Harsh Upadhyay: MCS and the Courage to Change

“To expand your boundaries you have to take risks. Yes, it can feel awkward or even painful to step into the unknown, but growth requires change. Remember, some of the best cocktails require shaking.” -- Harsh Upadhyay, MCS '16.

Rice MCS alumnus Harsh Upadhyay.

After three years of working for Goldman Sachs as a developer analyst in southern India, Harsh Upadhyay realized he most enjoyed the technology part of his job and felt hungry to learn more about software, data, and analysis.

The Rice University alumnus (MCS ’16) said, “When I started working, I didn’t have a clear idea of the direction I wanted to go. I enjoyed my time at Goldman Sachs and was definitely learning there, but I realized what I knew paled in comparison to what was out there. ”

He was took the global leap to Houston because Rice’s program for a professional master’s in computer science was highly ranked and he liked the faculty research projects and the graduate student-teacher ratios.

“I found myself in the heart of a dynamic community, with opportunities to learn, research, and exchange ideas about different aspects of technology,” he said. “It was a significant change from working full-time to becoming a full-time student again, but as a computer scientist you continue swinging back and forth between practicing and learning. Something new is always cropping up, so you essentially remain a student whether or not you are taking classes.”

Upadhyay credits several Rice courses for his career success. His courses in artificial intelligence and machine learning with Devika Subramanian are directly applicable to his current role. His team supports Microsoft’s Cloud and Artificial Intelligence platform and Subramanian’s courses helped prepare him to manage massive amounts of computational data.

“Supporting Azure for our clients, we often have to think from the data scientist’s perspective. How will they go about their research? What are their pain points? How can we help them leverage the power and breadth of the cloud? The end goal for our customers is to derive insights from their data in order to make more informed business decisions, create smarter products for the market and the machine learning class at Rice has been very helpful for me.”

In his role, Upadhyay transitions between responsibilities for web development, back-end development, and bridging the two. He also pays attention to the user experience and interacts with users to determine business impact and scope of every feature he owns. Switching his perspective requires him to have an overall understanding of the project cycle and that he credits to one of his first courses: COMP 504, Graduate level Object Oriented Program and Design, taught by Stephen Wong.

“In the beginning, Dr. Wong starts with a very simple project and each week the project keeps growing in complexity and students are pushed to explore better software design patterns and best practices to ensure that the product is not only stable but also highly maintainable and robust, to withstand new and often crazy demands. Towards the end, I found myself writing the backbone framework that the entire class would use to create their own multimedia chat applications - and ultimately, multiplayer games!

“That was the class that rebuilt my foundation in a way I could immediately use in the industry. COMP 504 made sense of random information I’d already acquired, and it filled in the gaps. It also gave me the discipline to do the right thing instead of writing quick and dirty software. Flashes of work we did in that class come into play unexpectedly at least once a week for me.”

Although his first job was with Goldman Sachs, Upadhyay did not expect to return to banking or the financial technology (fintech) industry. While at Rice, he completed an internship with Schlumberger, an oilfield services company in Houston. He found the work interesting and enjoyed the team, but the oil and gas industry took a downturn and Upadhyay moved to New York to work with a financial data and software company. In 2019, Upadhyay changed coasts and companies.

“At Microsoft, I have the chance to work with the best and brightest people coming up in the field, as well as veterans of the industry. The culture encourages technological innovation, and I am constantly learning. It’s exciting to be learning so many new things, it’s almost like being back at Rice!

“Of course, there’s work to do, but the atmosphere is relaxed and it is easy to feel really creative while you’re working. You have an idea? Everyone is always encouraging you. They say, ‘Let’s see what we can do with this.’ And they also organize internal events for employees who want to explore other avenues within the company.”

Like his earlier employers, Microsoft promotes ownership and accountability. Upadhyay said he thoroughly enjoys his autonomy but clarifies that no one is working in a silo. The projects require team work and collaboration, and good ideas are more important than seniority.

“No matter how few or many years you’ve spent at Microsoft, your voice is definitely heard. It’s very dynamic here, and there are times I step up to guide team members who might have joined Microsoft before me but don’t have my perspective or breadth of experience. At both Microsoft and FactSet, I have enjoyed mentoring others. Helping them accomplish their goals is quite fulfilling,” he said.

Having accepted two job offers in his first three years after graduation, Upadhyay attributes his successful job interview skills to the time he spent strengthening his communication skills and participating in Rice’s graduate student associate (GSA).

His MCS program lasted only three semesters, but Upadhyay arrived on campus knowing he wanted to get involved in a student organization, and dove into the GSA. He ended up running the GSA’s professional development initiative, which helped build his confidence in communicating about ideas, projects, and goals.

He said, “My interviews with FactSet were actually fun. We didn’t just stand at a whiteboard and write out a program. They focus on how you approach a problem, how you pick your tools, your considerations. My prior financial skills helped me more quickly understand my business use cases,” he said.

“So I interviewed in the fall, graduated in December, and moved to New York a few months later. Work-wise, I was well-prepared and knew what to expect. But the weather was a massive, horrible shock. I left Houston in February, where it was already fairly warm. I arrived in Norwalk to be greeted by a blizzard. I layered up as much as possible, but I didn’t even have a big coat.”

When it comes to recommendations for interns and new grad hires, Upadhyay jokes about remembering to research an employer's location and climate. Then he offers three serious bits of advice for Rice MCS students: expect to apply for jobs quickly, get involved in activities beyond academics, and take risks.

“MCS students need to know the biggest career fair occurs within the first three weeks of the semester,” he said. “Always be on your toes and be prepared to job hunt right from the start. Join the Center for Career Development network and watch for updates on LinkedIn and in Piazza.

“Overall, the MCS program is quite a short course and it will be over before you know it, so take advantage of every opportunity to make friends and get involved in the community. Finally, do not be afraid of taking courses outside your comfort zone.

“To expand your boundaries you have to take risks. Yes, it can feel awkward or even painful to step into the unknown, but growth requires change. Remember, some of the best cocktails require shaking.”