Theo Yaung: CS Explorer

Theo Yaung (B.S. ‘03) credits his programming skills to the foundation he developed in programming languages, thanks to long-time faculty member Corky Cartwright.

Rice University CS alumnus and WhatsApp software engineer Theo Yaung.

WhatsApp software engineer Theo Yaung is an adventurer at heart. His openness to new experiences led him to Rice University, the Computer Science major, and employment in multinational technology companies with travel and work opportunities around the world.

The CS alumnus (B.S. ‘03) said, “I had always loved exploring and trying new things. Growing up in Los Angeles, the idea of studying in Texas seemed so exotic — and Rice's unique character and kooky traditions like O-Week, Baker 13, and Beer Bike just had so much appeal for me when I visited during Owl Weekend. That really set it apart from the other schools I was considering, and I fell in love with Rice.”

Although he enjoyed dabbling in arts and crafts, Yaung expected to study Math and pursue a pre-Med program. Then he arrived for O-Week at Lovett College and his focus began to shift.

“If not for the Lovett O-Week Coordinators, I probably wouldn’t have gone into Computer Science,” said Yaung. “They placed me in a suite with two CS majors, and then I was introduced to the design angle of web development by a member of my O-Week group. Those experiences caused me to give programming a try, and it wasn’t long before it turned into a real passion.”

Yaung said once he was introduced to modern coding methods, he felt empowered to marry the beauty and elegance in mathematics with the satisfaction of crafting something out of nothing. His creative side also found an outlet in CS, where he discovered that computer programs were often limited not by material resources but by the programmer’s imagination.

He credits his programming skills to the foundation he developed in programming languages, thanks to long-time faculty member Corky Cartwright. Yaung--who has been living and working in London for three years—compared his memories of Rice CS professors to a British food spread.

“When I talk about the Rice CS experience with my friends, our feelings towards our instructors were a lot like Marmite — we were either madly in love with them, or couldn’t stand 'em. For me, I really enjoyed Dr. Cartwright's classes.

“His courses set me on a path to fall in love with programming languages themselves, which led to my first job and my longest tenure in an organization. I spent eight years on the C# team at Microsoft. Working in that organization is where I really learned to grow as an engineer — both in software engineering techniques, working with people and management, and most importantly, making products that aim to delight as many customers as possible.”

Yaung described that desire to grow, explore, and take on more challenges as a kind of career wanderlust, and it prompted both he and his partner to consider working abroad. When he began seeking international opportunities in earnest, Yaung discovered his strong track record in a multinational company made the transition easier.

“If you work well in a large company and have already proven your ability to add value to teams and products, then your employer may make it super easy for you to transfer to a different location or group,” he said.

“My husband and I had discussed it; we were both really comfortable professionally, but wanted to look for new experiences for us to grow as people. Moving to Europe presented a unique opportunity to take in new cultures and perspectives, and expand our world views. I guess the timing was right — I don't think I would have decided to make the change if I was still alone at that time. Having a partner in crime helped each of us; we moved our entire personal and professional lives at the same time, while still staying grounded to at least one thing in life.”

He initially moved to London to work for Skype, a division of Microsoft. Currently, he is a software engineer for WhatsApp, one of the Facebook companies.

“London is Facebook's largest engineering office outside the USA,” he said. “And Facebook really works hard to smooth things out across offices. We’re encouraged to travel in order to collaborate better or build cross-team relationships. Facebook’s also invested in bespoke video-conferencing solutions, which helps connect our teams wherever they are.”

Even with company support and seamless communications channels, working across office locations and time zones can still prove challenging. Yaung said successful collaboration across continents is more likely if each office already have a strong local team in place. He has also found that team members on both sides of the ocean have to make a deliberate effort to learn how to work asynchronously, which often means improving their writing skills. The team members must also learn to collaborate in a way that minimizes the need for real-time synchronization.

Regardless of where they office, software engineers also need to continue growing their technical skills.

Yaung said, “I recently switched to working on WhatsApp, the world's largest messaging service at the moment. We are protecting customer privacy by covering the entirety of all WhatsApp messages and calls with end-to-end encryption (E2E). So cryptography and security/privacy are topics that I'm learning about because I try to develop technical expertise in all the relevant parts of the software that are important to the experience of our users.”

His passion for exploring new technologies and improving the user experience keeps Yaung engaged in the continually evolving industry, and he encourages prospective and current CS students to stay the course.

“Don’t give up; it’s a lot of hard work but also very rewarding and fulfilling. I love being part of the industry because I want to feel like I’m contributing to the advancement of technology and tools for humans as a whole – adding to the collective intelligence of our species and making the future happen faster. I know – it’s super cheesy – but I’ve always been a true believer.”

“For me, a great day at work is when I feel I really made a difference — like completing a challenging task, watching a project launch to users, or mentoring and assisting colleagues and then finding out I was able to meaningfully contribute to their success.”