From grad school to plugging in to Google's cloud

Ben Wheeler took a gamble that grad school would pay off. After two years of a grueling engineering and MBA program, he'll be working at Google, where he'll apply his operations chops to cloud computing.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
5 min read

Editor's note: This is the second story in an ongoing series profiling college graduates throughout the United States as they hunt for technology jobs. Check out CNET's special report, "Wanted: A job in tech," for a story tomorrow on an overachiever who gets her top pick of tech giants to work for.

Ben Wheeler at MIT's Sloan business school, where he has studied for the last two years. Martin LaMonica/CNET

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Ben Wheeler knows a lot about chip manufacturing and is captivated by the idea of the smart grid. Somehow, cultivating those interests at graduate school positioned him for a job pushing the limits of cloud computing at Google.

Two years ago, Wheeler had a good gig at a cutting-edge IBM chip manufacturing plant in New York, where he worked on systems to optimize factory output. But after about four years, the 31-year-old felt the need to "grow his career and solve bigger problems."

That itch for something else led him to a graduate business school search. But he quickly found that most programs lacked the technical depth and focus on hands-on operations experience that Wheeler, who received an undergrad degree from Rochester Institute of Technology, craved. Then he stumbled onto a specialized program called Leaders for Global Operations that combines coursework from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's School of Engineering and the MIT Sloan School of Management.

When he found that, it was like "tunnel vision," because it offered a way to focus on operations and manufacturing while digging deep into an engineering curriculum.

He applied to only one graduate school and was one of about 50 participants accepted every year into the program, where tuition is largely paid for by corporate sponsors. The icing on the cake was that MIT had created an energy and sustainability track that combines classes from different pockets of the university, giving Wheeler a way to delve into energy. "It's like being in Silicon Valley in the 1990s for energy here now. There are some amazing professors...Even Obama came here to talk about energy research."

Grid to cloud
Even though his experience is with chip manufacturing, Wheeler had a clear vision of how his skills could be transferred to the electricity grid and other parts of the computer industry. Manufacturing is all about optimizing the process, ensuring smooth coordination among different aspects of a factory operation and outside suppliers for efficiency. That's true for the electricity grid and, as he expects to find, for cloud computing.

When you connect electric vehicles to the grid, grid operators need to optimize the flow of energy to avoid maxing out the grid during peak times. And with his high-tech background, Wheeler could easily imagine how electric vehicles could be networked and managed as an energy source on the grid, supplementing centralized power generation.

With his interest in energy and environmental sustainability, Wheeler tested the waters for jobs in utilities and green-tech companies in Silicon Valley. But Google was able to offer him a position a full year before he'll actually be starting in the fall. That, plus the fact that he sees Google as a good employer, made it an easy choice.

The operations skills and technical knowledge transfer to Google cleanly, he said. Rather than optimizing the grid, he'll be an operations program manager tuning Google data centers to deliver computing like a utility, which includes optimal energy efficiency.

"Google on the back end has huge data centers and cloud infrastructure that's pretty complicated, so there are a lot of operational challenges you need to solve to get it to scale," Wheeler said. "Cloud computing is a lot like a utility in that you need to forecast demand and match it with supply--it's very parallel to electricity. It's a cool problem to look at."

It helps that Wheeler is already a heavy user of Google's Internet services, even some of the more obscure ones. When he was locked out of his Beacon Hill apartment on a recent Friday afternoon hours before hosting a barbeque, he found his girlfriend shopping in Macy's using the Google Latitude location service.

Checking Slashdot
Graduating from a prestigious university like MIT certainly helped when it came to job hunting. But one of the benefits of attending some universities is the rich network of alumni who can open doors for students, which exactly how he landed at Google: a Google employee and MIT business school graduate alerted students that Google was looking for expertise in operations.

Setting himself up for what looks like a primo job at Google wasn't easy on the academic side. Though the Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program at Sloan is two years, students start in the summer doing the engineering portion of the curriculum and then take up the business school classes with other Sloan students in the fall. Wheeler said the work has been "intense" but because he's passionate about the field, he's enjoyed it.

The program brings together like-minded people so that everyone knows everyone and there's a supportive atmosphere. While he walked me around the Sloan campus, Wheeler ran into many people he knew who said hello, both students and administrators. Bonding was helped by a multicity tour the students take to see different factories, everything from Boeing's plane manufacturing to Amazon's distribution center to Detroit auto factories.

Another advantage is that both Wheeler's graduate and undergraduate programs included internships, which helped him create a relationship with a potential employer. He spent eight months last year at an aerospace contractor in Los Angeles working on decision support software. While there, Wheeler, a native of upstate New York, got a taste of the California lifestyle and took up surfing. In fact, he sold his surfboards and furniture to a fellow student who is also subletting his LA apartment and car.

All his gear will be waiting for him when he arrives there this summer. Then he'll drive north with his girlfriend to San Francisco where they plan to find a place. He'll take one of the shuttles Google makes available down to Mountain View in Silicon Valley.

As a technology fan who is more apt to check Slashdot and CNET than his stock portfolio or sports scores, Wheeler should fit into Google's engineering-oriented culture. Working in cloud computing gives him assurances that he'll be working in a field that's poised to grow.

Grad school can be a tough move to make when you're already employed. But Wheeler has no regrets: "It was the best move I ever made," he said.