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Tell me about your work is a new interview series published by the Division of Jazz Studies at UNT. We're interested in knowing more about the work life of our alumni, what role their musical education plays in the work they do, and what their musical lives are like now. Knowing this will give current students a broader sense of the career paths they could follow, and could suggest ways to prepare for them while they are still studying at UNT. --John Murphy
What sort of work do you do?
I’m a software engineer at Raytheon, a company that specializes in defense systems and radar.
What led to you doing this sort of work?
When I was slightly more than halfway through my jazz degree at UNT, I was struggling with passing the ICE exam [mid-level improvisation exam], so I decided to add a minor in Computer Science as a backup plan. After taking my first class in that department, I discovered I had a knack for programming and I really enjoyed it. Thankfully, I was able to pass the ICE, and after figuring out I could get both degrees in 5 years total, I switched my minor in comp sci to a second major.
How did you prepare for it?
My coursework in computer science was pretty rigorous, especially because I blazed through the entire degree plan in 2 and a half years. Fortunately, the program offered lots of summer classes, which helped me keep my course load to somewhat reasonable levels. Some of the different fields I studied were scripting, systems programming, graphical user interface (GUI) design, computer graphics, and video game programming and design, which I also got a certificate in.
What's a typical day like?
Right now, I’m in the Awaiting Clearance Employee Station, or ACES for short. Because Raytheon is primarily a contractor for the US government, most of the projects require active US security clearances before you can start working on them. On average, this process takes about a year from start to finish.
While employees are awaiting clearance, they can sometimes be assigned to help with non-classified work. Right now, I’m fortunate enough to be helping with a project I’m really excited about. I unfortunately can’t discuss specifics due to security and export/import concerns, but I’m thrilled to be able to work on something that will have a positive effect on defense systems around the world.
What do you find most rewarding about it?
One of the most exciting aspects of this work is the knowledge that it will have a direct impact on people’s lives, especially the lives of our military. My managers have mentioned specific incidents where they have been personally thanked by a service member for keeping them alive. Opportunities like that are invaluable in any industry.
On a more personal note, I’ve always enjoyed puzzles and problem-solving, and to me, coding is just a different kind of puzzle to be solved. The feeling I get when I’m able to solve a problem and a program I created actually does what it’s supposed to do is pretty rewarding in and of itself.
What do you find most challenging about it?
Right now, there’s a pretty steep learning curve, as the project I’m working on requires me to use tools and software I’m unfamiliar with. It’s also taken very seriously because lives are potentially at stake, so there’s a lot of pressure to make sure it’s done right. Luckily, Raytheon has a great infrastructure for peer reviews and collaboration, so I know I have a solid support system if I ever need any help.
What role, if any, did your musical education at UNT play in preparing for this work?
Getting a jazz degree at UNT definitely taught me the value of personal preparation and discipline more than anything else. There’s nowhere to hide in jazz music, so you have to make sure your own material is up to snuff before you can worry about meshing with everyone else in the group. This translates to software development pretty well, especially in a large, contract-based environment like Raytheon.
What might you have done differently during your time at UNT if you knew you would be doing this sort of work now?
I loved my college experience and I wouldn’t change it for the world. That being said, if I had known my career would take me here, I probably would have either started out with both majors as a freshman or been solely a Computer Science major and only taken the music courses that interested me. While I am very thankful and proud that I was able to get a degree from a program as prestigious as UNT Jazz, I feel like I would have had an easier time of it if I had been allowed more freedom in choosing my classes, which would have granted me a lighter workload as well.
What presence does music have in your life now?
On weekends, I teach lessons at Texas Guitar Ranch in Bedford, so that helps me keep my chops in shape. I also play the odd gig every now and then. It’s a lot harder to find time for consistent practice, but that just makes the time I do get to play that much more valuable. It’s easy to get burnt out on the grind of music school, but this job has really made me appreciate the times when I could play my horn for multiple hours each and every day.
What else would you like readers to know about your work?
I’d also like to offer some advice: learn to code! It doesn’t matter what language, but C++ or Java are great places to start. It’s an invaluable skill to have in today’s job market, and it can also be a lot of fun. There’s a multitude of free, online resources and classes – take advantage of them.
What other jobs have you had since leaving UNT?
I’ve also worked as a sales associate at Harbor Freight Tools, and as a private teacher for a couple of school districts. I’m very lucky to now have the financial freedom to pursue music as my passion rather than a job.
Would you send a photo of you at work?
Unfortunately, pictures aren’t allowed at government contract facilities without prior approval, so this senior recital picture will have to suffice for now.
Prof. Rich DeRosa collaborated with trombonist Vincent Gardner to arrange works by Leonard Berstein for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and conducted the series of performances in New York.