Balancing Business and Technology at UIC

For Brandon Feld, BS ‘13, a regular day at the Googleplex involves a mix of project management and writing code in SQL, Java, and Python, a balance of duties Feld sought from the start, when he enrolled as a freshman IDS major at UIC Business. “Before I came to UIC, I was living in Northbrook, and trying to make a college choice between Arizona, Iowa, and a few University of Illinois campuses,” Feld says. Raised in a single-parent family, Feld said the in-state tuition helped him narrow his options. “Beyond that, it was a question of internships. Your options are broader in the loop than in the cornfields. And there was one other factor: I was running my own music website at the time, and the music scene in Chicago is way better than in any of the college towns.”

When Feld arrived at UIC Business, he wanted a program that was equal parts business and technology. “I was interested in how the two fields were evolving together,” he says, “and the best approach to this at UIC was through the Information and Decision Sciences major.” Feld studied project management with Richard Potter, data mining with Sid Bhattacharyya, statistics with Milan Velebit, and coupled his coursework with internships at startups and larger organizations. “I wanted my resumé to tell employers that I’m a hard worker and a self-starter who can get things done in the kinds of ambiguous situations you find at smaller startups and on new, complex projects,” Feld says.  “The resumé also had to show that I could find my place in a larger organization, and that combo is more or less exactly what I found through the UIC Career Portal–one internship at KLUTCHclub, and a second at Chicago Public Schools.”
 
The two internships could hardly have been more different, says Feld. “Some of the bigger challenges I faced at CPS were organizational,” he says, “though CPS needed its share of tech help, too. KLUTCHclub was a small startup–I was one of eight people there–so there was much more figuring it out on the fly, and I learned a lot in a short period of time. At startups, your scope is what you want it to be. You don’t get that kind of flexibility everywhere.”
 
KLUTCHclub’s model was a monthly subscription box of healthy snacks, supplements, gift cards, and other consumer items. The company invited products from emerging brands and in return offered them services such as data, marketing, and incubation. When Feld started at KLUTCHclub, he was an unpaid intern responsible for the website and the collection and processing of data. “We worked closely with brands like KIND snacks, popchips, and other products you’d recognize. As the business expanded, so did my responsibilities,” he says. “I was reporting results and findings and advising next steps to our contacts at different brands, and these contacts were often the CEO or CMO.” By the time Feld left KLUTCHclub, he’d gone from an unpaid intern to a paid member of the core team.
 
When KLUTCHclub began the selling process, Feld knew it was time for his next step. He was about to graduate from UIC Business, and was at liberty to work anywhere. “I did some hard thinking on the couch,” he says, “and applied to the big four firms, and other places on Wacker Drive. But the big four didn’t feel right at the time–I’m not the suit-and-tie type. I applied to Google through google.com/careers; no referral, no contacts. And I got lucky. We did a few phone interviews and then they flew me to California. I think they saw my balance of startup experience and large organizational experience, and they liked my data-driven, hardworking background. They were also interested in the music website I’d kept up all along. They were impressed that I’d worked two internships while in school and still elected to spend my free time on web work.”
 
Google also liked Feld’s approach to problem solving. “In the interviews, I faced a lot of questions for which I simply had no answer,” he says, “and I think they liked that I didn’t try to bluff my way through anything. Instead, I’d respond, ‘I don’t know the exact answer, but here’s how I’d approach this’.” The willingness to break down complex unknowns is essential to his work at Google, Feld says. “Google is constantly moving on to the next big thing. In a sense, that’s what the organization is about, that forward motion.”
 
Thus Feld’s strongest advice for UIC undergraduates is to be comfortable with the unknown. “Get comfortable in situations where you’re not an expert,” he says. “Ask questions, try to distill what you are solving for. Be willing to fail, be willing to do the wrong thing. If you’re a hard worker, and if you’re willing to learn, you’ll find a solution.” This also applies to careers, Feld says. “Go out and get all the internships you can, learn as much as you can. If you don’t like a job, that’s okay; you’ve learned from it, and are all the more prepared for what comes next.”
 
His final word of advice: study plenty of math and statistics. Feld studied statistics with Milan Velebit while at UIC, and has become an advocate for literacy in the field. “So many decisions require looking at things through a statistical lens. At a place like Google, you need to be able to think like a customer, and you need that statistical knowledge. Without these, you can find yourself left out of the conversation.”