Steve Marx - Featured alumnus (2005 Newsletter)

When Steve Marx arrived on campus as a freshman in Fall 1999, he was part of the biggest class in our department’s history. The success of the dotcom industry brought throngs of students into our program, but it wasn’t long before Steve set himself apart from the freshmen class. In his first year here, he developed an algorithm that he presented at the 2000 Western New York Image Processing Workshop. He was a workshop leader for CSC 172 the following year, a member of Strong Jugglers, and a performer with the Midnight Ramblers a cappella group. At the end of his 3rd year, he graduated with many graduate courses under his belt and a healthy dose of research experience.

His successful job search led him to Microsoft in Redmond, WA where he accepted a position as a ‘software design & test’ engineer. Microsoft, being the meritocracy that it is, rewarded Steve well for his debugging successes, and soon Steve was moved to a newly created group called the Code Excellence Team. He found that one of the biggest challenges in this position was influencing a change in coding techniques with the front line coders, when his team had no direct supervisory authority over them. Without such a chain of command, he has found many ways to be persuasive enough to convince programmers to follow the Code Excellence methods. With engineers, the most convincing proof is hard data, such as dollars or time saved, or fewer bugs detected by correct coding methods. Creating a cultural change can be quite an undertaking, but Steve feels that the Code Excellence Team is making steady progress toward a ‘bottom up’ improvement in the quality of the code throughout Microsoft’s operations.

Marx says one of the most surprising things about his work life after college is that it isn’t as different as he thought it would be. Microsoft’s flexible work hours and casual attire policy make it seem more like a continuation of college than many 9-5 jobs. One change, however, is that he now has a boss who is more hands-on than any faculty advisor ever was. He does credit his interaction with faculty and graduate students for his ability to hold his own with his co-workers. He currently has a Ph.D. who reports to him. Marx said that the vertical integration of undergrads/grads/faculty at UR gave him the confidence to hold his own with those more educated than himself.

This has been an exciting year for Steve’s extracurricular life. Not only did he buy a house and is singing in a co-ed a cappella group, “The Acoustix”, but he has also had a lucrative year with his other hobby, poker. After qualifying first in an on-line game through Pokerstars, Steve was entered into the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas in July. He finished 35th out of 5619 entrants, and won $274,000! Steve is part of the growing trend in computer types using logical, mathematical and strategic skills to win at on-line poker. He approaches the game as if he were the computer, and uses pattern matching, randomization, probability and arithmetic to gain his competitive edge. The game all changes with face-to-face play, however. In Las Vegas, with professional players among the contestants, social skills, body language, acting ability, and willingness to take a risk factored in. Steve prefers the on-line game to a crowded, smoky Las Vegas casino. At home, there are no lines at the rest rooms and the snack bar is always open.

One piece of advice that Steve would pass along to URCS undergraduates is to be prepared to be a lifelong learner. It takes some time on the job to realize what your weak areas are, and what you’ll need to do to be on par with your coworkers. You’ll have to pick up the books and learn on the fly, which is also a skill you should have mastered at UR. Though our program gives you good theoretical preparation and teaches you to think & problem solve, there are aspects of software engineering used in entry-level programming jobs that are not part of our core curriculum. Each employer will have the “company” way to write code that will be a learning process. Master these skills quickly, and you’ll maximize your potential. Soon you’ll be looking for a financial planner and a tax accountant just like Steve!