Victor Mings has generously agreed to be profiled as part of our Careers for Globetrotters series. Victor has worked in Austria and the Netherlands and made the switch from aerospace engineering to software development. He talks to us about switching specialties, what he did to salvage a bad interview and land his current job, and the magic of the IAESTE internship program (and why you should Google it right now).
Read the interview below. You can also watch the series of videos here.
Tell us about the organization you work for, and your role there.
I work for a company called MobPro and it is a company in Amsterdam that stands for Mobile Professionals. And they specialize in in-app mobile advertising. They run campaigns for big companies, small companies, companies like IKEA or Mazda, and they'll run advertising campaigns that are just for phones and tablets, that are in-app. What they specialize in is programmatic advertising, which means advertising but they are able to target who sees the advertisement; they can target based on age, sex, location, time of day, or any combination of those things.
I'm a full-stack developer or software engineer there. We have a whole system that delivers those advertisements, and I work on the front end—which is the website, and the user interface—but also in the backend, which is the database which stores all the data. I also work on the web application. So that's what I do in a nutshell.
You studied aerospace engineering but now work as a software developer. Tell us about your career trajectory.
When I entered my last year, I was looking for a program to do some sort of internship abroad, or just a company. The program that I found was called IAESTE which stands for International Association for the Exchange of Students for Technical Experience. Through them, I was able to get an internship in Vienna, Austria, for one year after I graduated. I was working for a company that made carbon composite or lightweight structures for aircraft.
While I was there, I had a friend from university who got a job in the Netherlands, working for a company that makes flight simulators. He kept telling me how cool the company was, and how cool the work was, so I ended up applying through him. Because I had work experience with programming in my co-op experience, I was able to get a job at this flight simulator company. I worked there for three years making flight simulators, and it was really at the border between programming and aerospace engineering. I found out that I liked more the programming side of things.
So, after three years, I started looking for work that had to do more with programming and less with aerospace. The Netherlands is quite small, so you're able to apply and have interviews all over the country basically. I applied for this job at MobPro, and I started here about eight or ten months ago, and I really like it so far. And that is, in a nutshell, how I got from aerospace to doing full-stack web development.
You mentioned that you got your first internship abroad through the IAESTE program. Can you tell us more about it?
So IAESTE is an organization which facilitates or organizes internships for students that are in the STEM fields—in science and engineering fields. What's really cool about them is that there's there are chapters around the world, in many countries—some countries even have multiple chapters—and they're run by students. So these are student organizations.
How it works is that you apply before December of the year that you're going in: normally, you go in the summer. You can apply any time after your first year. You fill out a form, saying what you're studying, where you'd like to go, and any experience you have. And then IAESTE takes all those forms for people in their country, or from their region, and they go to this big conference with a list of all the applicants and all the places where they want to end up—but, they also go with all the jobs that they're able to give to other students. So, what they do is trade those jobs. They'll say, “I have a guy who wants to go to Vienna for Aerospace Engineering. And, I can offer a position to someone who's studying Biochemical Engineering. Do you want to switch?” And then they switch to these jobs—they trade these jobs.
So, to apply for this you hand in your application in December and then in very early January they come back and they post a list of all the possible jobs that you can apply to—all the jobs that they were able to trade for their Canadian jobs. You go through that list of jobs, and it shows the company name, the salary, the location and the duration, so it's pretty straightforward. You go through that list, and you pick the top three places you'd like to go. What's interesting is that the Canadian committee decides who the most suitable person is for each job, and they send their information directly to the company, and that company gives a yes-no answer. Generally, if you have studied in the field, you don't have to be really experienced and you will get the job.
Once you accept, then the local committee from the host country—so, in my case it was Vienna, Austria— they're able to arrange things like accommodation in a student dorm, taking care of your visa, and they meet you when you land at the airport. You're able to meet all the students from the local chapter, but also other people doing internships who are coming to that same city. So, I got to meet people from Macedonia, from Spain, from England, from really all around the world. And I spent a year making friends and going out.
And another cool thing is that every local chapter has this “weekend”, so you might have a Budapest weekend, a Barcelona weekend—all kinds of different weekends. They invite all the trainees around Europe to come and spend the weekend. So, for a hundred dollars, you get to travel to Budapest, Vienna, Prague, or Linz (which is a small city in Austria), and you meet a bunch of other trainees from around the world who are doing internships in Europe. You make some friends, and then you're able to see them for the whole year, because you might have met a guy from Poland and he says, “You know what, you're a nice guy, come visit me in Warsaw, there is a really nice festival or whatever going on.” So then you go from there. And… I can only say good things about IAESTE.
Did you have to go back to school to make the jump from aerospace to software?
I didn't have to do anything extra “officially”, but I am definitely doing a lot of learning on my own time. Luckily, I did a lot of Python programming in my co-op; when I was in Vienna working for this carbon composites manufacturing company, there was a lot of analysis and you had to crunch a lot of numbers, so I was running a lot of VBA scripts. When I came to the flight simulator company, I told them that I don't know the language that they're using so much—that is C++—but, I did do a lot of programming before. So, I got the job by explaining that. Once I was there, I learned a lot about programming C++ and about working in a pure software development field. And, that's kind of the same way I got the third job, where I am right now. I explained that I maybe didn't know precisely about web development, but I'd worked in programming and I had been able to learn and pick up to become new things. That was kind of the promise I made, that I could pick things up fast just as I'd done before.
So did you find your bachelor’s degree helpful? Did many of your skills transfer?
I definitely do think that having a bachelor's in engineering helped, with the common foundation of maths and some programming, even if you're not studying computer science. I definitely do think that helps. A lot of the concepts boil down to mathematical concepts. One of the big things that you learn in engineering, after four years of cramming for exams and having all these labs to do—you kind of “learn to learn”, you learn how to learn new things. That's maybe the biggest skill that transfers over.
So, every day at work, I'm given tasks and often asked to look into things that are new to me. But, I've been there before and I've been in a place where I don't know exactly what's going on, or exactly how to do something. You look it up. I think that’s the biggest transferable skill, I would say: learning, and learning how to learn.
When you think back, what do you think got you the job at MobPro? What made you stand out?
This last job I got was by far the biggest jump from my current position to a different field. I knew I wanted to kind of do something with big data, as cliche as it sounds. It's a word that's tossed around a lot, but that's something that I wanted to get involved with.
So, I took a lot of these online courses, and I stuck that on my CV. And I really brought the experience that I've had in the past to the top of my CV. I also write a cover letter, and I think that for them it must have been interesting to see someone from a completely different area of engineering with programming experience. And, I think that definitely helped me to get the interview.
It was a bit funny because it was a really easy interview. They didn't ask any technical questions, it was more of a kind of meet-and-greet. And I found out that I was supposed to come back to do a kind of practical. So, I came back for practical. And there's a website called Adventures In Code, anyone can check it out, where they have these daily puzzles in programming, and you can use any language you want to solve them. We went to the office, I brought my laptop, and he sat me down and said, “Hey, I'm gonna give you a couple of assignments, a couple of puzzles. You've got the afternoon to solve them. I've had some guys do it in 20 minutes. I've had some guys not finish at all. If you're stuck, don't feel bad asking questions. We'll go from there.”
So, there was pressure—having to do something and knowing that your potential job depends on it, and also seeing how cool the company was. Long story short, I didn't do so well. At some point, around the four o'clock mark, I said, “Okay, I've got two choices. I can try to stick it out—and I felt like I was close—I could try to stick it out, solve the puzzles, save the day. But, that was a big maybe. Or, I could just suck it up, ask for some help, and then it would be done. That would also show that I'm not afraid to ask when I don't know what's going on, when I'm stuck. So, I brought the team lead over. We went over it, and there was a small little bug. And he gave me another little test, where I was trying to redeem myself, and I had 30 minutes to solve it. Still, I couldn't solve it and I was really bummed out that I didn't—I really liked this company.
So, I basically spent the whole weekend picking out other puzzles on that website, which were complex enough that it would be impressive that I did them, but not too complex that I couldn't do them that weekend. I ended up sending him an email on Monday with three solved puzzles, saying “Hey, it didn’t really go as well as I’d hoped last Friday. I hope this kind of makes up for my performance on Friday. And, he really liked that I did that. That’s how I got the job at MobPro. So a bit of perseverance and maybe a combination of not being afraid to ask and also not giving up. I could have easily just said, “Well, I’m not the guy you were looking for there’s no point even trying.” So, I think all of that in a package kind of impressed them, or got their attention.
What advice do you have as far getting your foot in the door?
In terms of getting your foot in the door, and ending up as an aerospace engineer or as a full-time developer, the one common thing, whatever you want to do in engineering or in the sciences,get some co-op experience. If you have connections, if you're able to work during the summers, get some experience—and it doesn't have to be experience in whatever your dream job is, as long as it is experience working with anything related to engineering. Because, when it comes to product development, when it comes to deadlines, when it comes to just learning new technical things, it's all very similar no matter what kind of industry you're in. So, level up while you're in university and find Internships or a co-op program. If you can't find a job related to engineering and you can't find an internship program, the find a hobby, find something that you like, that you find is cool and just tinker with it. Make something. In terms of getting a first engineering job, that will really, really, really help.
When it comes to transitioning from what you specialized in—so, let's say it’s mechanical or architectural or chemical engineering—and transitioning from that to maybe a more generic web developer or just more generic programming, use your free time and start to look into what interests you. And once you find what you're interested in, it'll just be easier to put more time into it and learn about it.
Don't be afraid to apply for jobs with requirements that seem too strict, don't think that because you don't match those criteria exactly that you won’t be called for an interview. Sometimes it can be really interesting for someone at a company to see that your CV stands out, and they might just bring you in for the interview just because they care to find out why you think you can do the job.
And, I think also today, if you're working in engineering, a lot of the job descriptions might not have programming per se, but you're going to be exposed to it in some way. So, if there's any way that you can get closer to the programming that's going on in your company, whether it's lots of CFD, lots of number crunching, there are lots of programs going around. It might not be called computer science and might not be called web development, but you can get some transferable skills that you can then stick on your CV and use to get your first job as a pure programmer.
What can young people do now, as far as building skills, that will help them get jobs later?
If I had to give my younger self advice, I would say after three or four months of getting familiar with what an idea is, then just pick something—pick a project—and go with it. Don't worry about these Coursera classes, don’t worry about these online credits. Just take something, take a project and go with it.
Because, I've tried since then, and thought, “Oh, I might find something on Coursera that looks interesting”, and I take the course or I start it. But I have realized that if I don't actually get to use it somewhere, it doesn't stick. People are different: if you're someone that can take these courses and everything sticks and you can recall it or an interview and you can manage it, you can just code away without having to review it, that's great. But in my case, and I think in a lot of people's cases, if you don't apply it you don't ever kind of get to remember it, you don't get to know it. That defeats the purpose of spending a month learning something if you are not going to remember it three months down the line.
The world of programming, and just development in general, is so broad and there are so many different combinations and permutations of things that can be used. I would say if you have an interest in something, just go all out and immerse yourself in it, and learn whatever languages have to do with that thing, learn whatever algorithms have to do with that thing. Find a job that has to do with that thing. And I think that is what will carry you through to your dream job or to more opportunities. Because sometimes when you see these job postings, you might think this is my dream job, but the requirements they have they're so strange and so peculiar. There's no way I could fit that profile. And the truth is, the person that does fit that profile is the person who has been doing that either out of personal interest, or out of their own time, for the past two years, or one year, or six months, because they actually enjoy doing it.
If you want to parse websites and extract funny sentences, or if you want to make something that paints funny pictures, or if you want to build your own little website, I would say spend time, invest time into doing it—and that is what will really impress an employer. Even if you don't have the exact skills, you can go into a job interview and say, “You know what? I don't have experience with this and that, but I have built this, and I've done this, and me and my friends have done this, and try this. That will carry you a lot farther than if you kind of go by the book and just start to check off these programming languages and these algorithms that you should know. I think that's what I've learned for myself actually looking at a lot of these online courses. They're great when it comes to getting knowledge. But, in the end, you need a skill set, and the skills you only get through practicing and through applying that knowledge to your own personal endeavours. The skill set and the practice are more important than just knowing things.
What are examples of some of these ‘hobby projects’ that you can do on your own, in the field of big data and machine learning?
There’s a website called kaggle.com. And if you're into machine learning that, I would say, is kind of the place. They have these online competitions and they're run by government agencies, or by companies, The prize sometimes can be money—a lot of money. It can be jobs, or it can just be points on this website.
They will post just problems. They'll say, “Hey, here is a bunch of data on cellphone calls. We want you guys try to predict at what time people are calling the most,” and things like that. So you have to go and write the machine learning algorithm code to try and predict it. And then you get scored against all the other teams that are participating.
For example, Netflix had the way that they recommend movies and TV shows to you. They had a competition, they went on Kaggle and they said, “Hey guys, here's a bunch of data, obviously anonymous data, on the watching habits of our customers. We want someone to predict what movies they would like, based on all of our data. Here is a data set that you can train, so that you can get the answers, and here's all the data.” The top 10 teams that have the best models will get money. These contests run for months at a time. And for the whole six months, or three months, you're just trying to beat the other guys that are on the scoreboard. And it's also really great because people who do well, people in general, they always post partial solutions or they post fill solutions. So, you are able to look through the code and see how they did it, and see how you can maybe do better for the next time, or see how you can use some other code for what you're doing.
What is an average day like for a full-stack developer at MobPro?
Since it's a really small company, most of my days are spent working with four other developers. Because we're a small team, we kind of have to deal with lots of different issues. So, I might be working on something for the front end that's used internally, or I might be working on some databases in the back end. I might also be talking with the operations team, which is the team that uses our product—they use our product to book these campaigns. So, sometimes they find bugs. Sometimes they want to know how something works. Sometimes they have questions about the work we've done or a new feature and they want to know exactly how it works. They want to know why it's not behaving the way that they expect.
And then you have days when things go wrong, like for example, today, we were getting some errors that actually brought the whole system down, and it means that we couldn't actually make any bids to put some advertisements out. And so we kind of have to find out what's going on. And it just so happened that the team lead had a day where he was at home—working on his home, not working at home. So, you have to look into the errors and find out what's going on. I find it pretty exciting, and pretty fun, but it can be pretty hectic.
That's kind of our day's work. We're kind of lucky in the sense that because our product is used internally for our operations team to manage, we don't deal with external customers. And sometimes that can be a pain, because your customer might complain and then you go back and forth and emails and you don't know what the problem is. But, where I work, it's just a matter of going up one floor and we can speak to whoever encountered the bug or the problem.
What about the language barrier working internationally in Europe?
If you're looking to go abroad and you are thinking about the Netherlands, don't worry about the language issue. Everyone speaks fluent English. It's great if you want to learn the language, and you’ll be encouraged and it's great, but don't see language as a barrier to coming here.
In Austria, and some of the other countries—like France, or Spain, or Germany—not everyone speaks English, so it was a little tough. But I also found it really exciting and really fun, because I actually took a course right before I left. It was at Carleton, in German, so I had a really basic base, and then I was able to walk around Vienna and ask for my coffee, and ask for beers, and ask basic questions in German and then of course get a response, and that was actually really fun.
I think, depending on how you look at it, it can be tough but it can also be really exciting. I just really always liked languages and for me, it was kind of exciting the whole way. Even right now, with Dutch.
Sometimes I find it almost funny because I might go to a meeting in Austria, in Vienna, and everyone's talking and I've got no idea what's going on. I understand some dates, and numbers, and some words really sound like English, so I can guess what the word is. But, I have no idea what's going on. So afterwards, I have to ask someone, “What was the meeting about? I saw the email, but the email is also in German, so I don't know. Can you please help me out?” But I always found that kind of funny. So, depending on how you take it, it can either can be challenging or it can be fun and exciting.
What are some traits that will serve you well if you want to succeed in this industry?
I always found that the people I enjoyed working with are people that are open, and who don’t get overwhelmed every time there's something new presented to them. Sometimes you might work in a team with someone, and someone else says, “Can you do that?” And they say, “Oh, I don't know how that works!” And, they kind of shut down immediately. And I believe that you should always have a go, and try some things—you can always ask questions.
And, that brings me to my second point: don't be afraid to ask questions. And, when you don't know the answer, don't try to give a BS answer; don't try to just make something up so that you don’t look bad in front of others. Because, it kinda snowballs into a situation where everyone's trying to show off every time they know something,and then people don't want to ask questions if they don’t know stuff. I think one of the biggest things to succeed is to be open about what you know and what you don't know—and have an eagerness to learn new things. That's especially important in the web development world because things are always moving so fast. There are always new libraries, new databases, and new APIs—new things are always coming out. So, if you don't want to learn new things, it only takes six months or a year before you're behind the times with the tools you're using, and the experience you have isn't so readily applicable to what's leading edge, and what's brand new, and what's coming out.
Any tips as far as succeeding in the Netherlands, specifically?
The Dutch they’re super nice people, they are super great. But, one thing I will say is that it will always be better if you want to spend some time learning Dutch. The Dutch people are really great, and they're really friendly. But, there is only so much that they'll talk to you if they speak to you in English—whereas, if you speak Dutch, you almost see a whole different side of them. There are a lot of people that I would speak to for quite a bit—more friends of friends, who I would see here and there—and I would speak to them in English and I thought, “Well, this guy’s so nice, that girl’s so nice.” And, in the past six months, I've been learning Dutch and I speak to them again—and they're like different people. They just have better conversations and make jokes. And I don't feel like after 15 minutes they don't want to keep talking to me. They just keep talking, and it's been really a positive experience.
So, I think for anyone who's in the Netherlands who feels like they're not really connecting or integrating as much as they would want to, I would say give Dutch a chance. Even though everyone speaks English, give Dutch a chance. It shows the Dutch people that you're kind of here for the long run. A lot of people who come here work for a couple of years and then leave, so many people will think, “Why bother being friends with this guy, or this girl? They're just gonna leave in six months because they're an expat, like everyone else.”
You mentioned that you worked with “big data”. How does MobPro use big data in its operations?
The big data aspect at MobPro is how programmatic advertising works. Every time you open your phone, and you have a newspaper—like a BBC app or something—and you scroll through, you might see a little square where an advertisement sits. When you open that app, there is a request that gets sent to an ad exchange, which is like a stock exchange. It’s a bid.
The bid goes to the exchange, and then it goes to a company like the one I work at, and the system sees this bid and then says alright, this person is about to load an advertisement slot. This person is from Canada, they are on this device, at this time, this location… all this stuff. And then, on the MobPro side, we have a bunch of clients and a bunch of advertising campaigns. So, we say, “You know what? This bid works perfectly for a night campaign. So we're gonna bid to put the night advertisement in that slot.”
Because the Netherlands is really well connected—in our case, we have 10,000 bids per second that come through—we need a system which can handle that information. And, once you make a bid, you have to track if that user is clicking that link or that video that you've sent, or if they're if they've even viewed it, or if you've won the bid.
Then, once you track those things, you want to keep that history, maybe for six months, because some clients will say, “We want to run an advertising campaign. For the first three months, we want to show a really silly banner. And for the next three months, we will only want to show our super cool banner to the people who clicked this silly banner.” So then you have to keep a history of what people have done in the past six months.
That's where the big data comes in. And, of course, you have to report on all the things that you're tracking, because when you send a bill to the customer, they want to know who saw what, who did what, and how much does it cost?
So, at least a MobPro, that's, that's the big data aspect. It is having to keep track of all this data, having to upload it, to backup servers, being able to easily go through it, and being able to combine it in a way that the customer wants. The customer might say, “We want people who clicked on it, but not the ones who viewed it.” And this, and that… And this is where you have all these really funny combinations that the customer might want. At MobPro, that's what Big Data really means.
Any last tips as far as working abroad goes?
Once you get to Europe, once you get abroad, it's really easy. So, once you get a job or an internship, whether it's through IAESTE or through some other program, you can ask around you can pass your CV around.
One thing that most people don't know—it's been in the news a little bit, but most people don't know—in Austria and in Germany, you essentially don't pay any tuition fees for any program. So, when I came to Vienna, I did my year-long internship. I was considering doing a master's part-time at the Vienna Technical University, because it would cost me $500 per year tuition. Definitely, some doors might open up that you don't think might open up when you land, and after you get to see the place for yourself.