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Willamette propels Conor Krystad BS’22 into a successful software development career

by Linda Lenhoff,

Conor KrystadIt was love at first sight for Conor Krystad BS’22, and those first impressions of Willamette University have paid off.

Krystad, who majored in Computer Science and minored in Data Science, Mathematics, and Psychology, turned his passion for computers into a job right out of college as a software developer engineer with Cambia Health Systems in Portland. The company even allowed him to delay his start date so he could enjoy a little summer vacation and let him work remotely in San Diego.

During the college selection process, Willamette caught Krystad’s eye right away. “I went on college tours and spent a day at Willamette, where I met Professor of Computer Science Haiyan Cheng,” Krystad says. After doing an overnight with some first-year students in the dorms, Krystad knew the college was right for him. “It felt like an open and welcoming community, and I thought I could make friends here.” His conversation with Professor Cheng sealed the deal — and she continued to make a big difference in his studies and career choice.

“I showed up at Willamette knowing that I wanted to be a computer science major,” Krystad continues. “I’ve been playing around making mods for Minecraft for a number of years. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Meeting and studying with Willamette’s dedicated professors helped Krystad decide which parts of computer science fascinated him most. “Professor Cheng probably had the greatest impact on me: She was a great mentor for me over one summer when I had an internship with her. And her Analysis of Algorithms class, where you’re blending computer science and mathematics, was fantastic.”

Krystad also highlights Stanford Professor Emeritus and 2020–21 Mark and Melody Teppola Presidential Distinguished Visiting Professor Eric S. Roberts for challenging him to think critically about the field of computer science. “His Computer Ethics class was probably my favorite in Computer Science. It was more humanities-focused, but that’s the sort of thing a Computer Science degree at a liberal arts institution offers.” Krystad says the liberal arts focus continues to be relevant today, “for example, with subjects like the Therac-25 bug — a bug in a medical device that caused overdoses that killed several people from radiation poisoning — the current focus on J. Robert Oppenheimer and the role of science and computers in the creation of the atomic bomb, and some of the less favorable applications for my particular field.”

Assistant Professor of Computer Science Calvin Deutschbein, who arrived during Krystad’s last year at Willamette, also made an impression, with his course Introduction to Cybersecurity. “The course asked such questions as, “What purpose does cybersecurity serve and why, and who benefits from it?” and “Why do cybersecurity breaks happen?” Kyrstad adds.

When it came time to find a job, Krystad again credited Cheng for her help. After sending out plenty of resumes, he got a response from Cambia through a contact of Cheng’s. “I don't think that’s a coincidence that that’s the one that I got the interview with, and that was the one where I ultimately got this job.”

Today, Krystad works as a backend Java developer with a team of four others, managing insurance claims, converting them to different file formats, and saving them on databases. He plans to stick with the company but admits his interests in computer science are “all over the place.”

“I think these large language models are pretty cool, and you’re hearing about them in the news all the time. So perhaps I may go into the field of computational linguistics, which thanks to Professor Deutschbein, I still have a soft spot for.”

What’s Krystad’s advice for prospective students and incoming first years? “Willamette is about the people you meet and the connections you make, more so than your set of technical skills.” In addition, Krystad notes that he loved some of the courses he took beyond his key interests, like Neuroscience class and Medical Anthropology. His key advice? “Going to a liberal arts college, you should study broadly and differentiate yourself that way.”

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