David Della Bitta graduated from URI in 1999 with a B.S. degree in computer science. He has held several positions since that time and currently is a software developer with Skelmir, LLC in Somerville Massachusetts.
FMC: Dave, what attracted you to computer science and made you decide to major in it?
DDB: I've been interested in computers ever since I was a kid growing up in the early 80s. My parents bought an Atari 2600 for Christmas when I a was five, and it had me hooked on day one. From there it was onto better things with a Commodore 64 - which I used to teach myself BASIC - an IBM XT, and finally a 486 SX which I upgraded to add a math coprocessor, RAM, hard drive, etc. That's probably when things got serious for me, and I started enrolling in programming courses in high school. By the time I was a Junior, I was learning Pascal and investigating curriculums in colleges in the New England area.
FMC: Your first position after receiving your B.S. degree from URI was as a system analyst with Logicon in Middletown, RI. How did you get this position, and what did you do?
DDB: URI's Career Services hosts a number of companies in the semester before graduation, each of them looking to recruit new software engineers from URI's pool of graduates. Logicon was interesting to me because they were working on military simulations and, to be honest, my life as a computer gamer taught me a lot of the information about what they were simulating. The job had a secret security clearance so I probably shouldn't go into too many specifics. Yes, I love saying that!
FMC: You stayed with Logicon for less than a year . Why did you leave, and how did you get your next position?
DDB: Leaving Logicon was a very hard decision for me. I had great respect for my manager, and I enjoyed working with the people there. They had also invested a lot of time and money in getting a security clearance for me, and I still feel bad about having squandered those resources. Unfortunately, the work environment on the military base was a bit stifling for me, and I had to have a gut check early on in my career regarding if this was what I really wanted to do for years on end.
At the same time, the Dot Com bubble was inflating, and I heard news of amazing work environments in Boston. In the end, it was my friend's constant detailing of amazingly spectacular events at Abuzz Technologies in Cambridge, MA which lured me into interviewing at that company. There I found fast a paced and addicting work environment that placed me in a role with large responsibilities. It was stressful for sure, but their environment was incredibly fulfilling in the day to day interaction with other developers and other teams. This includes a vast array of worker talent in graphic and interface design, and in community organization. The diversity of people made for some of the best work interactions I've ever had.
FMC: What did you do in that position?
DDB: I was the lead engineer of the “Filter” software team. The company was founded on a Question / Answer auction system much like the Google and Yahoo services that have surfaced over the last few years. I was in charge of the “Filter” portion of the technology which coupled search engine text and pattern matching with a dual layer neural network of positive and negative user feedback to the search results. The produced profile was a living, adaptable profile of user expertise. The Filter used these dynamic profiles to match incoming questions to users who could answer them best. My responsibilities included the design, documentation, implementation, optimization, and integration of the system into the web content side and server side of a pretty high traffic website.
FMC: You changed positions again. Tell us about that.
DDB: Larger companies were buying up dot coms trying to get a beach head in the upcoming Internet boom. Abuzz was purchased by the New York Times and became a news discussion tool for NYT Online readers. This shifted the company away from a for-profit business model to a complementary service model. Of course, there wasn't much money for supporting a large, expensive complementary service once the Dot Com bubble burst, so Abuzz shut its doors in 2001.
I ended up floating around a bit. I moved back to southern Rhode Island and spent a summer writing a Nintendo Game Boy Advanced port of the Mac classic Maelstrom. Then I got a job at Teragram, which is the search engine company that I worked closely with while I was at Abuzz. Unfortunately, the Dot Com bubble was still deflating and that company downsized shortly after I moved back up to Boston in early 2002. I took a contracting job at Wyeth for the summer writing software that drove a robot in its mad experiments to grow crystals in various compound solutions. After that contract ended, I landed a dependable job where I am now, at Skelmir, LLC.
FMC: So you have been with Skelmir since 2002. What have you been doing there since then?
DDB: Skelmir provides a clean-room Virtual Machine for hosting Java applications. Essentially we've written a VM based solely on the public specification of the Java language while not looking at any Sun (now Oracle) source code. The company has gone through numerous target markets over the last decade including Phones, and other miscellaneous equipment like inventory scanners and cell phone tower diagnostics equipment. Eventually the set-top box market settled out of the mix and that's been our focus for the last 8 years. We're big in Europe and Japan.
My job requires a lot of different skills. The main task is to port the VM to new platforms and to extend the Java libraries. While I'm obviously a programmer, I also have to provide technical support to customers all over the world. I also write documentation, write tests, install tool chains, integrate with countless platform-specific networking, video, and file system APIs, etc. It's a very challenging position.
FMC: Did your college education adequately prepare you for your first and current positions?
DDB: Overall I'm very, very happy with the education I received at URI. Early on in my career I met graduates from other esteemed universities who didn't seem to have a solid programming background when compared to the URI graduates I knew. Some had curriculums in Visual BASIC, for instance.
I feel like URI really hit it on the head with the math, data structures, statistics, and language classes that were part of the curriculum when I was there. I can only think of one area that I felt "Gee, I wish we covered this in college" and that's during my current position. URI never really had a class on makefiles and the usage of GNU toolchains, and I think that would have been extremely valuable.
FMC: How hard do you work? Does your career leave you with enough time to enjoy life?
DDB: It waxes and wanes but I believe I work extremely hard. I've made some life decisions that help me disconnect when I'm not in the office. I walk 30 minutes to work, then 30 minutes back, and that's a great time to unwind. I also don't have a cell phone, which allows me to be off the grid. That makes me sound like I'm a Luddite programmer—if you could imagine such a thing—and while to some extent it's true, it also affords me the time to delve and commit into other activities not at all related to computers. I think that's a very healthy thing when you work so many hours in a week.
FMC: Can you give some advice to our current students?
DDB: I often remember hearing that software engineers who study in a second field have the largest chances of successful careers. Beyond that I never heard any specifics. Did I really need a second degree to differentiate myself from other bachelor graduates?
I've now been a professional programmer for over 10 years, and I have a new understanding of the sentiment. While I could see how dual majoring would be great leverage, I think the true notion is much more simple.
Programmers who lock themselves in a room and hack at code are great at independent projects. The real game-changer programmers are those who have a repertoire of other complementary skills, and who are especially good at the social level. Learn to work with others as a team and also communicate well with 3rd party developers, and you'll see opportunities fall in your lap, either from past coworkers or even partners who valued your work.