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What do UCI alumni Kevin Mekhitarian, Shary Sajjadi, Justin Turpin and Johnny Zarate all have in common? These four ICS graduates currently work at AutoGravity, the Irvine startup that surpassed 1 million users in November 2017. Founded in 2015 by Andy Hinrichs, Nicholas Stellman and Serge Vartanov, AutoGravity’s car-buying app lets users find a car and dealership and, within minutes, apply for financing and select a lender.

“It is so nice to have people from the same school sitting next to me as teammates,” says Shary Sajjadi, the first of the four to work at AutoGravity. Sajjadi received her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in Iran before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area to work as an electrical engineer. She earned her master’s degree in computer software engineering from UCI in 2014 and worked as a software engineer at another company before starting at AutoGravity in June 2016.

One month later, Johnny Zarate joined the team. Zarate is a Southern California native from the Inland Empire who graduated from UCI in 2012 with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. He worked as a quality assurance (QA) developer and software engineer before moving to AutoGravity. “It’s definitely easier to engage with your co-workers when you share a commonality, like graduating from UCI,” says Zarate.

Justin Turpin, who first started programming at age 9, was brought on board in October 2016 after receiving his bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2012 and working at a few other companies. Also from the Inland Empire, Turpin admits it was more than a year before he realized he was working with fellow UCI alumni!

That wasn’t the case for Kevin Mekhitarian, who had previously worked with Zarate and says there is now a channel for UCI grads on the company Slack chat. Originally from Los Angeles, Mekhitarian started out in computer engineering at UCI but switched to information and computer science toward the end of his first year. He received his bachelor’s degree in 2013 and moved to AutoGravity in March 2017. Of working with fellow alumni, he says “it is always a treat to reminisce about old courses and teachers.”

Speaking of courses, how did your UCI education help prepare you for your work at AutoGravity?
Sajjadi: Learning deep concepts of software at UCI, along with being a teaching assistant, prepared me to practice my computer science skills.

Zarate: UCI gave me a glimpse of the different types of software engineering. For instance, in one of my database courses, we had to set up a webpage driven in JSP, HTML and CSS. There wasn’t any guidance on how to develop the page, but once I figured out the technologies, I was able to almost instantly create something and see it on my screen. This was my first experience in web development, and I was in awe. Also, multiple times during my UCI education, I worked in groups, gaining experience in team collaboration and leaning how difficult it can be to complete a project when everyone isn’t on the same page. This helped establish my work ethic.

Turpin: I gained a solid understanding of computer science from UC Irvine. Although I didn’t understand it at the time, all of my professors were very knowledgeable and taught me good design practices.

Mekhitarian: My computer science education put me head and shoulders above other candidates who were self-taught or had taken boot camp courses. The classes that prepared me the most were the first three intro classes (then ICS 21, 22, and 23), coupled with two databases courses and the project course (CS 122B) with Chen Li. For the project, we used Java to create a website like IMDb [the Internet Movie Database] that integrated with a MySQL database — which is now what I do every day at work.

How does working at AutoGravity compare with life as a UCI student?
Sajjadi: Learning theories and computing basics at school helped me understand the underlying concepts of what we do at work, and now I use my computer science skills even more, but I never stopped learning. In school or at work, learning and staying up to date with new technologies is the life of a software engineer.

Zarate: Whether you’re a student or an employee, you need to step away at times to give yourself a mental break and gain a fresh perspective. Another similarity is that just like at UCI, I have multiple resources at my disposal. I can count on my peers at AutoGravity to help me with a problem, whether I want to bounce ideas off them or I need help debugging a particularly troublesome piece of code.

Turpin: When you’re a student, the things you do and learn are abstract, and in a job, they are much more practical. However, the mentality learned at UCI can be immediately applied to any job.

Mekhitarian: The main difference is the amount of time spent in class versus the office, but for both, time management is invaluable, and you get better results from teamwork than from combining the efforts of solo contributors.

What sort of work do you do, and what surprises or challenges have you encountered on the job?
Sajjadi: I am working as a back-end software engineer at AutoGravity, building all the stuff that is happening behind the scene of our cool app on Android, iOS and web platforms.

Zarate: For more than five years, I’ve worked as a software engineer dedicated to web development. One of the biggest challenges is dealing with the constant change and improvements. So I always stress to new developers that they should continue improving their knowledge of the languages they use instead of just focusing on the frameworks they work with. I’m also constantly surprised by the number of engineers who enter the field with knowledge stretched so thin that they don’t excel in any one thing. Another challenge I’ve encountered is the lack of communication between engineers. This probably applies to any job, but projects are often delayed because someone failed to communicate their thoughts or ask the right questions.

Turpin: I’m a DevOps/infrastructure engineer, which means I set up our cloud servers, create and implement monitoring tools and continuous deployment tools, and set up web-based tools to facilitate the development and deployment process.

Mekhitarian: I am a back-end engineer responsible for returning data to our front-end clients, like the iOS and Android native applications, as well as to our AutoGravity website. The biggest surprise for me was the fact that most challenges don’t arise from technical problems but from business requirements. The ever-changing landscape of our product, coupled with a steady flow of new ideas, presents new opportunities and challenges daily.

What do you like best about working for AutoGravity?
Sajjadi: I enjoy working with people who are my second family. I love the fact that every morning I get up and I am excited to go to work. Everyone at AutoGravity is very supportive and helpful, making our “One Team, One Dream” motto a reality!

Zarate: The best thing about AutoGravity is working with others who refuse to be complacent and who share the same drive to accelerate in their field.

Turpin: It’s great working with younger people who have a passion for good engineering and architecture.

Mekhitarian: I enjoy the freedom to make design and technology choices. Every engineer gets to be a part of architecture meetings and can make a case for using a new process, tool or library. Once there is agreement on a strategy, getting features to production is easy. Being able to contribute to such a rapidly growing company is rewarding.

What advice would you give to UCI ICS students looking for a job after graduation?
Sajjadi: Try to find a place that makes your dreams come true! Find a company where you can grow among people who support you, strengthen your skills and extend what you have learned at school.

Zarate: Apply, apply, apply. If you want to work as a developer, then don’t just apply as a QA developer, because many times it is very difficult to change departments, depending on the size of the company. Also, if you want to be an Android developer, create a portfolio of your Android applications. If you show an application that you created ages ago, then iterate over your work and improve on it.

Turpin: Don’t dismiss the basics. Data structures and algorithms might seem abstract and ultimately impractical, but employers will likely ask you about them. They’re fundamental to all computer science. You might not ever write a B-tree in your job, but you’ll need to know how to write code that can be performant on many millions of records.

Mekhitarian: Start in any position that gets you in the engineering department of a company you like. Johnny and I started in QA and quickly moved into development. Don’t let the allure of a big name trick you into giving up the early years of your career. The career track can be much more promising at a small company. Also, don’t be afraid to change companies. The biggest jump in pay can occur not via a promotion but by changing companies.

What are your future plans?
Sajjadi: Following my dreams and growing as a software engineer. I also hope to make an app from one of my ideas.

Zarate: I plan to continue to improve my skills and knowledge of the ever-expanding web development field — either through mentoring others or following leaders in my field — because my education didn’t end at UCI.

Turpin: I will continue to build great, reliable software!

Mekhitarian: I’m terrible at planning my future, but I try to save as much as I can so I’ll have a comfortable future no matter how rough the road may become.

Fortunately, as these four AutoGravity anteaters continue to follow their dreams, perfect their skills and build great software, the road ahead doesn’t look too rough.

Shani Murray