Alumnus praises Caltech’s robust computer science offerings 

September 26, 2019 — by Preston Fu and Viraaj Reddi

Class of 2017 alumnus Albert Tseng was astonished when he sat down with renowned computer scientists Eric Schmidt, Steven Wolfram and Stuart Feldman at various dinners organized by Caltech’s Computing and Mathematical Sciences program. This was yet another example of the opportunities and expertise Caltech has offered him in his college journey. 

Tseng, now a junior at the highly competitive university in Pasadena, said he truly developed his interest in computer science through competitive programming in high school. He felt it flowed naturally from the math contests he had participated in earlier on. However, he noted that the programming competition problems had little breadth; competitors were tested on their abilities to utilize existing methods to solve problems rather than innovating.

Computer science has expanded significantly in recent years, especially in terms of artificial intelligence and robotics. Tseng said his involvement in Caltech’s computer science program has helped him to truly appreciate this growth.

“Now that I'm in college, there's a much wider variety of classes and research opportunities,” he said. “I find that there's always something new and interesting to learn.”

Although Tseng enjoys the wide range of course offerings, he has zoned in deeply on one particular subfield that differs greatly from his high school programming experience: non-deterministic algorithms, a blossoming field frequently associated with artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

“I tend to enjoy tasks that involve optimization problems, such as machine learning and network theory,” Tseng said. “The fun part is using approximation to solve otherwise difficult problems.”

The knowledge he gained through Caltech has come into play at the various companies Tseng interned at over the past two summers. Armed with theoretical expertise and information about the industry’s rising fields and pressing needs, he saw that finding internships and connections was not particularly difficult.

Tseng interned at Addepar, a financial technology company, and Facebook. He heard of Addepar through high school friends and applied for Facebook after its representatives appeared at the Caltech career fair. In general, he felt that students must be competitive both academically and socially in order to succeed. 

“Soft skills and time management are as important as hard technical skills,” Tseng said.

As an alumnus, Tseng has a few words of advice for aspiring computer science majors.

“You should have a good idea of each school’s computer science program’s strengths and weaknesses — number of students, ease of finding resources, applied vs. theoretical courses — and other aspects of the school,” he said. “For internships, most people have three summers, so you should select courses that position yourself competitively when finding internships.”

Tseng also noted that while he has developed significantly due to his college education, he couldn’t have done it without the courses he took during high school.

“The more analytical STEM classes at Saratoga are useful,” he said, “but students shouldn’t be afraid to go to West Valley or De Anza and take more advanced classes like Linear Algebra and Differential Equations when they're a junior or senior.” 

Caltech has course tracks in which courses are grouped by topic: for instance, Machine Learning, Network Theory and Applied Math tracks. Caltech’s courses are far more rigorous than most students are accustomed to, and Tseng encourages prospective students to prepare beforehand by taking related and relevant courses. 

Aside from attending school and interning, he sees the benefits of being at a small university because he receives more individualized attention. This has afforded him greater resources, allowing him to research in a machine learning professor’s lab and to find internships more closely aligned with his interests.

Tseng is still unsure about what direction the future holds for him, but he’s confident he’ll find the right path in his remaining two years at Caltech.

“School has definitely allowed me to learn more and explore deeply, and interning has given me a perspective on how different types of companies operate and solve problems,” Tseng said. “CS is a large and expanding field, and it's exciting to explore it.”

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