Engineering is an exciting, evolving industry, transforming in response to rapid technological advances and innovations. Given its dynamic nature, the field is especially attractive to job candidates who might not have followed a conventional career pathway. At Quantcast, we look for prospective engineers who seek out challenges, think creatively, learn continually, and enjoy problem-solving, irrespective of their background. We’re sharing three employee stories, which highlight and celebrate the non-linear trajectories that have brought Jackson Newhouse, James Fotherby, and Meabh Stranney to engineering roles at Quantcast.
Jackson started his career in engineering, but that wasn’t his plan: as a math major, he intended to pursue a PhD, likely focusing on pure math subjects such as representation theory. However, after applying to a number of programs, he started having second thoughts. He’d always enjoyed participating in the International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC), an algorithmic puzzle competition, which pits teams of three students against programming puzzles to solve within a five-hour deadline. While it wasn’t quite software engineering, it gave him a familiarity with his first programming language, and when a friend at Quantcast mentioned that his team likes to hire people with math backgrounds, Jackson decided to switch gears. Since 2012, he has been able to work on almost every system at Quantcast, spending time on at least a dozen teams and across all three engineering offices. Jackson has learned an immense amount in the last years, going from not knowing how to use git to writing arm64 assembly. He wouldn’t have been able to grow and develop without the amazing support of his managers and teammates.
Jackson particularly enjoys writing hyper-efficient software. He is always looking for ways to improve the performance of the Quantcast Platform, finding it satisfying to see the concrete results on a graph, as the efficiency numbers go up or the cost numbers go down. Starting in 2019, Jackson led a team dedicated to building out Kamke, a distributed computing system that powers the Quantcast Platform’s Ara™, our machine learning and AI engine. Beginning with a single-threaded solution that was already backing projects, they were able to significantly grow Kamke. Accomplishments include reducing customer query times by 1000x, adding dozens of new types of functionality, and scaling the amount of data by about 100x.
For anyone thinking about a career in this field, Jackson offers this advice: “Software engineering is such a broad field with different types of problems and roles, requiring different competencies and interests. Try to find the class of software engineering that you find interesting and engaging.” Bootcamps tend to focus on a very specific type of software engineering, due to the high demand for that kind of skill. But it’s only “a very small slice of the possible kinds of roles and jobs,” as Jackson points out: “Some people like systems engineering, where you’re figuring out how to reliably set up the computers so that they’re secure and stable; some people spend all their time in Python or Jupyter; some people like the front-end work. And all of those are valid and challenging in their own ways, so you need to find the type of software engineering that you enjoy thinking about and then try to do that.”
When James enrolled as a film student at an art school, he never would have anticipated that he would end up with a job as an engineer. He always loved hacking and doing video game mods, so after he realized he did not want to pursue cinematography as a career, he chose a new path. He took a position at Fry’s Electronics in an IT-adjacent position, building computers, which he really enjoyed. Not in a financial position to return to college, he got the opportunity to join Year Up, a program dedicated to providing on-the-job training and internships to young adults and supporting them as they build lifelong careers.
After some introductory training with a focus on system administration, James was offered an internship with Quantcast, which works closely with Year Up–and that’s when his real education began. James was given ownership of a project, driving it from start to finish, which he considered an amazing hands-on learning experience. He also lucked out with a great mentor, who took him under his wing and explained the broader concepts and best practices of systems design. Most importantly, James was self-motivated with a hunger for knowledge and a desire to prove his value, so he took on additional tasks, including mitigating and remediating configuration vulnerabilities across our infrastructure, particularly in AWS. As a result, he secured a full-time position at Quantcast.
Based on his own experience, James would encourage anyone inspired by his atypical path to take the self-learning route: “It’s really important to become completely submerged in the area of subject matter you’re studying and have an obsession about understanding it more.” While this advice can apply to any career, it is especially applicable to systems engineering. As James explains, “We work very closely with particular tooling and the software that helps us achieve a goal. So using that particular tool isn’t enough; it’s understanding why that tool is used, what kind of function it serves, how it’s part of a larger system, and what are the alternatives to that tool. Immersing yourself in the broader category of systems design really helps.” James is following his own advice, continuing his education with a soon-to-be-completed degree in computer science.
Meabh has made multiple moves–changing majors, industries, and jobs–on her unconventional pathway to becoming an engineer. As a university student in Scotland, she switched from studying actuarial sciences (assessing risks in insurance and finance) to the more interesting field of pure mathematics. She earned a master’s in energy economics, then started her career at a tech firm for the oil and gas industry, where she did forecasting, price analysis, and different-scenario modeling for different tax regimes. But when the industry took a dip, she was out of a job, and when a friend who worked for Quantcast offered her a job interview, it led to a new job in a different industry. Meabh started as a campaign analyst, reviewing ad campaign performance and troubleshooting as needed, then became a data analyst, pulling in her math background to work on reporting and insights, and finally, to her surprise, ended up as a software engineer.
While Meabh did not expect or plan to become an engineer, her adaptability opened up the opportunity. Back at the oil and gas firm, due to rounds of layoffs and restructuring, employees took on jobs that they wouldn’t have usually done, and Meabh found herself working closely with the engineers. She started learning SQL and really loved it, which led to her role at Quantcast, where she discovered how much she enjoyed finding ways to automate processes within the Quantcast Platform. Instead of relying on SQL and Excel, she chose to incorporate Python, a coding language, which initially took her longer, but ultimately improved efficiency and productivity for herself and her team. An engineering manager recognized her potential and kept encouraging her to apply for an open position until she finally took the plunge.
To an outsider, Meabh recognizes how daunting the field of engineering can seem, and so she suggests taking a closer look at its subcategories: “When you break it up and look at its different smaller parts, you realize, ‘Oh, I actually know how to do that. I could do that.’ And then eventually, hopefully, one day you will know everything. Pick a niche and start there.” She initially questioned her own capabilities, because she did not have a computer science degree, but she took advantage of free online courses and taught herself. Once she started on the job, she observed that all engineers are continually learning and developing new skills. She felt intimidated by being on call and in charge, but over time, has built up confidence in knowing that she can handle it. When she trained an engineering intern this summer, she fully grasped how far she has come and how much she has learned.
Embark On an Engineering Career
Even if you start on a drastically different path, you can still transition to a new career altogether, as long as you’re willing to take risks, challenge yourself, and learn on the job. Engineering, in particular, offers opportunities for individuals with a background in mathematics or coding, allowing them to transfer their skill sets. As the career trajectories of Jackson, James, and Meabh demonstrate, you don’t need to take a linear path to become an engineer. With ingenuity and perseverance, you can reinvent yourself and grow into the job you want.
If you are interested in taking this jump, Quantcast is hiring! To read about how Jackson’s engineering team solves hard problems, you can check out his blog post, “Inside Engineering: Optimizing Ara™ by Running Roaring Bitmaps on ARM.” You can also read this blog post to learn why our engineering team grew to love bitmaps to handle web-scale digital advertising. And you can find out how our engineers and modeling scientists leverage our unique technical systems and machine learning techniques to construct a robust pre-campaign forecasting pipeline for customers in “Ara, Tell Me What My Campaign Forecast Looks Like For Today.”