a symbiotic relationship between my education and my work experience that allowed me to enhance both simultaneously.

“There is an opportunity to gain from other students’ work experiences, which enhances the learning environment. The format allows students and professors to develop into a team, and as a team we are better able to learn from each other.

“I would definitely recommend the program and have! It’s a great opportunity to take your career to the next level, as well as to develop relationships with software professionals.”

Tao He

Current Job:
Enterprise Software Architect
Vertex Inc.

Tao He’s Story:
With its emphasis on practical issues, its flexible schedule, and its outstanding teaching staff, the software engineering program was just what Tao He wanted in a master’s program.

“The education in software engineering has helped me move in my career from a molecular biology scientist, to a programmer, to an Enterprise Software Architect. The experiences I gained from the program can apply to the job right away. The teamwork experiences in the classes are truly valuable.

“What I have learned from the outstanding teaching staff and diversified classmates prepared me to solve the real problems in software development process.

“I strongly recommend this program to all software professionals. It will help you to establish a solid foundation of theoretical skills and problem–solving ability in software development.”

Mike Calvo

Current Job:
Senior Software Engineer
Macromedia

Mike Calvo’s Story:
Mike Calvo enjoyed the program so much that he returned to teach a course on graphical user interfaces. He emphasizes hands–on learning in helping students gain a high–level understanding of what it really takes to build a user interface.

He applied what he learned in the program immediately. The degree succeeds in increasing the professional flexibility of its graduates, he said.

“Going through the program exposed me to different types of work and the different types of skills that it takes to be a complete engineer. It really added to my understanding of software development and the software development process.”