Finishing up a graduate program and heading out into the 'real world' is a big enough transition on its own. Now imagine also navigating your first post-grad job in the midst of a global pandemic, where regular in-person connection has become nearly impossible.
That's exactly what Ball State CICS students Eddie Metzger and Lionel Somé have done. And while the experience has certainly been challenging at times, the two award-winning grads have still managed to successfully adapt. When we spoke to them recently about graduation, their new roles at Palo Alto Networks and CenturyLink, and how they've handled the transition, one thing became clear: the importance of continuing to learn — on the job, and in life — even after one has left the structure of an academic program.
Congratulations on your recent graduation from the Ball State Masters program in Information and Communication Sciences, and for the awards you both received (Student of the Year and Researcher of the Year, respectively). How does it feel to have completed the program, and what did these awards mean for each of you?
Eddie: Finishing the program felt like a great accomplishment. My undergraduate degree taught me a lot, but CICS introduced me to a world of technology that I barely knew existed a year ago. The amount of work that my peers and I put into being successful students is almost mind-boggling, but we cherished every minute. Receiving Student of the Year is an incredible honor, as CICS is a program made stronger by its people. To know that my peers, friends, and colleagues voted for me to receive the award makes me feel extremely grateful.
Lionel: Completing the program for me was completing 5 years of engineering studies, as my journey at CICS was part of a double degree between my French Engineering school and CICS. It was a great accomplishment, and I am pleased that these years of growth, on both academic and personal levels, have paid off. This sense of pride was further reinforced by the Researcher of the Year award that I was honored to receive. It is an award that encourages me to redouble my efforts and to continue to the best of my ability to live up to CICS values, one of which is to ensure that technology is not only accessible, but also at the service of all.
Huge accomplishments for you both! And those are such important values to continue living and working by. Lionel, you’ve been working as a Data Scientist for Palo Alto Networks (PAN) since February. What was it like to go into the workplace for the first time after completing five years of studies, and in what ways does your research at Ball State apply to the work you’re doing now?
The transition to PAN went smoothly, despite the current context for two main reasons. The first is the Data Science team at PAN, who is very supportive in ensuring that PAN values of collaboration, inclusion, and execution are a reality. The second is undoubtedly the many projects and other social learning events at CICS that prepared us for the professional world.
In fact, I represented CICS at a competition organized by PAN, which allowed me to get to know the company better and to later accept the offer to join the Data Science team. This competition, the first of its kind organized by PAN, had a research component on the ways to secure the future of our digital way of life. I can therefore say that one of the many opportunities to apply the knowledge and skills gained at CICS led me to PAN. In Data Science, we often research and read research papers to keep up with the technology as it advances very quickly, and we try to adapt this to the problems we want to solve. Just like a researcher, a passion for science and a great desire to learn are essential in data science.
Eddie, you’re now a Channel Manager in the CenturyLink Sales Academy. How has the transition from graduate student to manager in training been for you, and in what ways did your studies help prepare you for your new role?
Before graduating from CICS, I started training with CenturyLink, and I am now preparing to transition into my final role as a Channel Manager for the company. The transition was exciting! I actually started training about halfway through my final semester with CICS, so balancing classes with my new job was a little challenging, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
CICS did a fantastic job at preparing me for this opportunity. While many of the classes in the program are centered around technical concepts and abilities, the other half teach the business acumen one needs to successfully translate highly technical issues into business solutions. This is exactly what I will do with CenturyLink as I help train channel partners on the company’s adaptive networking, connected security, and IT agility solutions. My relationship with CenturyLink actually stemmed from the encouragement of a professor in CICS who suggested that I apply for a recent job opening and contact a CICS alum, who is a VP there. After that phone call, I was introduced to the sales channel and learned more about the company as a whole. Fast forward a few months, and I accepted an offer to work in the business unit managed by the VP I spoke to earlier in the year. This proved to me the power of people and networking within the CICS alumni-base.
“A passion for science and a great desire to learn are essential."
Like all of us, you’re both living and working in the midst of a global pandemic, one that has driven many of our most essential activities online. How has the pandemic impacted each of your lives, and the work you're doing?
Lionel: I started at PAN a few weeks before work from home was introduced, and I am fortunate to be able to do so. Though, it is true that not having the opportunity to interact with my colleagues on a daily basis, especially during the learning phase, was a challenge. My colleagues were a great help in making this transition much smoother, however; they are always available. I would like to thank both my colleagues and PAN for making this possible.
Eddie: About halfway through my second semester in CICS, we moved to strictly online classes. This definitely proved challenging for some classes, but for others the transition was fairly smooth. My final semester in the summer was 100% virtual, and all of my classes were taught remotely. While I would have loved to work with my peers and professors in a classroom setting, it was relieving to see the same level of dedication and hard work from everyone, even if we were all working in our pajamas.
After accepting with CenturyLink, I was scheduled to relocate to Broomfield, CO for my 12-week training. Unfortunately this was also cancelled as a result of the pandemic. However, just like CICS, the level of hard work and dedication I have experienced from my colleagues and managers has been incredible. The company has done a great job at transitioning and training Sales Academy representatives to be successful in their final field roles.
Through your roles at PAN and CenturyLink, what do you hope to learn or achieve in the long term, but also in the short term, particularly during a time like this?
Eddie: CenturyLink has introduced me to a world of sales that I knew very little about before starting my training. The channel is an extremely interesting and innovative way to facilitate solutions for customers around the world, and I’m excited to invest time in learning about my role in particular. In the long term, I’m excited to develop my personal brand and the relationships with my partners to find future success. I’ve learned more recently about CenturyLink’s positioning in the technology industry, and I’m excited to be a part of that growth. In the short-term, I’m excited to hone in my technical skills and understanding of CenturyLink products. In particular, I’m interested in learning more about edge computing technologies from the company and the industry as a whole.
Lionel: One of the challenges of the transition to the professional world is to become familiar with the work culture, but also with the technologies that are numerous and varied in the field of data science in particular. So my goal in the short term is to keep learning how to best structure Machine Learning (ML) projects while continuing to develop my technical skills. In the longer term, it's to participate in the production of a project I'm working on, and to explore other areas of ML such as Natural Language Processing (NLP), and more specifically, the Natural Language Understanding (NLU) for chatbots.
“NANOG is an organization full of mind-bogglingly smart people, and to have the chance to learn just a little from them has been an incredible experience."
Such fascinating work you get to be a part of, and continue to learn from as a result. You both participated in the NANOG College Immersion program, and also attended NANOG U when we visited Ball State. What was one thing each of you learned from those experiences, and how do you feel they complemented what you were studying in the CICS program?
Lionel: I attended NANOG 76, which was the first time I participated in a Meetings, Incentives, Conferencing, Exhibitions (MICE) event that was in the same spirit as the CICS social-learning events. There was a wide variety of very relevant topics. One that I remember in particular was a presentation titled "DDoS Mitigation Fundamentals". It introduced how some companies protect themselves against these Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS), expanding my knowledge on the subject. Another presentation I remember was from the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) on the advantages for companies in making the transition to IPv6. I also participated in a hackathon, which allowed me to explore a wide variety of technologies while trying to apply my programming skills to solve the challenge at hand: finding the topology of a network, identifying the failing nodes, and rerouting packets accordingly by finding the shortest path in the graph. Last but not least, the social events at the NANOG Conference and NANOG U are real networking opportunities. I was able to meet people of different ages and backgrounds, and have very enriching discussions.
Eddie: The NANOG College Immersion program and NANOG U introduced me to concepts that I didn’t even know existed, and that’s what made it so exciting. Simply listening to key opinion leaders discuss different solutions, innovations, services, and experiments taught me how the reach of the technology industry extends so far beyond just hardware and software. At NANOG 78, I participated in a hackathon with total strangers from companies like AT&T and PAN, and we worked together to develop a solution using the specified programs and guidelines from the competition. What stood out to me with this experience was the persistence that the other team members had to help me understand what we were actually doing. With little to no programming experience, I was lost for most of the afternoon, but still gained enough knowledge to accurately present on our solution at the end of the day. The experiences at NANOG complemented CICS because they challenged me to use my synthesization and critical-thinking skills, and to take them to the next level. NANOG is an organization full of mind-bogglingly smart people, and to have the chance to learn just a little from them has been an incredible experience.
“By expressing an openness to learn, your excitement for the technology grows.”
We love hearing that you both had such positive experiences at NANOG! Any words of advice you would share with students preparing to enter the tech workforce sometime this year, or next?
Eddie: Be open to learning new things. Even if you won’t be working directly with the technology in your role, take the time to understand it and get excited about it. Ask engineers and technical support different questions to fully understand what the technology is and how it affects people in the industry. Take some time to read about the technology and the innovation in your free time, and talk about it with your peers. By expressing an openness to learn, your excitement for the technology grows.
Lionel: I totally agree with Eddie. I believe that continuous learning is indispensable, especially in the IT field. I believe that one of the fundamental skills acquired at school, which is especially very useful in one's future career, is learning how to learn. In this respect, I believe that graduation should not mark the end of the learning path, but a turning point where one takes ownership for one's own learning. Lastly, I would like to express my encouragement and wish all the best to those who are reading this and are about to enter the workforce, especially in the current context with all the uncertainties of the moment. Thank you to NANOG, and especially Brandi, for the opportunity to express ourselves and share our experiences and aspirations.
Photos courtesy of Eddie Metzger and Lionel Somé.
Interested in learning more about the NANOG College Immersion Program and NANOG U? Read more here, and here.