My first co-op experience in the US

by Krishna Tippur Gururaj, Computer Science MS student 

I had taken a break from my professional life to move to the US for grad school back in 2016. Back then, it had been a big change for me to get back to books, assignments, tests, and grades. Well, the summer of 2018 was quite a momentous one for me because I was given a chance to go back to working, albeit temporarily. As an international student, I had known that getting work experience in the US would be an invaluable step in my career.

HomeAway at The Domain, Austin, TX

So I was thrilled when I got a chance this year to go on a summer co-op at HomeAway, a vacation rental marketplace company based out of Austin, TX. My focus area during my Computer Science grad program has been Distributed Systems and I could not believe my luck when I got an opportunity to intern as part of HomeAway’s cloud engineering team. I was super excited to be moving to a new city, and equally nervous to be going back to working in a professional environment.

Just another cool spot in the office

After the initial excitement of getting the offer sunk in, I started to look at housing options. I knew I had to work with certain restrictions, i.e. easy commute, short-term lease. HomeAway’s recruitment team helped me get in touch with other incoming interns which was really helpful and made my housing search simple.

After a fast-paced yet informative two-week training program in which I was given overviews of the company vision, the various technologies that were used, and some hands-on on the same, I joined the Digital Infrastructure team in the Cloud Engineering department. The team was friendly and I found my colleagues to be approachable and helpful. I learned a lot and got to experience first-hand how stuff that I have studied about in grad school actually gets implemented in real-world scenarios.

Midway through the summer, HomeAway had organized a hackathon called InternHackATX, through which they intended to get interns from all over (internal and external to HomeAway) to come together for a weekend of bouncing ideas off of each other to solve a problem related to group travel. Three fellow interns and I ended up finishing 2nd overall for proposing a solution to intelligently bring structure to a group conversation between friends planning a vacation. It was an amazing experience and something that I had never done before!

First runners-up at InternHackATX 2018 (after about 3 hours’ sleep in 48 hours)

Before I knew it, it was time to wrap up my intern project, present it to a company-wide audience, and head back to Rochester. It was a bittersweet moment when I was leaving since I really liked living in Austin and partly because I had to get back to books. Anyway, it was a wonderful experience and I am glad I had the chance to learn and become more responsible.

A Halloween-themed attraction park: Field of Screams

by Krishna Tippur Gururaj, Computer Science MS student 

As an international student in the US, the concept of Halloween has been quite new to me. I had seen this holiday in many Hollywood movies previously but never had experienced it prior to moving to RIT for grad school.

A couple of weekends ago, I drove down to Harrisburg, PA to visit an old friend of mine. He and his friends had all planned to visit a haunted theme park called Field of Screams in Lancaster, PA, which is put together temporarily for a month or so around Halloween every year. I was quite intrigued when I heard about it and it turned out to be quite an experience.

Drove 5 hours for this experience!

The organizers of this place claim it is one of the scariest haunted venues in the US. When we all walked in, it was cold and raining, and none of us were quite dressed for the occasion (most of us were driving in from out of town). Once we got over the weather, we went on the first ride of the evening, on the back of a tractor trailer sitting on its hay-covered floor. This one was called the Haunted Hayride. The tractor took us through a series of stops, and at each we were met by a scary storyline and actors playing their parts perfectly, including some of them coming at us with live chain saws (except for the actual chain part)!

The Haunted Hayride

The second one was called the Nocturnal Wastelands, which was a 20 minute-long trek through paths laid out around the previous ride (the Haunted Hayride). This one involved physical interaction with the actors as they tried to pull us into dark corners and use scare tactics. As this was based in a farm area, the temperatures were really low, and I personally felt that that added to the thrill of this part. There were smells integrated into the whole setup which unsettled us, and made us look over our shoulders all the way!

Somewhere in the Nocturnal Wasteland

The third attraction in the park was called the Den of Darkness. I was relieved to be indoors for this since it gave me a break from the cold rain. I liked this attraction the most as it had a good combination of jump scares, pitch dark corners, and physical obstacles. There was a section where we had to physically push through what felt like pillows pushing against us as we walked through! The Den of Darkness’ back story talks about an old, haunted mansion which has seen a lot of killings on its premises, and the whole scene is set accordingly.

Just a head hanging out in the Den of Darkness

The last attraction was called the Frightmare Asylum, which is set as a former home for the criminally insane patients. The jump scares here felt more real than before as there were dwarf actors here. At a fork in the path, we met a “friendly” patient who was trying to tell us the right way out but a few of us ignored that and went the other way. We actually lost our way by doing so and came out a few minutes after our friends (who had chosen to listen to the advice)! We had to then crawl through an extremely small space to get out where dead (fake) corpses were kept all around us. It was one crazy experience as we had to keep convincing ourselves that it was not real!

Not a sane sight inside the Frightmare Asylum

Finally, we were done with our fun trip to a famous Halloween tradition. We were cold, exhausted, and wet but I am sure we all looked back with a sense of relief in the end. I am not someone who enjoys being spooked so I’m just glad I got to tick this off my list of things to do for Halloween!

MS Computer Science: Bridge courses

by Krishna Tippur Gururaj, Computer Science MS student 

Every year, one of the most common topics that is on an incoming MS-CS student’s mind at RIT is bridge courses. These are a set of three graduate level courses that the CS department requires every student to be well-versed with before proceeding with other graduate courses. They “bridge” the gap in knowledge.

These courses are in place because the department probably saw that a number of CS graduate students were not up to the mark when it came to fundamental programming skills. Nowadays, almost every admitted MS-CS student who has not obtained an undergraduate CS degree from a US university is required to complete these bridge courses.

The three courses are “Advanced Object Oriented Programming (using Java)”, “Computational Problem Solving (using Python)”, and “Foundations of Computer Science Theory”. If a student is assigned to any or all of these courses, the only way to let the department know that they already possess the technical skills offered in the course(s) is by taking up and passing the corresponding bridge waiver exams successfully. So if a student feels that they were assigned a particular course by mistake, they must take and pass the waiver exam(s).

These waiver exams are held on the day of the department orientation, are of 1 hour each in duration, and cover all the topics that would be taught in the course itself. The syllabus and timing of each exam can be found at https://cs.rit.edu/orientation/bridgeexams. The exams would be a combination of multiple-choice, short answer, medium answer, and long answer questions. They would test a student’s knowledge on the subject thoroughly.

I had a non-CS background coming in to the CS grad program here so I needed the bridge courses. In my experience, most students who took up the bridge courses felt like they benefited from the practice they got by solving the weekly assignments and studying for the midterms. The coursework of these courses definitely helped in my interview process.

Many incoming students would hear that these bridge courses are extremely difficult to clear. Although I did not take up the option of sitting for the waiver exams, I believe that one of the major reasons why a small number of students clear the waiver exams is because of the clear gap in knowledge and maybe the fact that most students end up either taking the waiver exams lightly or do not even turn up for them.

Every incoming student would love to clear one or more waivers since that would mean saving on the cost of those courses. However, I feel that by trying to clear all three in one go, students end up not doing well enough in any. Unless a student is extremely confident in their abilities and knowledge of a particular bridge course, I would honestly recommend students to pick and choose their strongest course and put all their efforts into clearing that.

Getting a DMV-issued ID in the United States

by Krishna Tippur Gururaj, Computer Science MS student 

A person is ID-ed while purchasing alcohol, or while entering an age-restricted setting, such as an R-rated movie at a theater or even a restaurant after a certain time, or when taking a domestic flight within the US. As an international student, my primary ID is my passport. However, I find it cumbersome and unsafe to carry it around whenever I step out of the house.

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) comes to the rescue in this matter. It issues three different types of ID, all of which can be used for the various purposes mentioned above. The first, and the simplest to obtain, is the non-driver’s ID, also known as a state ID. It costs about $8. The whole process at the DMV takes a few minutes and the issued ID gets mailed within a fortnight. The list of required documents can be found on the DMV website. The validity ranges from 4 to 10 years.

The second type of ID is a learner’s permit. This is required to obtain an eventual permanent driver’s license but can be used a form of ID on its own too. This typically costs around $70 (the actual cost depends on the age of applicant and other criteria) and includes the cost of obtaining the permanent permit as well. The required documents for this ID can be found on the DMV website, however if an applicant already holds a state ID, no extra document might even be checked. A written test is required for this ID. An applicant is asked to answer 20 questions pertaining to driving and the learner’s permit is issued if 14 or more of these questions are answered correctly. I personally read the content at https://dmv.ny.gov/driver-license/drivers-manual-practice-tests to prepare for the test.

The third type of ID is the driver’s permit. An applicant for this needs to be in possession of a valid learner’s permit and should have completed a pre-licensing course or a driver’s education course. More details about these courses can be obtained from the DMV website. The applicant would need to successfully pass a road test to get this permit. Scheduling this road test takes time as DMVs are usually dealing with a constant backlog of tests so typically the next available date is usually a couple of months away. The cost of two road tests is included while paying for the initial learner’s permit. If an applicant needs more than two tests, an extra charge is levied.

Once a person has any of these three IDs, their passport can be safely kept indoors only to be taken out for international travel. Please remember that none of these above mentioned IDs can substitute the requirement of a passport while crossing international boundaries!

My first Toastmasters Club session

by Krishna Tippur Gururaj, Computer Science MS student 

I had heard about Toastmasters a couple of years ago from a friend who was looking for a way to overcome a crippling fear of public speaking. I mirrored similar feelings but due to some circumstances, I could not find out more and join. Last semester I came across an e-mail from the RIT chapter of Toastmasters. I was keen on attending a meeting but unfortunately, the timings of their weekly sessions coincided with classes so I was not able to take part.

This semester I happen to be free during their meetings so finally in the 5th week, I got myself to go for a session of Tiger Tales Toastmaster Club. I walked in apprehensively, got greeted at the door by a smiling greeter (I found out later that one member is assigned to be a “greeter” each session) who realized almost immediately that I was a newcomer and patiently walked me through the sign-in process, handed me a copy of the day’s agenda, and found me a spot.

It was 6:28 PM and the session was scheduled to start at 6:30 PM. I saw people walking around chatting with others so I expected a delay in proceedings. I could not have been more wrong. At exactly 6:30 PM, the “opener” walked up to the front of the room, banged the gavel, and started speaking. And just like that, everything was engrossed in what was being said. I found out that there was a pre-decided theme of the day, which on that day was “realization”. The “opener” spoke for a couple of minutes about it, giving the audience his view on what realization meant to him. It was short, yet informative. At 6:33 PM, he introduced the “toastmaster” for the evening, whose primary task from then onwards was conducting the meeting. The toastmaster then welcomed all members and paid special attention to the guests for the evening. The guests, or newcomers as I would call us, were given a quick overview of how Toastmasters works, how their goal is to promote public speaking and to help anyone hone their speaking skills. He introduced several key positions for the evening, a person oversaw time-keeping, another one kept track of the grammar being used, while another person counted the number of times a speaker used filler words (“ah”, “umm”, “like”).

And then the session got underway properly. There was a range of speakers for the day; one was doing his first Toastmasters’ speech, while another one was practicing to participate in an international Toastmasters competition. There was also a section where open questions were asked and anyone in attendance could go up and answer. This addressed the impromptu part of public speaking and served as a perfect complement to the previous section where speakers gave prepared speeches.

In the end, the meeting was concluded by reviews given by the “timer”, the “ah-counter”, the “grammarian”, and the general evaluator. Each person’s comments were well-appreciated and applauded. There was even a small prize given to the person who gave the best answer for the open question section.

The last thing that the president of the club did before adjourning the session was to speak to the guests of the evening and made us give our two cents about the experience. I absolutely loved the whole thing and made sure that everyone knew how much I enjoyed.

I would love to join the club and learn the art of public speaking from others and was thoroughly impressed by the ease with which each speaker spoke and the way all constructive criticism was given and taken. I cannot wait to go back next week and I hope that this will be an enriching experience for me going forward.