Semmy Purewal ’02 is the kind of guy who likes to keep learning – and put what he’s learning to good use.
But after teaching computer science at colleges throughout the Southeast for six years, Purewal was ready for a change. So when a recruiter for Netflix reached out in 2013 to see if he was interested in working for the video streaming service, Purewal jumped at the opportunity.
“When [Netflix] invited me for an interview, I honestly thought it was a longshot, but I figured I’d give it a try,” says Purewal, noting that he had been doing software consulting on the side prior to applying to Netflix. “During the process, it was pretty clear that it was an amazing opportunity to be at the forefront of technology and to learn a tremendous amount. When they offered me the job, I just couldn’t say no.”
The move to California was life-changing and set Purewal, who double-majored in math and computer science at CofC before going on to earn his doctorate in computer science from the University of Georgia in 2007, on a path that would land him a job working as a software engineer at Facebook in 2017.
Purewal will be on the College of Charleston campus on Sept. 26, 2018, to talk to current students about his journey from Cistern Yard to Facebook. The talk, titled “Cougar Confidential: Facebook,” will be held at 4 p.m. in room 154 of the Rita Liddy Hollings Science Center. A separate talk, a seminar titled “Crush Your Coding Interview with Facebook,” will be held in the same location from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.
The College Today recently caught up with Purewal ahead of his return to campus to talk about his career path, his responsibilities at Facebook and why he believes it’s important to keep learning.
What are your job duties as a software engineer for Facebook?
I build tools that make it easier for other engineers to write software at Facebook. Obviously, this means I do a significant amount of coding. But the most important part of my job is working with people to better understand the challenges they are facing so we can ensure that our team is building the right things. Outside of software development, I mentor engineers who are earlier in their careers, occasionally manage interns and interview candidates for various engineering roles.
I’m also passionate about diversity in tech and have been fortunate to contribute to some of our efforts in this area. Specifically, I help out with some of our computer science education initiatives that target colleges and universities with historically underrepresented populations. This work typically involves helping faculty from these schools modernize their curriculum and better prepare their students for jobs at companies like Facebook.
What do you like most about your work at Facebook?
I really like the fact that Facebook contributes so much to the open-source community, and that I get to contribute to Nuclide, one of our open-source projects.
I also appreciate that I get to work with so many people who are exceptionally good at what they do and are constantly reaching for challenges outside of their current skill set. In fact, growth is pretty much expected of all engineers. The fact that the company encourages and supports growth through classes, workshops and other learning opportunities is definitely one of my favorite things about working there.
The best experience I’ve had so far, though, was our onboarding process known as ‘Bootcamp.’ When Facebook initially hires you, you’re not allocated to a specific team or project. Instead, you spend about four weeks taking classes and learning about the various technical challenges the company is facing. After you find which projects and challenges sound the most interesting, you start meeting the teams working in those areas. Eventually you get to decide for yourself what to work on. I don’t know of too many other companies that offer that kind of flexibility.
How did you learn about your position at Facebook?
I knew several amazing engineers who joined Facebook in the few years before I joined. Once I was ready for a new challenge, they convinced me to give it a try. After going through the interview process with several companies, it became clear that Facebook was the right fit for me.
How did your previous job at Netflix prepare you for the work you’re doing now?
At Netflix, I worked on a few different things, but I’m most proud of the work I did on our accessibility efforts. I built the part of the video player on Smart TVs and Game Consoles that processes and displays subtitles and enables closed-captioning.
In terms of preparation, my job at Netflix was my first full-time industry job, so that helped me to understand what was expected in an engineering role. But more than that, there are a number of technical issues that arise when building products and scaling infrastructure to support millions of people across the world. Netflix is one of only a handful of companies that face these challenges, so the skills I learned there were definitely transferable to Facebook.
How did your time at the College of Charleston shape your career trajectory?
I was inspired by all of my professors. I think several of them played a major role in my decision to pursue a Ph.D. and, later, my first career as a college professor. The experiences and skills I learned in graduate school and as a teacher served me well as I transitioned to industry.
Is there an experience or piece of advice from a professor during your time at CofC that has stuck with you?
Definitely! The most impactful experiences I had were collaborating on undergraduate research with professor Dinesh Sarvate in the math department and professor Bill Manaris in the computer science department. I learned so many skills doing research, and I’ve been able to leverage them in almost everything I’ve done since.
But outside of that it’s hard to single out any one professor who was more influential than any other. I have very fond memories and am extremely grateful for the time I was able to spend with Richard Crosby, Martin Jones, Liz Jurisich, Tony Leclerc, Mick Norton, Lindsay Packer, Walter Pharr, Brett Tangedal, Sandra Shields, Chris Starr, Jimmy Wilkinson and Paul Young. All of them influenced me in profound ways.
At time when social media is highly politicized, what do you see as the benefit of platforms such as Facebook?
I’m still a bit of an idealist when it comes to social media. I think it has the power to bring people together in ways that would have been very difficult, if not impossible, as little as 10 years ago. I’ve experienced this in a very personal way.
My father died about a year and a half ago. A day or so after it happened, I made a post about him on Facebook and within an hour of posting, my phone lit up with texts, phone calls, and messages from friends from whom I had not heard in years. Some reached out to tell me they understood how I was feeling because they had recently lost one of their parents. Others just called to tell me they were there for me if I needed anything.
When his obituary was published a few days later, I had people I had never met reach out to me through Facebook to express their condolences and share stories about him. My high school English teacher even added me as a friend and sent me a supportive message through Facebook because she had seen the obituary.
In a lot of ways, this is the primary reason Facebook exists: to make people feel a little more connected, especially when they need it most. It definitely did that for me at one of the hardest moments in my life.