Nieke Roos
24 June

The company where he did his internship and graduation project was very eager to take him onboard and he got offered not one but two prestigious PhD positions. Yet, Robin Mennens chose to enroll in the PDEng Software Technology program to further develop his technical, professional and personal skills and become a software designer and well-rounded engineer.

“Although I only started my traineeship late last year, the PDEng Software Technology program has already given me more experience and more confidence as a designer,” says Robin Mennens. “The program provides the opportunity and the flexibility to learn many different technical and non-technical skills in a very short timespan. You really get to know the field and yourself. Working with all kinds of stakeholders and your fellow trainees from all over the world, you really learn to deal with different ways and different cultures.”

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.

Credit: Enkhdavaa Batlkhagva

By the end of his first year, Robin will have had three different jobs at three different clients, in 8.5-week stretches each. He started as a project manager for a Philips Research assignment that explored new possibilities for artificial intelligence in healthcare. Currently, he’s combining the roles of scrum master and engineer in an agricultural project to develop a drone that can land on a potato field and inspect the soil. In a couple of months, he’ll conclude the first half of this training with an assignment for ASML. The second year of the program will be largely taken up by a 10-month graduation project, again in industry.

“In these projects, you gain a lot of hands-on experience,” explains Robin. “In between, you also get to work on yourself, both professionally and personally. You follow lectures, workshops and coaching sessions to further your technical and non-technical skills. This mix is what I really like about the PDEng program.”

Top marks, best thesis

24 years ago, Robin was born in Voerendaal, a small town in the Dutch province of Limburg. It was at secondary school in the nearby city of Heerlen where he developed his passion for software technology. He took a basic computer science class there, bought a laptop from his own money and started building websites and writing computer programs.

At Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE), Robin’s talents really came to fruition. He followed a bachelor in software science and a master in computer science and engineering, both of which he completed cum laude. “In my bachelor as well as my master, I took the general computer science track and supplemented it with electives in adjoining areas of expertise, to nurture my broad interests. Next to mandatory subjects like advanced algorithms and software evolution, I also did a course on business process intelligence, for instance, and even one on mechatronic design.”

Already during his master, Robin got an extensive taste of industry. “At the beginning of the second year, you can do an internship as part of the electives. I decided that it would be good for me to get some hands-on experience. So I went to ProcessGold, a small process mining company from Eindhoven that offers a platform to build applications that provide insight into organizational processes. There, I ported a visualization algorithm that was written in C to their C++-based platform. The internship is supposed to be ten weeks, but I took twelve, giving up two weeks of my summer holiday to dot the i’s and cross the t’s. I’m very proud of the result, which not only can handle much larger visualizations but is also much faster than the original.”

For his graduation project, Robin returned to ProcessGold. “To optimize my work,” he explains. “When visualizing your process, you can apply filters to see different parts of your dataset. Each time you do that with the original algorithm, you get a completely new layout, as it doesn’t take into account the old situation. From a usability point of view, that’s really undesirable. For six months, I worked on a solution, doing research, developing a new algorithm, evaluating the whole package. Everybody was again very happy with the result.”

Not only did Robin score top marks – a 10 for both the internship and the graduation project – his master’s thesis was declared the best master’s thesis of TUE’s entire computer science department last year. This has also earned him a nomination for the 2018 best thesis award of the university as a whole. Summing up his achievements: “ProcessGold has filed for a patent on my algorithm, they’ve finished implementing it in their platform and are now rolling it out to customers, and, as part of my PDEng ST training goal to improve my scientific writing skills, I’ve written a paper on it, which I’ve presented at the EuroVis 2019 visualization conference in Portugal.”

The PDEng trainees are building software to control a drone for agri-food plant management. Credit: Enkhdavaa Batlkhagva

Like a glove

Not surprisingly, ProcessGold was very eager to reel Robin in. He was also offered two prestigious PhD positions. But to no avail: although flattered by all the courtship, he decided in favor of the PDEng ST program.

“On the one hand, I was still thirsty for more knowledge,” Robin comments on his decision. “I wanted to gain more experience, about what it’s like to work as a manager, as an architect, as a multidisciplinary engineer, but I also wanted to learn more about myself and the direction in computer science I wanted to go. I wanted to have the opportunity to explore different options. On the other hand, I wanted to work on something tangible. Actually developing innovative solutions to real-life problems is what I like most. I also prefer to work in a team. A PhD is too theoretical for me, and you’re on your own.”

The PDEng ST fits like a glove. Thanks to the program, Robin will be much better prepared for a challenging job in industry. “You learn how to deal with all kinds of people, with fellow trainees from different backgrounds but also with stakeholders who have varying and sometimes even conflicting requirements. You learn how to take their concerns into account, how to say things the right way, how to ask the right questions and how to negotiate on the project scope. You learn how to lead a team. At university, you learn all about the technical side of being an engineer, but there’s more to it: the customers, the business, the multidisciplinary and diverse working environment. The PDEng really opens your eyes to those other aspects as well.”