Nieke Roos
20 August

Still eager to learn, even after an extended bachelor and two masters, Tom Vrancken signed up for the PDEng Software Technology program. In two years of different projects with different companies, he’s gaining the experience that otherwise would have taken him 10-15 years to get in industry.

“As a university graduate in computer science, you usually start your professional career as a junior developer. Only after at least 5-10 years of experience, you get to be a software architect. You need to grow into that role, really get to know the company and its products. Win your spurs, so to speak,” explains 31-year-old Tom Vrancken. “But as I like to solve technical challenges on a higher level, I wanted to start as an architect. The PDEng Software Technology program offers that opportunity.”

The PDEng Software Technology (ST) is a two-year salaried post-master technological designer program on a doctorate level for top MSc graduates with a degree in computer science or a related field. It prepares the trainees for a career in industry by strengthening their theoretical basis and confronting them with challenging problems from industrial partners. With a variety of clients offering complex system/software architecture and design-related challenges, you learn to develop innovative solutions meeting industry standards while mastering all the aspects of teamwork, different roles and professional skills.

For CERN, Tom Vrancken and his team developed a database system and the associated API to store data for a new experiment slated for 2026, called the Search for Hidden Particles.

Already at the start of the program, Tom got what he wished for: the software architect role, in a project at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. “We developed a database system and the associated API to store data for a new experiment slated for 2026, called the Search for Hidden Particles. We built on a feasibility study made by the 2018 group of PDEng ST trainees, turning their concept into production-ready software. As the architect, I was responsible for creating the specifications and making sure the team adhered to them.”

Technically, it wasn’t very difficult; for Tom, the big challenge was getting everybody on the same page – both the team and the customer. “I thought I’d described it all very clearly. Yet, I got solutions from the team that were not at all what we’d agreed upon. It was also very interesting to deal with the client having a completely different view. I’ve learned that there’s more to being a software architect than just solving a technical puzzle – you’re working with people from different backgrounds, so communication is key.”

Cybersecurity

Having tinkered with computers in high school, computer science was the logical choice for Tom, and Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE) in his hometown the logical place of study. He enrolled in 2006 at the age of 17. Six years later, he obtained his bachelor’s degree. “It took me longer than average,” he admits, smiling. “But that’s because I combined studying with kayaking for the Dutch national team. Each year, the university allowed me to move one or two subjects to the next year, to free up 20-30 hours a week for me to train and race.”

While studying for his bachelor’s, Tom also did an extra minor and even got a jump on a master’s degree. “My first minor was part of the regular curriculum. I chose mechanical engineering because I’m also interested in machine control and robotics – an interest that was spoon-fed to me by my father, who studied mechanical engineering here in Eindhoven. For my second minor, I followed a couple of more in-depth computer science classes. At the end of my bachelor’s, I had six months to spare, which I decided to fill by starting the educational master. I really like to educate people – I used to be a student assistant and a member of TUE’s student PR team, and I’m a certified kayak and snowboard instructor.”

Credit: Rien Meulman

In 2012, Tom continued his computer science education with a technical master in information security technology. “This was a special cybersecurity program organized by TUE, together with the Radboud University in Nijmegen and the University of Twente. As part of the program, I had to attend classes at all three participating universities, leaving me with no room for other major activities. So I quit the national kayaking team and joined the local canoeing club instead, and I put the educational master on hold – to be picked up again after my graduation.”

For his graduation project, Tom connected with Arpa2.net, a non-profit organization he came across at one of the computer science conferences he attended. “Their goal is to make the internet safer and more privacy friendly, taking control away from the tech giants and giving it back to the user. My graduation project with them was about integrating the authentication protocol Kerberos with the cryptographic web protocol TLS to create a more secure way of communicating over the internet. I improved the design and built a prototype. In my free time, I’m still involved in this project, called TLS-KDH.” After his graduation, Tom worked part-time as a software and security engineer at Thermosmart and for his own company, V-Studios.

Expert coaching

Still eager to learn, even after an extended bachelor and two masters, Tom signed up for the PDEng ST program in 2019. “I was looking to deepen and broaden my computer science knowledge. Despite all the courses I’d followed, I didn’t feel ready yet to take on the final responsibility for a product or system. I wasn’t confident enough about my gut feelings. I wanted to learn from experts whether my technical instincts were right. When I was a student counselor during my bachelor, I once attended a presentation about the ST program, by then director Harold Weffers, and I had always kept that in the back of my mind as a viable option in case I wasn’t fed up with school after my graduation.”

One of the main benefits offered by the PDEng ST program, according to Tom, is that it combines the best of the academic and the industrial world. “On the one hand, you follow state-of-the-art university courses, for example about software design and validation, taught by top scholars. On the other hand, you receive training and coaching from experts who have worked for 20+ years at companies like ASML and Philips. Who know how to play the game and who can tell you what to do and what not to do.”

By the end of his first year, Tom will have had three different jobs at three different clients, each for 8-9 weeks. After being a software architect for CERN, he recently worked with the automotive supplier Valeo, as a test and configuration manager for an autonomous driving application. Up next is a machine learning project at the European Space Agency ESA, where he’s going to have the team leader role. His second year will be largely taken up by a 10-month graduation project. “Together with Philips, I’m looking to combine software engineering and security.”

“The ST program is a pressure cooker,” summarizes Tom. “In two years, you get to do all kinds of different projects and see a host of different companies, both publicly and privately funded, thus allowing you to find out relatively quickly what suits you best. In industry, it would take 10-15 years to gain the same experience.”

Credit: Tom Vrancken

Ready for business

After he graduates, Tom will finally put his educational career to rest – at least for now. “A PhD isn’t completely off the table. With my PDEng degree, I could shave off some time, but it would still take me two or three years. That’s not on top of my mind right now. A teaching job at the university would be equally interesting – for later.”

Almost halfway the ST program, Tom is starting to feel ready for business. “My role as a software architect in the CERN project has affirmed my belief that that’s the way to go for me. The positive feedback I’m receiving from the coaches has taken away that little bit of insecurity I had about my technical instincts. The program has already boosted my confidence to such a point that I can’t wait to go to work as an architect in industry.”