Andrew Huie: CS and a Tokyo Startup

Andrew Huie's work at Tokyo Startup Ascent

 Rice Computer Science alumnus Andrew Huie

“COMP 215 with Chris Jermaine is what shifted me to a Computer Science major,” said Rice University alumnus Andrew Huie (BA ‘16). “I was thinking about electrical engineering until COMP 215 captured my interest.

“Chris had structured Intro to Program Design projects in a cumulative way, and we were building a search engine for a subset of Wikipedia articles. Quickly searching a body of 10,000 articles to produce search results required us to incorporate metrics for the relevancy of the article in addition to trying to match the search words as closely as possible. We ended up indexing the articles into an M-tree using our metric to transform the search operation into a distance calculation.”

Huie found he was more motivated to tackle his COMP 215 projects than his other sophomore courses, and his interest in the CS major increased. Enrolling in a web security course taught by Dan Wallach revealed his preference for a more structured environment.

“Program design was my preference then and it’s what I am doing now at Ascent Robotics, an AI startup in Tokyo. We are working on industrial automation and autonomous vehicles, so my focus is on building the tools to first facilitate our scientists’ research, and second to productize it.

“Doing things the right way is something I learned at Rice from Corky Cartwright,” said Huie. “He showed me the benefits of doing things correctly, every time. I worked with him on Dr. Java for a summer and although he is more focused on the theoretical side, I applied his lessons to software design principles.

“It’s easy to shoot yourself in the foot with a short-sighted design. Corky taught me a really well-executed, well-thought out plan for software takes time, but it is time well spent. That lesson made a significant and positive impact on my professional experience.”

Huie was working with Cartwright on Dr. Java, a pedagogical integrated development environment, while seeking a software engineering job. He was using standard job search channels when a family member met one of the Ascent Robotics founders at a conference.

“The Ascent opportunity came out of left field,” said Huie. “They were very receptive when I sent my resume, and my interviews led to an offer. Then I had to decide between working for a big insurance company on the West Coast and an early-stage startup in Japan – complete opposite ends of the spectrum. It seemed like the right time to take a chance, and I was also interested in a role with more autonomy, in which I might have the chance to learn on the job.”

Ascent, a young company with fewer than 100 employees, has hired nearly 70 engineers in fewer than four years. Huie was among the first ten employees. He said the engineers still enjoy a great deal of autonomy, choosing the projects they want to develop and how to approach the project.

“When I came over, our cycles were not yet rigid and you could reach out to anyone in the company. It was an open office; you could literally call out across the floor. Everyone was wearing multiple hats and working on multiple projects. To have been in on the hiring process as a fresh grad was exciting. I helped determine criteria, vetted applicants and interviewed candidates in addition to my development duties. All those different hats meant we put in long hours, but that is just part of being in a startup and part of the work culture in Japan.

“Now the roles are becoming more solidified and I am in a more traditional developer role. Our dev cycles follow more defined schedules, but we’re able to maintain a fairly casual company culture. You can still go up to anyone and invite them to a meeting or ask for help thinking through an issue.”

Although the company culture attracts employees who are willing to share their knowledge, finding the right person to ask can be tricky in a rapidly evolving organization. Huie said it has been a challenge to discover the areas of knowledge new engineers bring to the table.

“We have such a wonderful, diverse set of people from all over the world and everyone’s background is both rich in experience and completely different. You can still ask around or post in the office Slack, but our interpersonal network is our best resource. Continuing that feeling of connectedness was one of the motivating factors for introducing company-sponsored events like a happy hour at a nearby curry shop and bar,” he said.

Huie, now a senior software engineer, appreciates the casual, interpersonal connections at Ascent but also realizes the importance of formalizing the development process. He said, “It’s been interesting to learn how to manage people. I started with a small team – just me and a couple other engineers. Even a small team needs some structure, even minimally, like creating tasks on a Kanban board and moving those tasks through their stages: to do, in progress, in review, finished. Each team member can throw all the things we need to complete for a project at the Kanban board, then take ownership of different tasks.

“Personally, I don’t like daily standups. The day-to-day progress doesn’t seem to evolve that dramatically, and my leadership style is mostly hands-off. Two or three standups a week works well for my team, and the most important comparison is Monday’s status to Friday’s.

“Finding what works for the whole team is also part of establishing the company culture, which I find fulfilling. Our team is composed of engineers from all over the world. Our co-founders are Canadian and Japanese. The Japanese component is critical for our success in Tokyo, particularly with our external partners."

Huie said a great day is when he’s hit a smooth groove where everything his team has been working on for a week or two is coming together. The code has been tested and polished for a pull request, followed by peer reviews. Hitting the merge button and getting the new code into the master branch is a satisfying end to the previous weeks’ work.

“It’s a crescendo that usually happens on a Friday,” said Huie. “Then it’s tea time. That’s a custom I adopted for my team and has since spread across the company.

“We use whole tea leaves and brew them with less water, steeping many times. We chit chat between the steepings. It’s been fun to incorporate a local custom and it is also good for facilitating conversations and getting people to know each other.”