photo of michael langford
Data Engineer and Graduate Student at Southern Methodist University

Job Title

Data Engineer and Graduate Student at Southern Methodist University


Capital One

Why did you decide to pursue a computational engineering degree at UT Austin?

After studying mechanical engineering for two years at UT, I discovered my interests were in a more computer-related field. Thankfully, just as I was realizing this, the COE major was in the process of being created and I joined the first class. I wanted to be a part of a fresh, developing engineering program that was going to pave the road for many future engineers to explore their interests in combining modern computing with traditional engineering approaches.

Describe your current position.

At Capital One, software and data engineers work on a huge variety of projects and are rarely working on the same thing for an extended period of time. Some of the projects I've worked on have been related to developing Tableau report pipelines for management, investigating and presenting proof-of-concepts for data management improvements, validating data transfers to a new database solution, and developing machine learning models to scan databases for user-specified information. Basically, we provide data-driven solutions to improve our associate and customer experiences. I'm also starting graduate school in Fall 2020 at SMU for viola performance, and I'll be working towards my performer's diploma while continuing to work full-time at Capital One.

What do you like most about your job? What do you find most challenging?

I enjoy working at a large company that's rapidly evolving its technology capabilities. There's always something new to work on or some exciting technology to try to address business needs with. However, since we're a financial institution, there is a lot of "red tape", so-to-speak. A lot of the data we deal with is very sensitive information, and it can be challenging to make sure we're following all regulations in our development processes. At the end of a project though, I believe that challenge makes the product so much more satisfying knowing that we have a full-proof solution that puts the customer first.

What are your career goals?

I'll be honest: I'm not sure yet, and that's fine with me. As an undergrad, I got degrees in both COE and music to keep doors open for my interests in the future. I've never been known to tie myself down into one path. I always like having options in case something doesn't work out.

Eventually I'd like to become a full-time data scientist, but I understand in most instances that requires a master's degree and I don't think I'm ready to commit myself to another degree in science at the moment. I'd also be happy being a full-time lecturer or tutor as I used to work as a part-time tutor at UT. I could also see myself quitting my job as an engineer and auditioning for major symphonies or going to school for film music composition. I know there are several options for my future where I'd be happy, but I wouldn't feel comfortable defining any one of these as a concrete goal.

Were you involved in any fellowships or internships?

I completed three internships--the summer before my 2nd year, the summer before my 4th year, and the summer before my 5th year:

Mira Geoscience: I wrote VBA macros for cleaning large amounts of geological survey data in Excel spreadsheets that were both in English and French. I was working in Montreal and enjoyed learning the French language and got my first taste of what a corporate career in data might look like.

Kixer: I worked as part of a small team with a UT graduate student on developing a deep-learning solution to target advertisements to appropriate audiences. I was working in downtown Austin and this was my first experience working at a larger company. I enjoyed working as part of a small group and researching and developing new deep-learning models.

Capital One: This was the one case where I worked basically alone on a project. I developed (and ended up patenting) a natural language processing framework to train new chatbot models with limited human intervention. I did work closely with my manager to make sure I was on the right track, but I enjoyed being able to have full control over my ideas and research and how I was going to deliver the project.

Do you recommend any particular focus for students other than academics to improve themselves as potential candidates for jobs?

Don't forget the soft skills! Obviously, there's a huge emphasis on coursework and knowledge before jumping into an interview, but interviewers are humans too and want to know you would be good to work on a team with. Work on communicating your ideas and problem solving clearly and concisely. This is an important skill that can (and should) be practiced often. Also, confidence is important but a dash of humility and a sprinkle of personality that shows you're a human outside of the corporate realm can do wonders in interviews.

Are there courses at UT you wish you had taken?

Computational Oncology. It was a graduate course when I was at UT, and some undergraduate COEs elected to take it anyway. Everyone who took it who I spoke to loved it and some even changed their career paths because they took it. Since I was doing a double major, my course schedule was unfortunately already packed full so I couldn't take it, but if I had the chance to start undergrad all over I think I'd have centered one of my entire years around the course.

Who was your most influential ASE, COE or EM professor?

Dr. Rodin. It's been ages since I took his statics course but I couldn't believe how an entire course was so rigorously derived from such simple principles and how clearly Dr. Rodin was able to explain everything in the course. I didn't find his class easy, but I've never seen a professor able to show up to a lecture with zero notes or cue cards and lecture for an hour straight without misspeaking or needing to backtrack on his thoughts. His lectures are definitely the most profound and influential I had in undergrad. I also still have a notebook full of some iconic quotes of his I jotted down in class.

What has been your most influential ASE, COE or EM course?

Besides the mention of Rodin's statics class above, I think our COE senior design project was the most influential course I took. We were doing our project on coding a new computational model for wind turbine analysis through the mechanical engineering department and, as cliché as it sounds, the most influential part of this was seeing a semester-long project from the very beginning to the final presentation. The whole end-to-end process and getting feedback from advisors the whole way through was a great way to complete the COE degree. I think it's fair to say that everybody has a very bumpy path through senior design courses, but the journey from start to finish, as chaotic as it may be, is where you learn and grow the most in undergrad.

What is one piece of advice you have for current students?

Your mental health should be your #1 priority in school. It's easy to come in on day one as a freshman and think that you're going to knock every single course out of the park and make friends with everyone in the department by the time you graduate. It's easy to believe that you'll be spending every waking second in undergrad socializing in class or study groups or partying with your friends. These are all exhausting and can wear you down before your first semester's even over.

It's ok to take a day off. It's ok to take an hour out of your day to take a much-needed nap. It's ok to seek therapy for a problem you've been having at home or at school. It's ok to need to cancel hanging out with a friend because you need some time to reflect on all that's happened this week. It's ok to stay in on a Saturday night watching your favorite show in your bed. It's ok to fail a class or need to drop one suddenly.

Your mental health is going to be tested in school and keeping yourself healthy should always be your first priority. Normalize taking care of yourself from day one.

Do you have a favorite memory as a student in the department?

My honors thesis presentation. Honestly, I was dreading presenting my full year's work on my thesis, but for some reason the presentation ended up being a very low-pressure environment. I was speaking about a topic I was so passionate about that I took a whole year out of my life to study it and write a thesis. Several of my closest friends came to the presentation, and my thesis advisors only lightly grilled me in front of them! It was the culmination of my five-year journey at UT and the whole presentation just came directly from the heart.

List three things that most people don't know about you.
  • In addition to being American, I'm also a Canadian and Australian citizen.
  • I studied abroad for a semester in Hong Kong in 2016.
  • I can make really tasty pizza from scratch!