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Hard work and networking have paid dividends for computer science major Eric Zair ’20. Last spring, he attended an Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) meeting at SUNY Potsdam—the student-run computer science club on campus—where alumnus Garry Griggs ’17 was giving a presentation. That brief encounter paved the way for a fully paid internship at a cybersecurity company in Rome, N.Y.

“Sometimes we have guest speakers who come to our ACM meetings to talk about jobs. I ended up interviewing with Griggs a day later. None of that would have been possible without attending the ACM meeting,” Zair said.

Now in his senior year, Zair has taken on a leadership role as the club’s president. The group meets regularly to discuss upcoming internship opportunities and career options. “We help students to get jobs right out of school. It has worked for many former students. The previous president of ACM actually got a great job at IBM right out of school—and a big part of it was that was because of ACM,” he said.

“Faculty are really into supporting ACM (the computer science club), supporting students in the department and at SUNY Potsdam in general,” Zair said.

For Zair, the connections he made at SUNY Potsdam led to an internship at Assured Information Security, a cybersecurity contracting company in Rome, N.Y.—an internship experience made possible by the Ronald & Teresa Fishbeck Computer Science Scholarship, established by Ron ’80 and Teresa Fishbeck (Hon. ’19). He spent his summer working on software engineering projects, editing code and doing programming in Python. “You’re editing actual code that someone has used and that will be used for something greater. It’s interesting to write a snippet of code, or a lot of code in certain situations, for tools that will actually be used for real production,” Zair said. “It’s just so interesting! You get to make everything look perfect and send it out for someone to really use.”

The hands-on training allowed him to take what he had learned in the classroom and see it come to fruition in a real-world setting. During the internship, he contacted Dr. Laura Grabowski, the chair of SUNY Potsdam’s Department of Computer Science, to thank her for everything she taught him during the class. “I got to do a lot of programming and during the internship, I actually did a lot of the same work (testing and documentation) from our software engineering class taught by Dr. Grabowski,” Zair said.

The internship gave him the chance to really connect with his coworkers through team-building exercises and group lunches. “I would have preferred to stay longer. We had hamster ball races and random intern events. We went to the arcade and played laser tag—I got to shoot my boss with a laser multiple times,” Zair said. “We used to do sushi lunch breaks literally every single day, that’s where half my intern money went, the other half was new tires. I don’t think Dr. Grabowski would be happy if I ordered sushi in the middle of her class,” he joked.

Now that he’s back on campus, Zair is working closely again with the computer science faculty who have helped to shape his future. “I really, really enjoy taking classes with Dr. Supraja Gurajala. She’s very smart, very amazing and super funny. She likes to think about the practical side of things. There’s always the theoretical side of computer science with the zeroes and ones, and then there’s the application side with graphics, how the algorithm works, how it would work in production, and being able to apply that to a real-world software engineering project. She likes to talk a lot about practical situations, and I feel like those are really important topics,” Zair said.

What he especially likes about the computer science department is the student-to-faculty interaction. Zair said that Supraja recently attended an ACM meeting to help students with their resumes.  “All the students know the faculty and all of the faculty know the students by name, which is really, really nice,” he said. “The professors are so cool, honestly. They attend all of our events. They give us as much support as they can.”

On top of all of his coursework, Zair has been spending 11 hours a week working for SUNY Potsdam’s Campus Technology Services. As a help desk employee, he troubleshoots campus-wide technology problems, everything from fixing printers and handling software updates to more complicated computer issues. “You learn how to communicate with people, which is such an important skill,” Zair said.

After working as a teaching assistant during his sophomore and junior years, he’s focusing on helping younger students succeed once again as a tutor in the computer lab. This semester he has been providing guidance to lower-level students, with a specific focus on algorithms. “From my freshman year to my senior year, I noticed that I progressively took on more responsibility, but it was really fun throughout. I feel like it will help a lot with getting a job,” he said.

And that’s the next step. As he wraps up his senior year, he is focused on finding a career in computer science. “I like the cybersecurity field a lot. As long as I’m writing code, preferably Python, then I’ll be happy,” he said.

To learn more about the Department of Computer Science, visit: https://www.potsdam.edu/academics/AAS/depts/CS

Article and Photos by Jason Hunter