Multiple majors no sweat for Google-bound ’11 graduate

By Chris Shores

He has three majors, runs his own software engineering consulting business and – in just a few weeks – he’ll complete his studies at the University of Massachusetts and prepare for a career at Google.

On a Friday afternoon in December, Vinay Shah sits with his laptop at a table in the Computer Science USpace – a two-room study space on the third floor of the Lederle Research Graduate Center’s lowrise. Shah, a 23-year-old Weston native, is currently working on a project for his Knowledge Discovery course, in which he was challenged to ask a question about unemployment and then use data to find an answer.

“I’ve used knowledge discovery, data mining, and statistical techniques to build models to better understand how drug use and unemployment are related,” he said. “As it turns out, alcohol, heroin, cocaine and marijuana users show markedly different patterns in their employment status, and the factors that correlate with unemployment are very different for each of these subpopulations.”

Shah said that in most class projects, “the professor knows the answer. But I don’t think anyone’s studied this before. So it’s neat.”

The class is one of four that Shah is taking this semester, in addition to an independent study and the completion of his capstone. When he graduates at the end of this semester, he will leave the University as a triple major in computer science, physics and mathematics.

There was even a time when Shah was thinking bigger and had planned out his schedule to be able to earn five majors, with the addition of astrophysics and economics.

“I could have done astrophysics, because that’s only a couple additional classes on top of physics,” he said. “I haven’t actually done any economics classes at UMass. But I had figured out that because I had all the math prerequisites, I could have done three economics classes over the summer, one this fall, and four next semester.”

Ultimately he decided “three majors were enough,” he said with a laugh. But despite the humor, education is something Shah takes very seriously. Even with a workload that requires him to do homework throughout most of every day, he said studying is something he truly enjoys.

“I’ve always loved learning, that’s one thing that has been consistent. But I think I kind of kicked up the work ethic to a new level when I got to UMass,” he said.

“One thing with me is that I always do the homework completely. If I don’t understand a problem, I’ll just hammer on it until I get it,” he added. “I’ve spent dozens of hours on a single problem before. My feeling is that the problems that I can’t solve are the hardest ones and those are also the most important to understand. If I can understand the hardest ones, then I think that means that I understand everything.”

His heavy workload led him to create some unique study strategies as well.

“I remember last year I had this kind of funny strategy where I would work on the thing that was due last first,” he said. “It would get the long-term projects done, which I always used to procrastinate on. And then I would have the pressure to get the short term ones done. I kind of did that as a joke, but I did it half seriously as well.”

Despite the workload, Shah said he tries to make time to see his friends every day. And on Friday nights, “I don’t even pretend I should be doing homework,” he said.

Shah spent the past summer as an intern at Google, working on software engineering projects at their Mountain View, Calif. headquarters. On the Google campus, he entered a world where workers borrow bikes to travel from building to building, employees get free massages on their birthdays and tired souls can take a break in a napping pod. There are gyms, pools and a bowling alley. Food is free – and “really good,” said Shah – and the bathrooms have heated toilet seats.

“Google kind of has this mystique about it, it’s considered to be one of the best places to work because it is,” said Shah. “They really try to meet all of your needs.”

At the completion of his summer internship – during which he built a tool to detect problems in font files, for which a patent is pending– the company offered him a full-time position. Shah recently accepted the offer and will begin his job sometime early next year. He will work at the company’s smaller office in Boulder, Colo., which Shah specifically requested.

“[Colorado] is the best place for skiing, rock climbing and hiking, and the people there are really involved in it,” he said. Shah, an Eagle Scout, said he makes time to participate in activities in nature, including working towards earning his pilot license. In Colorado, he is looking forward to trying out glider planes.

But Shah said he will also miss UMass and the collegiate environment as a whole.

“I’m certainly going to miss my friends, my professors … I’m going to miss studying as well,” he said. “I really do enjoy learning, and I’m sure I’ll be doing lots of that at Google but it’s a different kind of learning when you’re learning on job.”

Shah recently was awarded an honorable mention for the Computing Research Association Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award. The award recognizes Shah’s capstone project, in which he is studying memory checking.

“Sometimes you might have a very large but unreliable memory, and then a small but reliable memory,” he said. “The idea is to use the small reliable memory to check if the operations on the large ones are correct. I did make some progress in that field, which is a relatively small field, but it’s still a very interesting one.”

Shah also works for himself as a software engineering consultant, building “software systems for people who need it.” Someday he said he would like to be an entrepreneur and begin his own “business in the tech sector.”

Chris Shores can be reached at [email protected]