Sung Yoon Whang
Meet Sung Yoon Whang, BIS Valedictorian class of 2013 and one of the founders of Bali Maths Club (which would eventually become the Bali Maths Competition, one of the biggest student-driven Maths competitions in Bali). His fond unique skills pertaining to how to solve things (which was supported by BIS during his time here), have allowed him to achieve his passion in regards to software engineering.
- Tell us about yourself.
I am a software engineer at Microsoft working on the .NET Core runtime, which is a platform that lets programming languages like C#, VB.NET, or F# to execute. My main focus area is performance diagnostics, and I work on various runtime features, libraries, and tools for analyzing performance characteristics of .NET applications. With fewer technical jargons, you can think of my job as writing “software for software developers”. Before I came to Microsoft, I received my bachelor’s degree and master’s degree, both in Computer Science, from Northwestern University. I’ve also previously worked at Uber – the ridesharing startup, and Shmoop, a site that helps high school students learn (BIS students should check it out!). In my free time I teach/mentor high school and college students, write more code, play video games, or read books while listening to music.
- What led you to be a software engineer?
I knew I always loved problem solving, so for a while I thought I wanted to study math and eventually become a mathematician. But after studying a bit of more advanced math like college algebra on my own, I realized it was not the kind of problem solving I was looking for because it was very abstract and had no direct real life impact. While I enjoyed solving hard problems, I didn’t want to just solve problems for the sake of solving them, and wanted to see measurable and tangible impact. I started looking into related areas where I could apply mathematical thinking and logical processes but solve problems that appear in our day-to-day life – such as computer science, economics, electrical engineering, or physics. It’s difficult to really think about what different jobs are like when you’re in high school, and I was no different. So when I left BIS to go to college in the US to study computer science, I wasn’t entirely sure if this was going to be my path. But nine months later in my first summer internship in Silicon Valley, I realized that I love writing software and the impact it had on people and our society – it’s a great feeling when you work day and night to solve various problems to write the code, and ship your product and see people using your work on a daily basis!
- Can you describe a major challenge that you have faced or are currently facing as a software engineer?
I think there are a few really difficult technical challenges that I’ve solved as a software engineer that I would be happy to explain here but there isn’t enough space to describe it – math nerds out there will get this joke 🙂 In all seriousness, if anyone who knows how to program or studies computer science would like to hear more about them, you should be able to find me on the Internet and ask me directly since everything I work on at Microsoft is open source.
On the other hand, a challenge I’m facing recently that’s not technical but still equally difficult is re-thinking about the role of a software engineer. Earlier in my career I used to think being a good software engineer means being able to solve really hard problems. And while that turned out to be true, I also came to the realization that I need more than just technical skills to be a great engineer. A great software engineer not only solves hard problems himself, but also enables others to do the same. As I’ve moved up the career ladder in my team from being a “newbie” engineer to taking a more senior role on the team, my day-to-day tasks have also changed from fixing bugs and writing code to designing end-to-end user experiences, cross-team collaborations, and mentoring junior engineers. As a result, I’m spending so much time just writing plain English instead of code! I’m really glad I took IB English Literature HL (Thanks Mr. Paetzold for convincing me to take that class!). This role change is something I’m still getting used to and learning as I go, and I hope to be able to enable more people around me to do more.
- You initiated the Bali Maths Club which later became Bali Maths Competition. What was your motivation with this creation?
First of all, I want to mention that it was not only me but also Marion Halim and Kevin Tanujaya (both from class of 2011) that started the math club. When we started math club, it wasn’t for anything grandiose. We did it because we shared the love for problem solving. We were the first BIS students to participate in the South East Asian Math Competition (SEAMC), and we wanted to have a place to hang out after school to solve math problems together. We taught each other, and for some really difficult problems, we spent hours discussing approaches to solve them. On some weeks we went over to each other’s places over the weekend to solve math problems, so math club happened outside of BIS campus too. So you could say we made the math club for ourselves. Everything was student-driven, and we chose things to study/problems to solve on our own. And participating in SEAMC with Marion and Kevin was super fun and arguably one of the most memorable moments of my BIS experience. Later the math club turned into a more “lecture” style place where older students taught younger students of more interesting math materials, but I think the high point for me personally was when it was just the three of us solving super hard problems every single day after school.
Bali Math Competition was a simple extension to the math club after that. It was an attempt to provide a similar experience for other students in Bali who don’t participate in SEAMC. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw that it was still going on! If anyone at BIS Math Club is interested in learning about why maths is important in software or how it’s used in the technology industry, please feel free to reach out to me for a virtual coffee chat 🙂
5.What values or learning that you acquired at BIS do you still use today?
I think the most valuable thing I learned at BIS is learning how to learn – not just blindly absorbing materials for test-taking, but learning about why it’s important to learn and how I learn the best. My teachers at BIS didn’t simply teach us test-taking skills, but shared passion for the subjects they taught and taught why they’re so fun and important to learn. I still remember writing essays like “Why study literature” for IB Literature class, or “How do we know that we know” from TOK class. And while I secretly complained about how abstract and useless these essays seemed, doing things like these helped me learn why I learn, and how I learn. These skills helped me a great deal when I was going through my undergrad/graduate courses at Northwestern, and even today at Microsoft. As a software engineer, I have to learn new things on a daily basis because the tech industry changes so fast, and these skills help me achieve that.
The other important value I acquired at BIS is being inclusive. Tech industry has been trying very hard to educate its workers to become more inclusive towards different culture, race, gender, and simply people from different backgrounds. I found myself finding these things very natural, since at BIS we are from all over the place and there is so much diversity that accepting people for who they are is just the norm. I think that’s a great quality that all BIS students graduate with, and I am grateful for the environment I was able to receive my early education at.