iPhone, Google Glass engineer revisits his CSU experience

Simon Prakash, Vice President of Products & Design at AliveCor, will speak at the College of Engineering Spring 2016 commencement ceremony. Prakash received his bachelor's degree from CSU in mechanical engineering, and has been on the developing teams for the iPhone, iPad, and Google Glass.

What do you remember most about your time at CSU?

The methanol marathon project I did senior year really struck a note with me, because it was the first time I worked on a real engineering project. The team experienced camaraderie, and there were many late nights spent together. On top of that was the competition part, during which we drove up to Michigan, Canada, then Washington, D.C., finishing off in Maryland, taking the car with us and competed in a few projects along the way. I’d say this project gave me my real interest in becoming an engineer.

In addition to my senior project, I met a lot of great people that became lifelong friends. I lived with them from the dorm, to fraternities, to off-campus living, and even in my first job after school. And we still stay in touch, so it’s nice that you can develop those kinds of relationships.

The final thing I remember about my time at CSU was the concert every fall on the lawn in front of the student center – that was just a blast.

Are you excited to come back to campus? Why?

Yeah. Well, while I was there it was a pretty cool campus. It seemed to be spread out at first, but in actuality it was intimate. Everything was centrally located and you could get to a lot of classes pretty easily. Even when I was there it covered a lot of land. I haven’t seen it since before the big flood, and I can’t wait to see how it’s been rebuilt. And, I can’t wait to show my kids. They both are interested in engineering and science, and I think they’d really enjoy seeing the engineering college.

How do you feel your CSU degree helped you throughout your career (at Apple, Google, and now AliveCor)?

I think it gave me a sense of how to be practical in my engineering view of solving problems. Many of the people I work with have PhDs from the top 5 engineering schools in the nation, and yet I find with my CSU BSME degree I am able to complement their thinking with my own approach to solving a problem that gets us to right answer. I put that down to more of a practical way of breaking down the problem to its simplest form. I would guess that my training at CSU had a great deal to do with that.

Sometimes my colleagues and I will talk about where our careers have gone, and especially in Silicon Valley where there are a myriad of smart people, but in the end we’re all like, “well, I went to a state university.” And here we’re managing others who went to top universities. I believe an engineering degree is the starting point, but it’s how you apply yourself that sets you in a direction.

What was it like being on the cutting edge of the first iPhone, and then Google Glass?

I’ve been very fortunate to work on those projects, as well as the first Palm Pilot. For all of these products, it was thrilling, terrifying, and so completely gratifying once you see these products in people’s hands. It’s terrifying because we’re faced with problems all the time, and you don’t want it to fail. When you go through development cycles, there’s always an issue that pops up, and you’re on a timeline with a fast-approaching deadline. Once you get that product out, you’re exhausted, and there’s not a moment to go, “wow, I did that.” Those moments are rare because you’re already trying to make the next generation of that product, or the next type of product. It’s go, go, go, but once it’s out in the wild, you see people using it, and they’re so excited to tell you about the new iPhone they’re using, and they’re bringing you these stories about how awesome it is. The pride you feel seeing people so excited about this product you’re building is an awesome experience.

I feel the same excitement working at AliveCor, where the technology is geared more toward consumers in the health industry. What’s exciting is that in this case, the technology can not only change someone’s life, but it also has the potential to save someone’s life. The device we’re creating generates real, actionable data that the user can share with the doctor, and it can truly make a difference. When you can make a product that can make a difference in people’s lives, it’s exciting – more so than just a gadget.

What advice would you share with current CSU engineering students who want to follow in your footsteps?

1. Become an expert in something, in anything.
2. Find a way to add value immediately to the company. Find something somebody else isn’t spending a lot of time on, become an expert in that area, and you’ll find you add value really quickly to the organization.
3. Question everything – question yourself, question the data. Never stop asking yourself, “are you right?”
4. Make sure you know how to communicate. As an engineer, it doesn’t matter how good you are. If you can’t communicate what the data actually means, then you’re never heard.

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