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Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2016 commencement. See the rest here.
The U.S. Air Force gave Arizona State University graduating student Michael Sprague the opportunity to restart his life after family commitments placed it on hold temporarily and now, after his ASU journey, he’s heading toward an exciting new venture.
Through his ambition, experience, love of computer programming and the doors ASU opened, Sprague will now work as a software engineer for one of the most sought-after companies in the U.S. — Google. The 57,000-plus-employee technology giant based out of the San Jose suburb of Mountain View, California, is consistently voted in the top three best companies to work for in the nation.
Sprague — a computer science major — did not bump into Google by accident or coincidence. It was through an internship advertised by one of his ASU professors that he got his foot in the Google door. Twice.
“I found out about the internship through a post Dr. (Mutsumi) Nakamura made on Blackboard during her class,” said Sprague, who completed two Google internships. “I was in the market for an internship at the time and figured why not shoot for the moon. It panned out pretty well.”
The former Air Force technical application specialist, who served in a military operations center responsible for monitoring international nuclear treaty activities, heads to California with his wife immediately following the ASU Veterans Honor Stole Ceremony to start his new career.
Sprague's military experience has served him well. During his time at ASU he served as the vice president of the Software Developers Association for two years and is credited as one of its founding members. His leadership contributed to giving SoDA direction, leading to attention from large corporations looking for recruits.
“We managed to offer a good platform and jumping point for our members to speak to, and eventually get internships and jobs with major engineering companies,” he said.
Sprague provides some perspectives, insights and tips for future and current students.
Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?
Answer: I was still in the Air Force when this happened. We were offered an “Advanced Unix Certification” training course and I jumped on the opportunity. They sent us to another state, and we spent a little over a month in this training. During this time, we were asked to write up a simple piece of software, given complete autonomy as to how it’s implemented, then given a week to get it done. This was the first time I was “paid” to be a software engineer. It was also the first time I couldn’t wait to get to work, begged to stay late and spent time at home planning what I was going to do the next day. This was very eye-opening for me.
Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?
A: Computer Science Engineering 340 class. Every CS student’s bane, coding assignments that make your previous work look like a joke. Up until then, the way I coded was by sitting in front of a computer, looking at some requirements and start slapping away at my keyboard. After our first big project was due and my first real failure in school, I had to stop. That way no longer works. Now, when I start to code, I sit and think. I think of every possible thing I can think of that will come up with this project. I plan, I scheme, I mentally develop until finally I decide on what I want. Only then will I start coding.
That big failure I had in CSE340 was an eye-opener for me and has completely changed the way I approach writing code. I found the other projects in that class, future classes projects and even my second internship at Google, were significantly easier since I adopted that method.
That class was brutal, but it has made me a better coder.
Q: Why did you choose ASU?
A: I grew up in Lake Havasu, and it made sense to go here. The fact that it was military-friendly was a big perk, though. The Pat Tillman Veterans Center is incredible, and every time I work with them solutions just happen.
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?
A: Get into an internship as soon as you can, I can’t stress this enough. I am personally friends with coders who put me to shame that Google chose to not hire. I managed to get into the position by playing it smart and starting with internships. Two internships at Google mean an over six-month-long interview where I had all the time in the world to show them my best side.
On top of that, the other students I’ve worked with almost always get better jobs at a higher pay if they have an internship or two under their belt. Even if you don’t end up in the same company, just showing the work you have already done makes it easier to get into a better job and makes you stand out from other graduates.
Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?
A: I live pretty far off campus, so I tend to not spend much off time there anymore. But when I lived closer and wasn’t married, I would spend a lot of time in the Engineering Center (ECG). It’s a nice quiet place to study.
Q: What are your plans after graduation?
A: Heading on to California! I’ll be starting work almost immediately and moving even earlier. School was fun and all, but I can’t wait to start getting to work on my first project at Google. I can’t wait to get back to that feeling I first had when I was a paid software engineer.
Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?
A: Education, totally. I’m a big proponent of bringing technology into our schools. A bunch of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are trying new and revolutionary ways of teaching students. I could go on for days about this, but it boils down to there being some real potential in teaching classrooms differently in both quality of education and cost of education, but they need a ton of research before any parent would allow their student to take it. Nobody wants an experimental education. … If I had the opportunity, I would work with them in bringing these changes into our public schools and colleges. ASU has taken good first steps in their online education system, but I don’t think it’s far enough. I think it’s time classrooms start treating technology like the tool it is.