Doctoral CS alum offers advice for student who want to work in industry
Adaptivity is a concept with which computer science alumnus Rajkumar Bondugula is familiar. Since leaving his native India to pursue graduate studies in the U.S., Bondugula said he’s learned that being adaptive is one of the most important skills a person can have in academia, industry and in life.
Bondugula came to the University of Missouri in 2001 after earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering from the University of Madras in Chennai, along India’s Southeastern coast. For him, the decision to study at MU was a family affair — even with his family being 8,000 miles away.
“My uncle got his Ph.D. from MU in the chemistry department. I got into three other schools, but picked MU because my uncle was here,” he said. “He was a post-doc by the time I came here.”
His interest in computer science evolved out of an interest in electronics, but realizing the limitations of that educational pursuit, switched directions.
“When I was an undergraduate student, I was initially interested in electronics, but in India, there’s only so far you can go in electronics. There’s more flexibility in computer science. That is exactly what happened to me,” he said.
He earned a master’s degree in computational intelligence working with James Keller, a Curators Professor in the Computer Science (CS) and Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) departments. He conducted his doctoral research in bioinformatics with CS Department Chairman Dong Xu, successfully defending his dissertation in 2007.
In addition to pursuing his graduate work with Keller and Xu, Bondugula co-authored a book addressing the link between bioinformatics and fuzzy logic with three MU faculty researchers.
“Raj was one of the first students I recruited right after I joined MU,” Xu said. “He took initiatives to lead others setting up my lab, and did a lot of volunteer work. He also served as a volunteer for Fuzz-IEEE 2003 conference and as a reviewer for Fuzz-IEEE 2006 and Fuzz-IEEE 2007 conferences.”
In the five years since earning his doctorate, Bondugula has worked for the Department of Defense near Washington conducting bioinformatics research, then switched to e-commerce research in Sears Holdings Corporation in Chicago and, most recently, Home Depot, Inc., in Atlanta.
His current job as a data scientist allows him to work with the schematics and optimization of the company’s website.
“Let’s say you’re looking for a microwave,” he said. “When you come to our website, we have to be extremely careful what we present to you. We don’t want to make you do a lot of work to get you to what you’re looking for.
“It’s a huge optimization strategy. We look into all the dimensions of the customers’ experience, so they can find what they are looking for. Also, when you are looking at a bath faucet, we recommend other items, such as showerhead and shower handles, that go with the faucet.”
Bondugula joined the company about five months ago, saying he liked the position, the company and the Atlanta weather, preferring it to that of Chicago.
“When I was in Chicago, I almost bought a house, but my wife and I were looking for a weather change. We didn’t want to be in a cold place for the rest of our lives. Even with a new car, it still took 50 feet to stop the car in the snow,” he said, laughing.
The job with Home Depot didn’t start behind a desk, but in the store.
“We are required to work in the store, lift things, mix paint and things like that. Coming from India, with the low labor cost, there’s no need to learn how to fix things yourself.
“When I was working in the store, people would ask me questions, not knowing that I worked for corporate. It was a learning experience.”
But Bondugula likened the learning experience to adapting in any industry.
“The moment you come to industry, people want everything done yesterday,” he said. “You can easily get a job, but to grow in an organization, you have to aim for excellence. Try to learn what the industry wants and learn that skill set. The goal is to come up with a strategy and implement it quickly.
“You have to be very adaptive. Be ready for direction changes every day. Don’t be attached to projects. The moment I came into industry, I learned what dynamic really means.”
Xu said he’s not surprised that Bondugula has been able to adapt so easily in industry.
“When he was a student in my lab, I was impressed with his initiatives and leadership,” Xu said. “Instead of just waiting for assignments, he often thought about what he could do for the lab and others.
“He was a mature student and worked hard to prepare his career. He was enrolled in National Science Foundation sponsored two-semester course titled ‘Preparing Future Engineering Faculty and Professionals.’ He enrolled in ‘Entering-Mentoring,’ an eight-week workshop sponsored by the Office of Research. He was well respected by his peers. During his stay at my lab, he was mentoring two undergraduate students and one starting graduate student.”
Bondugula said it was important for students and new graduates to know that employers want candidates with certain skills, and being prepared to handle anything that comes at you is a plus.
“Learn Java and learn it well,” he said. “These are very complex environments with many systems and each system has terabytes of data.”
Though his career path has taken him to three different states since graduating, Bondugula said he is most fond of time in Missouri.
“Being from another country, Mizzou became my new home,” he said. “Every time I go back, it’s like going home.”