UC Davis Master's Program Stepping Stone for NVIDIA Senior Software Engineer
Eric Work '07 is a computer and software engineer with several senior-level positions under his belt. He is currently a senior deep learning inference software engineering manager at NVIDIA, one of the world's most successful computer hardware manufacturing companies.
Work attributes his success to his lifelong fascination with designing computer hardware and writing software, to his parents, both chemical engineers, and to the University of California, Davis.
Work believes that pursuing a master's degree in electrical and computer engineering from UC Davis was a pivotal decision that established the groundwork for his successful career. We spoke with Work to learn more about how the master's program prepared him for his role at NVIDIA and what advice he may have for aspiring engineers.
Can you tell us your story of how you discovered engineering? Who or what inspired you to become an engineer?
Both my parents were chemical engineers. They were always looking for engineering projects to inspire me and hold my interest. My mother started a manufacturing business right before I started high school and asked me to help her with setting up the computer network and developing an inventory program to help with operations. This early work opportunity confirmed my interest in computer science and engineering. I knew from an early age I wanted to design computer hardware and write software.
Could you take us back in time, before you first came to campus as a master's student? What initially drew you to the program at UC Davis?
I was drawn to UC Davis because of its proximity to Silicon Valley and the research opportunities in computer science and computer engineering that such a location would provide. The engineering program was well-regarded at UC Davis, but the college didn't feel intimidating like other respected and bigger campuses. When I went to visit, I liked the small-town feel and the ability to bike safely to and from campus.
What aspects of the UC Davis master's program would you say best prepared you for a career in engineering and for your current role at NVIDIA?
When I finished my bachelor's degree in electrical engineering [at the University of Washington in 2004], I didn't feel prepared to apply for the jobs I wanted. I've always been interested in applied science rather than theoretical work which tends to align more with research, so I knew a master's degree was the right choice for me. Although research was not my primary focus, it was an invaluable experience. Working on a long-term research project for my thesis taught me how to work independently and how to work through my failures. Being part of a research team, I learned how to work as a team and how others depend on your work for their projects to be successful. My first work experience after graduating from UC Davis was at Soft Machines Inc., a computer chip startup. I would not have received the job without the courses I took on different computer architectures and my research experience writing compilers and firmware at UC Davis.
Building on the last question, are there skills you learned during your program that you regularly use at work or in your day-to-day?
Iteration and innovation are a normal part of the job at NVIDIA. As a software engineering manager, I'm responsible for assigning tasks to engineers and helping them decide the next steps. Not all projects are successful and we may have spent months working on a solution we eventually have to abandon. We try to mitigate these risks by working out design options at the start and doing some proof of concepts to land on the best concept to move forward with. If the best idea we had at the time doesn't work out, we do a retrospective to learn what went well and how we apply those learnings to the next attempt. This software design process parallels my experience while working on research projects at UC Davis. You make an educated guess on how the problem you're researching can be solved and you see how it turns out. It wouldn't be research or innovation if you only applied the knowledge that you already have.
Is there a professor or staff member who had a big impact on you?
My research advisor Professor Bevan Baas was key to my success at UC Davis. Not only did I get the opportunity to work on the very exciting "KiloCore" project — the development of a chip with 1,000 independently programmable processors — but he provided me with amazing teaching opportunities as an assistant for his undergraduate course on very large-scale integration, more commonly known as VLSI. The course used an application called Magic to assist with the layout work. Baas allowed me to pursue my interest in open source software to contribute numerous improvements to the Magic software, benefiting students globally who use the software. My advisor also played an important role in landing my first job after graduation through some industry connections.
What advice would you give to engineering students who are preparing to begin their careers? Are there trends you are seeing now that they should be aware of?
I would tell future engineers to find something they're passionate about. If you aren't generally looking forward to waking up the next day to continue where you left off the previous day, work is going to be work. I would also tell future engineers not to underestimate the importance of planning and documentation. I recall a statement by a professor from my undergraduate years where he said, "If you're spending more time implementing and debugging your code than planning and documenting then you should rethink how you approach problems." As I've gained more experience in my career as a software engineer, I continue to be reminded how right he was. Spending time upfront planning out your work rather than jumping straight to the implementation leads to better results.
Is there anything else you'd like to share?
I had an amazing experience at UC Davis. Both my personal and professional experiences at UC Davis have shaped my life. I look forward to UC Davis' continued success and growth as both a learning institute and a place where cutting-edge research happens.