Samuel Foster balances his laundry basket on the flat end of a vertically positioned foam roller, forcing him to keep the basket’s balance with each clothing item he folds, making his home activities more interesting during shelter in place.
Foster is staying with his family in Modesto, California before moving to Washington to start his job as a front-end developer at Microsoft. He also completed his spring semester at home, which was a familiar educational environment since he was homeschooled before attending Cal Poly Pomona.
“I grew up in Stockton, which had high crime rates, so my parents decided to homeschool me,” Foster said. “I had no distractions and I could focus completely on school, but I never had to look at a computer so much in my life during shelter in place.”
The computer science Class of 2020 graduate worked with computers and programing since he was 10. Foster was introduced to the technology by his dad, who taught him how to build and repair them, but as a kid he was more interested in playing video games.
It was through coding and programming games through Roblox, an online video game community, that sparked his passion in computer science. Foster was fascinated that he could create the source of movement for characters.
“If I learn how to write code, I can program the environment and characters and make it do what I want it to do. I wasn’t making anything great and I failed often, but I was so interested and excited about it I kept trying,” Foster said. “Eventually, I realized I could study this and turn it into a career, which is what brought me to Cal Poly Pomona.”
One of his biggest accomplishments on campus was, in his junior year, founding and becoming the first co-president of the CPP Software Engineering Association (SEA), where students learn professional skills needed in the industry, including code review, unit testing and software design.
Through SEA, Foster met Drew Umlang, a fellow computer science graduate who will also work at Microsoft. For Umlang, SEA helped him prepare for computer science interviews, ultimately helping him land his software engineering position at Microsoft.
“It got me in the mindset of researching companies and preparing for interviews for my future job,” Umlang said. “The most important part of working at Microsoft is the ability to work with a massive scale of data – the learning opportunities in a big organization can’t be found anywhere else.”
Foster saw his peers advancing in their academic and career skills, and his original interest in computer science shifted into teaching and building a community. He provided open access to the association’s workshops and topics by uploading content online with no membership fee. As part of an interview skills workshop, members asked Foster interview questions and he answered professionally.
“I cared about people’s time and I wanted to give them something of value that they can share with other people,” Foster said. “I wasn’t thinking of the opportunities the organization would bring me – I was thinking about my unique experiences and teaching and bringing what I do know to help others.”
He also received a crash course on gaining college experiences and developing deeper relationships with his peers.
One of Foster’s fondest memories was when his roommate, Raoul Soans, and two dormmates convinced him to skip class his freshman year. They drove to the Lumiere Music Hall Theatre in Beverly Hills to watch the Japanese animated film, “Your Name.” He remembers yelling the lyrics to Weezer’s ode to the posh city as they drove to Santa Monica where he had Mediterranean food for the first time. Foster said it was an iconic college moment he treasures by keeping his movie ticket.
The summer before his senior year, new board members took the lead for SEA and Foster focused on his summer internship at Google in New York, which brought him physically closer to his girlfriend.
Foster felt that he was taking steps toward a successful future. But toward the end of summer, he took wider strides back. During the last week of his internship, the same day he interviewed for a full-time position at the technology company, he found out his girlfriend was cheating on him. When he returned to Cal Poly Pomona, he learned about Soan’s death in the middle of fall semester. A month after that, he found out he was not offered a permanent position at Google.
He struggled with the losses and was pulling himself back from the life he was building. But his friends took notice and consistently showed up for him, making sure they gave him the help he did not know how to ask for.
“My personal life was falling apart, I lost a great friend and I started to isolate myself – it broke me,” Foster said. “My friends Justin and Kiana really pulled me out of that. They were there for me, and I can’t be more thankful.”
Foster finished his senior year stronger and with more knowledge about what he wants for himself. He kept in close contact with Soans’ family and is looking forward to spending more time with them, since they also live in Washington.
Umlang has already driven from Texas, where he was sheltering in place with his mom, to Washington, and is taking time to settle into his new place and create a remote working space. Although he and Foster will work in different departments, they will eventually work at the same Microsoft headquarter location.
Securing a job after graduation at one of the major companies in the industry confirmed to Umlang that his hard work paid off. He is part of approximately 34 percent of students who are the first in their family to go to a university. Umlang’s father worked in telecommunications, which was an unstable industry, and his mom stayed at home and encouraged him to continue his education. Umlang went to Saddleback Community College for three years to alleviate expenses before transferring to Cal Poly Pomona in 2017.
“It’s nice to have that piece of paper and know that I succeeded in doing that,” Umlang said. “But I know it wasn’t only my efforts – it’s the efforts of everyone I know who helped me achieve that.”
Umlang admits that he was not the best student, but after building a computer in high school he was inspired to take a computer science course at Saddleback College. He was interested in understanding the functions of each part of a computer and learning how to improve its performance.
While at Cal Poly Pomona, he strengthened his foundations, learned how to predict trends in the industry and applied to work what he learned in the classroom.
“It wasn’t until I took a data structure class at Cal Poly Pomona that solidified the concepts I was lacking,” Umlang said.
He went to great lengths for his internship – he drove nearly 3,000 miles to Virginia to work at a Department of Defense branch that collects, analyzes and distributes geospatial intelligence for the United States government. Umlang was the only developer on his team, requiring him to be resourceful and outgoing when working on his project. He learned how to communicate and translate his work to someone who is not as technical as he is, especially in a government organization.
An example – here is how he described problem-solving questions on his Microsoft interview test:
“You’re presented a problem by being given a string of words, and you have to rewrite the entire string but only with unique characters,” Umlang said. “To simplify, a string of words can be ‘this is my.’ The result of your program should output ‘this my’ because the letters ‘i’ and ‘s’ are already used.”
Umlang finished his last Cal Poly Pomona final online at 11 p.m., in Texas, where his mom lives, and stepped into his living room knowing that he earned his bachelor’s degree. The moment felt strange given the unusual circumstances – he did not have the exuberance he would have felt if he had walked through the doorway of his classroom, taking his final steps across campus as an undergraduate student.
“Well, that’s that I guess,” Umlang had thought to himself.
He looks forward to returning to Cal Poly Pomona to celebrate his commencement but will save his car some mileage and fly back.
“I’m looking forward to commencement because at that point I would have had a job for a year,” Umlang said. “It won’t just be a celebration of what you achieved in college, but also what you achieved working and living in a pandemic. I’ll know that I made it through that, and I was able to survive and prosper.”