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Highlights from Undergrad
  • Double major in Music Composition and CS and a minor in Mathematics
  • Extracurriculars: CS Forensics Club, JMU Catholic Campus Ministry, JMU Steel Band
  • CS Honors Thesis: “Path tracing using lower level of detail for secondary rays” 
  • Winner of the CS Brian Kernigham Award (2014)
  • National Science Foundation, CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service Recipient
What has your career path been like since graduating from JMU CS?

I worked for the Federal Government for seven years in cyber security, building internal tools and performing network penetration tests. I’m currently a Software Engineer at YouTube in security focusing on Anti-Abuse. I’m working on the Trust and Safety team to help protect our users and content creators from abuse such as spam or malicious apps. My typical day consists of performing analysis to identify new threats and then developing the code and infrastructure to protect against these threats at scale. 

It’s great to move from a place of service in the federal government where my mission was to defend people to then transition to the private sector where my mission is still to protect people: our creators and users. I think being able to find places where your own personal mission still lines up with work expectations is such a great blessing. I’m very thankful that I still get to serve the people I care about.

Security is an adversarial game, no matter where you’re at on the offensive or defensive side. So we have a playbook to be able to deal with these security issues, and the playbook involves making sure our adversaries’ job is harder by making it more expensive for them to do their business and also by educating our users on the best way to safely use our products.

What are some of the ways JMU prepared you for the challenges you encountered and goals you’ve achieved after graduation?

I think the professors at JMU, and especially in the CS Program, are really great at being both available and relatable to students. Dr. Bernstein is great, and I know a lot of people have wonderful things to say about him. Even after graduating, I still talk with him a lot. I used him as a voice to help guide me through major life decisions: I talked to him about Masters Programs and he helped me narrow the field and wrote me letters of recommendation, which just shows how much the professors care about their students, even long after they have graduated. 

And the CS Program in general is well-rounded enough and the curriculum is well-formatted to help students jump into industry. When I first started, I was able to get up to speed quickly and was valued for looking at the hard problems that other people weren’t trying to solve. 

And as a government employee, my technical expertise was a huge benefit, because it meant I was able to directly solve problems that would ultimately save taxpayer money and improve our security posture. Eventually I went on to do a Masters in computer science at the University of Texas at Austin, where I took classes on Machine Learning and User Experience (UX). So when I came back to my position, I used my UX knowledge to change how we did some of our operations and kick off some new programs. It was great to take the skills I learned in my Masters and really apply it

What was one of your formative experiences in the JMU CS program?

I was in the Honors College and I did my CS honors thesis with Dr. Bernstein on using multiple levels of detail to speed up ray tracing for the reflection bounces; essentially, I was trying to see if using lower detail models in the scene for reflection could improve rendering speed without sacrificing quality. Going through that type of rigorous research was definitely humbling. As an undergrad in CS, it was the first real time you realize just how little you know. 

But I think Dr. Bernstein did a really good job helping me to focus my topic. My eyes were so big and I wanted to do too much; he helped me hone in on something  technically achievable. Pushing through the difficulty to produce a result was worth the effort.  These challenges are what build the core of who you are, and ultimately allowed me to succeed in the even more difficult research I undertook in my Masters program.

What advice do you have for current JMU CS students?

Pursuing a double major, the best thing I did was deciding to take an extra year to get it all done. I could have done it in 4 years, but I don’t think I wouldn’t have been as successful and I wouldn’t have learned as much… and I certainly wouldn’t have had as much fun.

So my advice is: this time works best when you take time. Be broad, try lots of things, take fun courses (like pottery or fly fishing!) Take your time, because it’s not a rush to the finish line. You’re not going to be better off getting out of school earlier. The benefit comes from focusing on what you’re doing and getting some of those broadening experiences – that’s what undergrad is all about: building up a broad package – not just getting the degree. 

Because, you know what? Your dream job will be there next year. These companies aren’t going anywhere. Their salaries aren’t going to fall - they’re all going up. And on top of that, you don’t need to land the perfect job right out of graduation. You can pivot from one thing to the next. You can grow in any role. 

People so often worry about prestige and timing and speed and doing things perfectly, but sometimes if you slow down and enjoy the moment, you’ll get more out of it. And always be your authentic self. You’ll be okay - you’re not missing out or “behind.” You’re doing it right.

Bonus Material

We talked mostly about what Ryan's been doing with his CS degree, but if you'd like to hear what he's doing with his Music Composition degree check out his SoundCloud! 


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