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Ryan Summerskill

K-State Graduation Year: May 2008
Degree: Bachelor's in Computer Science
Current Employer: Garmin 
Position: Senior Software Engineer and Airframe Lead 

Describe the process of choosing your major.

I always knew that I wanted to go into Engineering and that I wanted to work with computers. I finally picked Computer Science after my campus tour when someone said to me was “the easiest way to explain the difference is Comp E’s work with hardware, Comp Sci’s work with software”. The idea of having an infinite landscape to work with, being able to log on to my PC and code up any project my mind desired without having to budget for some specialized hardware, etc.. was what sold me. I eventually declared a minor in embedded systems to round out my curiosity for Computer Engineering.

What activities/organizations were you involved in while in college?
  • Association of Computer Machinery- President (2.5 years), Senior Chair (1 year)
  • Steel Ring 
  • Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 
Did you complete an internship or have related work experience prior to receiving your job?

I completed two internships. My first was for a small health care company in Overland Park, KS. I worked with their database management product, Pather. I developed several new plug-in “sensors” and worked on a research project to develop a new report generation system my last few weeks.

My second internship was at Garmin in Olathe, KS. I worked in the aviation displays team and developed for the G1000 system. Eventually I worked with three other interns and one full-time engineer on a research project to develop a new automated test system. This system was designed to automate the manual testing currently done against the hardware. It leveraged xml based test scripts. This eventually become the first version of the GATE (Garmin Automated Test Environment) aviation test system. I later returned as a full-time engineer to the same team I interned for. GATE has evolved to a python base environment and is now used extensively throughout the aviation department.

I also worked a part time development job during my last two years at K-State. I worked as one of three student developers for a very small local construction hardware company. Myself, along with two other students and two professors from the Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering department developed hardware and software systems to perform road profiles. This equipment was used to measure the smoothness of a road after construction was done, and evaluate where dips and bumps may need to be fixed. I typically put in 15-20 hours a week during the school year. I also participated in the hiring and training of several new student developers.

Describe the process of finding your first job.

For my first internship I meet with the company at the fall job fair. I had dropped my resume off with several other “top” companies and decided to look at some of the other booths that I honestly had never heard of. When I stopped by and finished my elevator pitch to the man asked me if I had ever heard of them and I said, “Honestly no, but you are looking for CIS interns and the best way to learn what you guys have is to talk with you.” I guess I sold him as we then chatted tech and eventually team/project/leadership stuff. Later the next day he called and asked if I would come down to Overland Park for an onsite interview. I was offered the internship on the spot while at lunch.

My Garmin internship was a bit in the same way. I had been kicked back by the automated resume scanners as my GPA at the time was right on the boarder of their cutoff. I wasn’t given a strict no but wasn’t offered an onsite and was told I would be kept in the system for further consideration. I decided to go the information sessions anyways. After the talked I walked up to the representative from the Aviation Department. My father was a pilot and flight instructor so I have a love for airplanes and a history with airplanes. We talked for a bit about that which then led into tech discussions. After talking for about 25 minutes he asked if I had a interview slot for the next day as he wanted to make sure that he was my interviewer. After telling him I couldn’t get one he looked at the schedule and offered me one of the free slots. That man eventually ended up being my team lead for my internship and for 3 years after.

The small local job was offered through a friend/fellow Association of Computer Machinery staff member who currently worked there. He fell into it through a project he did for one of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Engineering professors that worked there. The overwhelming theme here is networking. Every single one of these things didn’t happen because I blindly shot off a resume to a website and waited to hear back. While I’m sure a lot of folks find jobs like this every day the real way to land an opportunity is with face to face communication and to know as many folks as possible. If I hadn’t gone up to talk to the Garmin representative I would have never been offered a job there. If I hadn’t stopped by that small booth I would have never had the great conversation what turned out to be one of the owners of the company. If I hadn’t made new friendships and networks through Association of Computer Machinery I wouldn’t have known about the small local Manhattan job.

Also a point of note is that once I got to my final year at K-State I started out my fall semester with three full-time offers. After shopping around by Thanksgiving I had a total of 6 full-time offers. Two of those additional three came from contacts that I made as part of the Association of Computer Machinery.

Briefly describe a typical day at your job.

This question is always a tough one to answer. It’s a pretty standard day. I have a mix of emails, meetings, sit and code, and a lot of collaboration and discussion “white board time”. Garmin is pretty laid back so in all this there is still time to go out and walk on a nice day, play ping pong, foosball, or card games to help relax during the day.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Since I work with a physical product my favorite part is when I go to an air show or trade show and when someone asks about the aircraft or what I like about it I can say that "I helped design it” and get that rock star moment as the person starts to ask all kinds of questions. Since I’m also an aviation geek I enjoy the few times I get to go out to our hangar and do some real world testing/debugging be that on the ground or in the air.

What are the most challenging aspects of your job?

Lots of cooks in the kitchen. The projects I’m working on now all have 100+ developers trying to build new things and improve the system. On top of that the display unit has to coordinate and talk to several other boxes behind the dash. Finally we have several dozen Original Equipment Manufacturer customers that all want the system custom tailored for them. This presents several new interesting challenge every week.

What advice would you give someone interested in your field?

Be flexible! This is meant in several ways. Don’t lock yourself into one type of development language or environment. I had one day several years ago where from the time I woke up to the point I went to sleep I had written code in some form or another in 4 different languages for 4 different problem sets. Don’t let yourself get stuck on the first solution you come up with. It may work great for that point in time and may itself be very flexible, but there will come a time when you find a better more flexible solution that will cause you to have to ditch your old system. If someone else comes up with this don’t take it personally things evolve and it might not always be your pushing it to the next version.

What were the stepping stones that led to your current career?

I have always like working with computers. It just always seemed to come naturally to me. Eventually I found that I could also tie in my love for aviation with it.

How have any changes in your life situation affected your career path? 

Since we had our first kid a couple years ago I find myself drawn more towards stability and life balance. I try not work to late and I’m more drawn to a path that will keep us around this area vs. moving around or traveling a lot. I also have a much greater love for our amazing health insurance package.

What job have you enjoyed the most and why?

It’s really a tough call. I think in the long run it has been my job at Garmin. It has been the most rewarding and I’ve been able to do so much diverse stuff. I do still miss the small “startup” feel of my Manhattan job.

What was the one thing you did in college that has had the most impact on your life or career?

All the networking and leadership I did. The networking opened a lot of doors for me and building my leadership skills have helped me open even more.

What tips do you have for current undergrads about opportunities they should definitely take advantage of while they are in school?

Make sure you  participate in things like the Association of Computer Machinery. They will help you both build leadership skills, interpersonal skills, and it’s a great way to network.

Do you keep in touch with your college classmates? How have those relationships influenced your career?

Yes I keep in good contact with several of them. I’m actually working on a part time startup web project with one of them now which could grow into a new major job opportunity.