On his takeaways from the MEng program, his journey into program management, and his passion for coffee.Robert Bui graduated from the UC Berkeley MEng program in 2014 where he studied Electrical Engineering and Computer Science with a concentration in embedded software. Now, Robert works as an engineering program manager at Apple. Here, he shares about his experience in the MEng program, his post-graduation career path, and his pandemic hobby. Tell us about yourself! Before coming to UC Berkeley I was studying and living in Arizona. Berkeley was my first exposure to the Bay Area and Silicon Valley. After graduation, I spent some time in Austin, Texas, and I recently moved back to the Bay Area about two years ago. I’m currently working as an engineering program manager at Apple. What brought you to the MEng program? Before coming to Berkeley, I earned a bachelor’s in electrical engineering at Arizona State University. I had some internships in the semiconductor industry: I was really fortunate to be an intern at Microchip Technology and NXP Semiconductor. From both of those experiences I realized that I really liked electrical engineering, but I also really enjoyed how embedded software can be used to enable devices. What drew me to the UC Berkeley program was not just the typical experience of doing a master’s degree and learning more about computer science, but also the leadership aspect. I was really excited to dive into that and understand how things really work beyond a technical perspective. I wanted to understand how companies are run. The MEng program was really enticing because it incorporated those leadership aspects, which set it apart from other MS programs in the country. What did you take away from your MEng degree? The leadership classes that tuned my technical presentation and project planning skills were definitely a highlight. I use those skills every day in my current role. A lot of my time is spent communicating and working across multiple teams, so having that foundation from the MEng program has really guided how I work today. What have you been up to since graduating? Immediately after Berkeley, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was really fortunate to have the opportunity to do an engineering rotation program at NXP Semiconductor in Austin, TX. It was a great way to dive in and broaden my technical experience while also learning more about the company. It was a one-year program that offered 4-month rotations with different teams, and I was able to learn a lot about how different teams worked. The Internet of Things (IoT) was an emerging space at the time so my main projects were helping to enable our customers to connect their devices to the cloud. After starting off as an engineer at NXP, I moved into technical program management, which involves leading the planning and execution of projects across multiple teams. Today, I’m an engineering program manager at Apple for the sensing features in Airpods. We recently launched the Airpods (3rd Generation). The programs I’m specifically responsible for are the firmware and algorithms for the in-ear detection and the stem press feature. This involves coordinating the schedules of many different teams — the algorithm team that determines if your AirPods are in-ear or if the user has pressed the AirPods to play/pause music, the quality engineering team that ensures the feature is working as expected, and the firmware teams providing the firmware for enabling the sensors.
“Today, I’m an engineering program manager at Apple for the sensing features in Airpods. We recently launched the Airpods (3rd Generation). The programs I’m specifically responsible for are the firmware and algorithms for the in-ear detection and the stem press feature.”Can you tell us more about your experience working on the Airpods? I joined Apple in April 2020 during the pandemic. Since I’m working with people all day, getting to only meet, work, and build trust with my team virtually was definitely a challenge. Working on a product that we all knew was going to be used by thousands of people also really put pressure on us. It’s been a crazy, wild ride and I’ve had a lot of fun. During the pandemic, I had to really understand my team’s way of working and also learn how Apple operates. I had to find a balance of keeping people accountable while keeping meetings as reasonable as possible — Zoom fatigue is real! As a program manager, a lot of what I do is to be a glue to connect teams and help improve how the team operates by identifying and removing obstacles. What are some of your non-academic interests and passions? Lately, I’ve been diving into the world of coffee. From making pour-overs, espresso, and trying latte art, I think it’s such a great way to start the morning, and there’s just something special about the pursuit of finding the perfect coffee cup. There are so many variables like where the beans come from, the temperature of the water, and the type of device used for brewing. It’s been fun to experiment and share coffee with friends. Any advice for future MEng students? The one year is so short, so make the most of it. One thing I loved about my time at UC Berkeley was the speakers that came to campus. I wish I’d gone to as many talks as I could because they truly are fantastic opportunities for learning and networking. Be open to things — with my experience going from engineer to program manager and moving around, it really shows that there are so many different opportunities available. Sometimes all it takes is saying “yes.” It’s okay to be uncomfortable at times because that’s where you end up growing as a person. Do you have any advice for people who want to pursue a similar career path? Be curious and understand how your team/company (or future company) operates. Technical program managers bring value to their team by their technical knowledge, forward-looking, and ability to highlight risks and dependencies to their key stakeholders. The beauty of program management is that you have so much visibility into other parts of the company; sometimes as an engineer, it can be really easy to solely focus on the work you’re doing. A lot of the work I do now is “how can I work with my engineering teams to achieve this together” whereas as an engineer it would be more “I wrote this piece of code in this product.”
“The beauty of program management is that you have so much visibility into other parts of the company.”I think understanding your strengths and what brings you joy is really key to determining what kind of career you want to have after graduation. Anything else you want to share? I’d love to give a shout-out to Antonio De Lima Fernandes and Yakshu Madaan. They’re also from Berkeley MEng ’15 and worked with me on the Airpods (3rd Generation) launch. Connect with Robert. As told to Danielle Valdez.
Robert Bui, MEng ’15 (EECS): From EECS to Program Management was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.