Undergrad Alum Profiles:
Sophia Cui, Jian Wei Gan, Trevor Reid

From the Spring 2012 issue of Threads

CS alum Trevor Reid, Sophia Cui, and Jian Wei Gan

You might call them hip, young and dangerous as Professor Owen Astrachan does. But one thing’s certain: These Duke graduates enjoy working at a startup.

Sophia Cui, Jian Wei Gan and Trevor Reid graduated in spring 2011 with a bachelor of computer science. In the summer, they began working for TellApart, a startup company just south of San Francisco that helps e-commerce websites make better use of customer data. One way the software engineers do this is through a product the company calls “Retargeting.” Using information from the customer data platforms of websites — such as what shoppers are looking at, what they’re adding to their carts and what they’re buying — TellApart creates personalized display advertisements to show specific products to the right people.

Of the company’s 23 employees, Cui, Gan and Reid are the youngest, but each plays an important role over different projects.

“When there are 10 engineers, pretty much everybody has to be in charge of one part of the system or another, and that’s definitely been the case for all of us,” said Reid, who also received a degree in electrical and computer engineering. “That’s not something that you necessarily get at a larger company — you’re always going to be part of some subgroup of some major team.”

At TellApart, Reid works on the internal analytic tools for understanding the data and making it accessible, Gan works on developing new products to use based on the customer data platforms, and Cui works on the retargeting product’s ads, optimizing them through experiments such as those that determine the optimal number of items to display and their placement.

The hours are long, with the three estimating they work about 60 hours per week with voluntary work on some weekends. But the work is engaging — with a chance to focus more on writing software than attending numerous meetings — and the learning is constant.

“When people join a startup, it’s a chance to short-circuit their career,” Gan said, noting that people joining a large company right out of college likely will climb the ranks more slowly. “At a startup, the kind of project you take on, you could learn at a much faster rate if you just forced yourself to.”

For Gan, learning was key; he knew he wanted to work at a startup. He interviewed with several startups thanks to a chance meeting — during a Duke startup competition — with an investor focusing on mobile and digital media. Gan decided on TellApart and then recruited Cui and Reid to join him.

Reid wasn’t as sure he wanted to go with a small company and was interviewing with larger companies also in San Francisco, like Google and Twitter. But TellApart’s engineering team most impressed him, and he thought he could learn a lot and take on more responsibility by working at the startup.

A random interaction with Gan on the plaza put Cui on the path to TellApart, although she interned last summer at Google New York.

“You’re just one of thousands of employees, so your impact is pretty minimal,” Cui said of her time at Google. “After my summer experience, which was still a good one, I wanted something where I had a little more say, a little more impact, and so I was looking at startups.”

Now is a particularly good time to join a startup, Gan noted, as the market for software engineers is high and startups can offer a more competitive pay rate. Joining as an employee rather than a founder also mitigates the risks associated with startups, and choosing the right startup is easier than one might think, he said.

“In the same way that not all big companies are created equal, not all startups are equal as well,” he said. “The degree of variance in the quality of two startups is probably much greater because maybe half of them will be gone in half a year.”

He advised examining how a company is doing and, most importantly, taking notice of the people who work there.

“If you think the people in it are world-class engineers or business people or product people, if you get to work with people who are really great, the chances are the company will do all right,” he said.

Reid noted that a lot of friends who talk about wanting to work at a startup push themselves toward bigger companies because of worries about job security.

“It you want to work at a startup, now’s a great time to do it,” he reiterated. “I don’t think any of us are questioning our job security at all. There are a lot of things people try to build up and worry about. Just don’t. Just go do it.”

“You’re young and dangerous,” Cui added. “You might as well.”

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