“By far, my favorite projects at Microsoft are those where I am empowered and can help establish best practices,” said Rice University MCS alumnus Harsh Upadhyay ’16.
“Not only am I continuing to learn, but I’m also able to give back more than just a finished project. I’m able to impact colleagues beyond the scope of the project.”
One of Upadhyay's teams was tasked with determining a better way to understand their product’s users. Statistics indicated a lot of failures in a specific region of the world, but the engineers had no anecdotal data to indicate why. Upadhyay wondered if the team was looking at a product that worked perfectly but was perceived as messy or boring by users who chose a competitor’s offering that better suited their cultural or personal preferences.
He said, “It is one thing to pop up a survey question in the product, and that works well when users are willing to help improve a product — either because they love it, or they hate a new version or feature. But a lot of people just silently walk away."
“When you offer a product or service in the open market, you are often one of many options. You can’t depend on potential or new customers to tell you what they are thinking. What we needed was the equivalent of watching body language in a conversation. How could we pay attention to subtle hints and adapt to the signs we were reading?”
Upadhyay’s team created a visualization that allowed the division’s leaders to understand where to prioritize their focus. This approach helped shed light on the features in need of polishing, and revealed features users did not seem to know about.
“Perhaps my product is not intuitively bringing you what you need, even if the feature is there and working well,” said Upadhyay. “Once we learned how to turn our users’ subtle signs into a visualization, we compared it to dashboard data and surveys from users who were willing to give specific feedback. Everything lined up! This was the kind of measurable data our leaders needed. In fact, they appreciated the visualization so much it was extended to other areas of the product.”
Thinking about the product from a user-first approach appealed to Upadhyay, who derived a great deal of personal satisfaction from ensuring their users were happy. A subsequent project pulled him further into the user experience, this time with a long-range perspective.
He said, “Data labeling for machine learning (ML) can be tricky to get right. You have an item and want to assign it a tag — cat, dog, whatever. Every ML course is teaching it, every ML product in the market is trying to offer it. Companies love it. But users may not love it if they get frustrated trying to fit appropriate tags to their own data; we can learn a lot from our customers.
“I particularly love the user design awareness I’ve picked up as a software engineer at Microsoft. So now I’m looking at an ML product with our users in the forefront of my thinking. My whole team is asking these kinds of user-centric questions and one of the things we realize is that our customers always ask for more. How can we build our product to be scalable – flexible enough and with enough extensibility to handle the new requests our customers will submit in the future?”
Influencing decisions that help their products work better for more users for the long run is where Upadhyay feels he currently making an impact, and that is one of the reasons he began exploring graduate school. He was working in international finance in Bangalore when he realized the technology aspects of his role were more interesting than his analyses.
“I was excited about solving complex problems and I was filled with this desire to be at the forefront of innovation in the tech space, so I decided to pursue grad school in the U.S. I was looking at computer science grad programs that would allow me to dive deep into tech and keep up with what is trending in industry at the same time. I wanted it all,” he said with a laugh.
Upadhyay focused on interactive graduate programs where he could immediately contribute to projects while making personal connections with like-minded students and faculty. Narrowing his search to four programs ranked among top 20 in the U.S., he said each program offered what he wanted.
“When you are comparing programs at that level, the only difference in outcome will be on you,” he said. “It is what you put into that kind of rigorous and engaging program that will distinguish you when you begin searching for internships and job offers. Exceptional teachers or a small faculty to student ratio mean little if you are not actively engaging, asking questions, and responding to the answers, talking with people outside the classroom, exploring courses and clubs beyond your program.”
Activities like these are among the best practices Upadhyay recommends for graduate school students. Although these practices are well-suited to his own personality, he encourages more reticent graduate students to push past their comfort zone and strike up at least one conversation this week with peers or other students they might not usually approach. The initial awkwardness will decrease with practice, and the broadening circle of connections will enrich the student’s overall graduate school experience. For students completing relatively short programs, such as professional masters’ degrees, quickly developing confident conversation skills is sometimes key to successful job searches.
Developing relationships with multiple students in similar courses also contributed to Upadhyay’s overall success in his Rice MCS courses. He said, “Looking back, the challenges I encountered with my colleagues helped me learn to adapt to unpredictable situations, which was really helpful in my internships and in my jobs after Rice."
“There is a famous –or infamous!—course on software design where students work together to build an app in a single semester. It is known for being very project-focused and a lot of hard work. Dr. Stephen Wong designed it based on real-world experiences, and the challenges get more and more difficult each week. Once you survive it and do well in it, you think, ‘Nothing can break me now,’ and you have a deep confidence in yourself that lasts a long time.
“Choosing that course early in my Rice MCS program provided exactly the kind of software mentorship I had been looking for. Designing systems is hard, and harder still when working with a group of people who think differently and act in unpredictable ways. Learning to work with divergent personalities towards a common goal — and being successful in that goal — is perhaps one of the most important things I took away from Rice.”
Beyond engaging with peers and course offerings, Upadhay suggests several ways for graduate students to succeed in the program of their choice. He said it is important to recognize how independent graduate students are, as compared to most all-inclusive undergraduate experiences. Rather than walking from a dorm room to a cafeteria, graduate students are typically preparing their own meals, cleaning up their own dishes, managing other household chores, and juggling finances.
“You will also be faced with a lot of course choices. The flexibility of grad school also means you are responsible for making your own plan. There will be no tailor-made outline for you, and winging it from semester to semester won’t work. Seek out the resources your university offers within your department and also in the international student office if that applies to you. Keeping up with visa requirements is another chore added on to international students' plates. Rice’s Office of International Students and Scholars was incredibly helpful, anticipating each hurdle before we faced it — like how traveling to conferences would impact us,” he said.
“Finally, it is okay to be nervous. This is a big step, and it is often a huge step away from your home, your job, and your comfort zone. Just remember you also bring something important to the table. At a school like Rice, there are many people who want to learn from you. There will be many offers of connection and assistance. You just have to say, ‘Yes.’”