Alumni Spotlight: Tyler Smith

August 9, 2017

Master of Science in Software Engineering and Bachelor of Science alum Tyler Smith spent his final year pursuing his undergraduate degree in computer science with one foot in college and the other in his career. In the summer of 2009, he interned at General Dynamics and was ambitious enough to maintain the position through the school year.

“I took computer science classes in the morning,” said Smith, “and applied that knowledge to my work in the afternoon.

This model of applying theory to practice stuck with him while he began his career, but it was not until then-Director of the MSSE Program Mats Heimdahl invited him to attend one of MSSE’s informational luncheons that he learned that the MSSE program was specifically designed for working professionals, allowing students to work their 9 to 5 and requiring students full-time industry experience before starting the program.

“That sealed the deal,” said Smith.  “I wanted to be in a graduate program with working professionals who applied software engineering on a daily basis. I did not want theory.  I wanted practice.”

Smith’s practical approach to solving problems extends beyond his career and classroom.  A father of two boys, ages one and three, Smith saw that they were reading plenty of books about animals and vehicles, but nothing about computer science. This inspired Smith to team up with artist Emily Krueger to create Goodnight Server Room.

In a heartbeat my three year old can rattle off the names of an excavator, a bulldozer, and a crane,” said Smith. “I want him to be able to identify a server, a keyboard, and a network switch, too.”

Goodnight Server Room is a whimsical book written in verse and intended for kids ages one to five. Smith’s aim with the book is to present computer-related concepts in a non-technical way, while illustrating fundamental concepts about computer science.  Also, he wants his kids to know what he does at his job all day.

“Just how you need to learn what a car is before you can learn to drive, I want my boys to know what a server is before they write their first program,” said Smith.

Goodnight Server Room is available for pre-order on Etsy.  Catch up with him below.

1. While writing Goodnight Server Room, what were some unique challenges in trying to communicate fairly complicated technology to a younger audience?

Concept sketch for the processor page. Illustration by Emily KruegerThe most difficult page was number fourteen: The Processor. A literal drawing of a processor would be boring at best and confusing or misleading at worst. I needed to introduce the concept of a “machine that solves problems” without straying into technical terms that would overwhelm a lay reader. Showing all of the details of a processor would be impossible, and abstracting its features away into labeled boxes would lose the attention of my audience.

I decided to focus on a small feature of a processor that can stand in the place of the real thing: an adder. I started with an eight-bit adder, but soon realized that that level of detail was untenable. I reduced it significantly, including just enough detail to show one plus three.

picture3.pngI originally had boxes labeled “AND”, “OR”, and “XOM”, but when I showed it to my wife (a non-technical reader) she said, “I don’t know what these are—I can’t explain this to the kids.” To maintain the engineer appeal without intimidating lay readers, Emily and I replaced all of the boxes with Dr. Seussian machines, each differentiated to represent a single kind of logic gate. This compromise allowed me to show a technically accurate adder (satisfying the notoriously picky technical community) while presenting everyone else with a simpler but still correct impression: the processor is a machine that works on data.

2.  Tell us a little bit about working at Adventium Labs. How are you applying your computer science and software engineering background to your professional life?

Five years ago I never would have guessed that I would find myself on the formal methods bandwagon alongside professor Mike Whalen. In his MSSE software engineering course I slogged through the “Microwave Safety” formal modeling exercise with little more than a passing interest. At the time, I thought formal methods were just another engineering fad.

Adventium Labs is a research and development company. I started working at Adventium in 2014 and it did not take long for me to realize formal methods have immense potential for addressing problems inherent in designing and securing advanced systems. Recently, I’ve been using model-based engineering to provide a development and integration environment on top of formal methods. For example, I work on tools for Adventium’s CAMET (pronounced camay) suite that drive constraint-based real-time schedule generation and validation from AADL (Architecture Analysis and Design Language) models. These tools are being used by companies conducting research for the next generation of rotorcraft, and with some luck I’ll get to ride in one someday.

3. What were your early experiences with computing that inspired you growing up and convinced you to pursue computer science as a career?

Vestiges of what first drew me into computing are still strewn about my desk. I’m talking, of course, about Lego. In middle school I had the opportunity to participate in First Lego League, a Lego Mindstorms-based competition for elementary and high school students. Lego League gave me a thrilling introduction to robotics and programming. It convinced me that complicated engineering problems were within my grasp.

4. What is one of your fondest memories from your time at the U of M?

Early in the MSSE program I was sitting in class, seven hours and fifty-odd minutes into an eight hour day. The seconds ticked by. Students itching to get on with their weekends started the not-so-subtle ritual of quietly packing their bags while the professor continued lecturing. Finally, the clock ran out.

I was about to leave when another student stood up. “I’m organizing a happy hour outing,” he announced to the room, “you all should come!”

The MSSE program does not offer the quiet anonymity I had managed as an undergraduate. You have to get to know your peers. I groaned inwardly. Why does he have to do this? I just want to go home.

Begrudgingly, I joined the group and walked into Stub and Herbs—and into friendships that have lasted years beyond graduation.

MSSE strongly supports that students to get to know one another.  Going out to happy hour that day introduced me to an awesome group of engaged, creative, and supportive friends. I followed that happy hour with another, and another. Nearly every week after class we walked together to relax, drink a beer, and get to know other engineers.

5. What is it about computer science that keeps you excited and motivated for the future?

I love software development because the cost of entry is so low. Anybody with a computer can start programming. Combine that with the immense reach of the internet and you have the capacity to subvert systems that have existed for centuries. Currencies are changing. Journalism is changing. Commerce is changing. Software touches every part of our lives, and anybody can write software.

However, we’re in a backlash right now—the one step back after our two steps forward. Easy online publishing helped foster fake news. Bitcoin enabled a new generation of criminal enterprise. These are big problems and I do not know how to solve them. I just know that any kid with a laptop can start building the solutions, and that gives me hope.

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