For a seasoned Oracle decision-maker heading up a team stretched across several countries, you would think Vice President of Software Development, Reza B’Far, had enough to juggle. But despite all his duties, there was still one area that B’Far felt a strong personal desire to explore – Artificial Intelligence (AI).
As an electrical engineering undergraduate, B’Far got a taste for developing AI code while working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It was a passion of B’Far’s and an area he desired to be more involved in at Oracle, but taking on another academic program, while juggling a full-time job and his family, including three young children, had its obvious challenges.
“Artificial Intelligence is a relatively new field where you can only learn so much by getting involved in the work,” said B’Far. “There were gaps in my knowledge and specific projects I wanted to work on that required a much deeper understanding.”
After trying three other programs that weren’t a fit for his professional and personal lifestyle, B’Far found the answer in Southern California. B’Far is currently enrolled at the prestigious University of Southern California’s online graduate engineering program – DEN@Viterbi. On track to graduate with his M.S. in Computer Science this spring, B’Far shares the intelligence he’s gathered during his advanced degree journey so that his Oracle cohorts can also be successful in the pursuit of their educational passions:
1. Be honest about your goals and challenges.
Be clear about your true reasons for pursuing an advanced degree. Is it for your professional development? Career advancement? Your own personal growth? And be honest about the challenges that will influence your academic success, such as time, work travel and other personal constraints. These factors will greatly influence the type of program you choose – be it a shorter-term certificate program, or something like a full advanced degree, which can be earned both on campus and online, or sometimes a blend of both. Also, look into your company’s career development programs, as there are often stipends or funds available for tuition reimbursement, as was my case.
2. Do your homework.
While rankings are helpful, be sure to look at the big picture. Percentages don’t always tell the full story. How long has the university been offering the program you’re interested in? How many students have actually gone through the program? How many have actually graduated? Additionally, for B’Far, getting anecdotal experiences from friends and fellow colleagues proved critically important. He ended up choosing the U.S. News and World Report’s No. 1 ranked online Computer Science program after he spoke to numerous peers who had first-hand experience with USC’s DEN@Viterbi platform. And, admittedly for B’Far, the influence of a very important USC alumnus, his wife, ultimately impacted his decision to become a Trojan.
3. Look for advanced online programs.
Be weary of online programs that have a “set it and forget it” approach, where canned courses are recycled from semester to semester.
Rather, opt for online programs that offer the same resources as on-campus programs. For B’Far, the courses he took were actually the exact same classes taught to on-campus students, except online students could participate during live classes via their computer, smart phones and tablets, which was a great help when B’Far was traveling for work. For B’Far, the quality and academic experience were above and beyond what he ever expected from an online program.
Lastly, ensure you understand the technology and resources available to online students; they’re key to balancing work and studies.
4. Find faculty that are invested in their students.
This is one is a bit trickier, but it’s a key determination of how successful you will be in your program. Finding faculty who are invested in their student’s success can make a world of difference when work and life challenges happen – and they will. In B’Far’s case, being in classes capped at 60 students, versus MOOC-style classes which can have thousands, helped ensure that B’Far is able to have a personal connection with his professors, many of whom are world-renowned researchers.
For instance, there was a time B’Far was under a huge work project deadline, while battling a particularly tough case of pneumonia, not to mention celebrating the birth of his third child. B’Far’s professor, Dr. Mirkovic, worked with him to find solutions to complete assignments while he juggled his family, career and health.
When considering a program, be sure to ask questions about how accessible the faculty are: what is their typical turnaround to answer questions? Do they work one-on-one with students, including the remote ones? For B’Far, having faculty available to him to work one-on-one has been one of the biggest blessings during his graduate studies.
With his program almost complete, B’Far is just a few assignments away from completing his Master of Computer Science degree. He reflects on his progress and where it will take him, saying, “I have used almost every single class that I've taken at USC at work and am thrilled about the prospects to work on the exciting AI projects thanks to my new education.”