Carnegie Mellon University

James E. Tomayko Scholarship Winner | Daniel Biales

Congratulations on winning the Tomayko Scholarship. 

Thank you. It’s a great honor to be recognized for putting in a lot of work. 

What types of leadership roles have you performed within the MSE community?

I’m my project team’s leader, which is hard work. I don’t know that I naturally have those skills, but I’ve been working to develop them. Prior to the program I, involuntarily, ended up in a leadership role. I was working on a small, new team that didn’t have a lead developer so I found myself fulfilling that role based on the actions I was taking. This was especially helpful when the team gained or lost people. I was able to onboard and direct new people or take over existing work. That’s when I started to think about the importance of leadership. 

As project leader, I try to create direction and organization for the team. It’s tough to bring people together and balance all the needs of the project. It’s interesting to see how different personalities interact and what motivates them, and it’s challenging to figure out how to get everyone to strive for a common goal. I still have a lot to learn. I think that I’m continually getting better...hopefully.

In the spring, I helped plan the field trip to the west coast, which was canceled because of the coronavirus, and I proposed and helped develop the mock interviews. 

What motivated you to take on those leadership roles?

Over winter break I realized that while I felt prepared to excel in a job, I didn’t feel prepared for the interview necessary to land a job. I thought my peers might feel the same way so I drafted an outline for a practice interview program.I approached Matt Bass because he teaches the Algorithms and Data Structures, which is what a lot of the technical interviews are based around. Once Matt was on board, Jen Moritz (Alumni and Corporate Relations Manager) became involved and helped by recruiting alumni to conduct the interviews and give suggestions on how to improve. I was pretty happy with how well the program, and my first mock interview, went. It was great to collaborate with Matt and Jen, and to meet and work with alumni. Several peers have thanked me for the effort which is also pretty gratifying.

As for the San Francisco field trip, I wanted to get involved because I was concerned that the trip would focus solely on getting a job. I was very interested in learning more about the industry. I thought by getting involved in planning the trip, I would be able to help shape the itinerary. After looking over the initial list of companies we were scheduled to visit, I asked my peers if there were companies they were interested in that weren’t on the list, and then shared that information with Jen who was coordinating the trip.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t go because of COVID. Hopefully future classes can organize in the same way, and get some benefit out of what we did. Nonetheless, it was a good experience figuring out what people were interested in and being part of the planning process.

How do you think your background prepared you to be a leader in the MSE community?

As one of the older members of the class, I’ve had more industry exposure and experience. Some of my peers are curious, especially those coming straight from undergrad, about the things you learn in a sink or swim way when you’re in industry, the type of knowledge you wouldn’t get as part of a formal undergraduate education. 

Having industry experience allows me to be reflective and think about how I approached a problem in the past. At the time I may not have known why the approach my team took was right. In class I’ve learned why it worked, and alternatives that I wouldn’t have even known to consider. It’s been really helpful to frame problems and frame my learning. I feel that I’m getting more out of the program and learning more. 

What led you to pursue a masters degree?

I had been working at Liberty Mutual for awhile — five years— and had become a lead developer in my group. As I became more comfortable with the domain I was working in, I found that there were less and less new things to learn. I was spending more time sharing my knowledge with the newer developers on the team. I really like learning so it felt like it was time for me to further my education.

Why did you apply to the MSE?

I didn’t want to go to just any graduate school. I really wanted to go to a top-tier university to learn from the best, and work with the best students, which led me to Carnegie Mellon. To be honest, I was shocked to get in. And really happy. I applied to other programs at Carnegie Mellon, but the MSE was my top choice because it is so focused on real-world experiences. It’s truly a professional program. I knew that I didn’t want to change direction and go into research or academia; I really wanted to stay in industry. In my opinion, this is one of the only programs that embraces a relationship with industry and focuses on that aspect of learning. The program has met, or exceeded, all of my expectations. 

How do you think being awarded the Tomayko Scholarship will affect your remaining time in the program, and beyond that, your future career?

In the short term, I don’t think much will change. Working on interview prep will continue to be my primary focus for the semester. I want to figure out how we can improve the mock interview process, and how to ensure that it continues after I graduate so that everyone can get the job they deserve. 

After graduation, I think the scholarship will help solidify my connection with the program even more. I’d really like to continue to contribute to the mock interviews once I’m in the position where I’m conducting interviews and have cracked the interview from both sides, as an interviewee and an interviewer.