George Mason University

News at Mason

Mason's tech talent pipeline already helping Amazon

October 11, 2019   /   by Damian Cristodero

More than 500 George Mason University alumni work for Amazon at various locations around the country and the world, many for Amazon Web Services (AWS), a subsidiary that offers cloud computing services and has a major hub in Northern Virginia.

Those include Rao Ahmad Rahil, a cloud support associate, MS telecommunications '18; Brandon Mohabir, a cloud support associate, BS information technology ’15; Taylor Cacciotti, a data center technician, information technology '19; Cameron Isaac, an executive design recruiter, BS conflict analysis and resolution ’11; Prinkle Lopes, a cloud support associate, MS information systems ’18; Jason Paul Pate, a systems analyst, BS information technology ’20; and Rajitha Devabhaktuni, a cloud security engineer, MS computer engineering ’16.

How did a Mason education set them up for success in the tech industry? Let them tell you themselves.


His Mason education changed his career path

Rao Ahmad Rahil said the hands-on labs and troubleshooting in his Mason classes relate directly to his job at Amazon. Photo provided.

Of all the things Rao Ahmad Rahil experienced during his time at Mason, one course—TCOM 690 Scalable Network Architecture—was the most consequential. “That one course probably changed my career path,” he said.

In it, Rahil, MS telecommunications '18, learned about the advantages of networking in the cloud rather than through old-fashioned physical networks. He also learned about Amazon Web Services and gained hands-on experience working on AWS consoles.

“The class was very interactive, so we were learning more,” says Rahil, a coud support associate at Amazon. “I always had been more toward hardcore networking—routing and switching and physical networks. But going into the cloud, you are exposed to so many services like storage, virtual desktops, software platforms, servers, databases. So I was, like, ‘Okay, let’s dive into cloud computing.’ ”

Rahil came to the United States specifically to attend Mason after speaking with an education consultant in his native Pakistan and then doing some online research.

“The deciding point was the program offered by Mason,” he says. “There’s a lot of learning, and Mason is up-to-date with its course work.”

He took advantage of a project management course, which helped him understand how to manage, lead, and make presentations—a useful exercise, Rahil says, for someone whose first language is not English and who does not have experience with public speaking.

Rahil’s job in Amazon’s Herndon, Virginia, office is customer-facing, with an emphasis on understanding individual issues, troubleshooting, and developing solutions to networking problems.

For Rahil, though, it all comes back to that one telecommunications course.

“There were labs. We were troubleshooting. It was really hands-on,” Rahil says. “I will always be grateful to Mason for that course.”


She came to Mason for computing. It led her to Amazon

Rajitha Devabhaktuni, a cloud security engineer at Amazon, said she so enjoyed her time at Mason, "I wish I could have taken more courses." Photo provided.

For Rajitha Devabhaktuni, the several months she spent working as a cloud security engineer for Amazon in her hometown of Bangalore, India, were more than a job. They were a learning experience.

“The learning curve was very high,” she says. “We work with customers who come in with different types of issues, so we end up learning coding and networking. The scope of learning is not just limited to security.”

Devabhaktuni, MS computer engineering '16, came to Mason from India specifically for the university’s computer science program. She also figured that Northern Virginia, with its many companies and proximity to Washington, D.C., isn’t a bad place to look for a job.

Another bonus was the year she spent as a graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Information Sciences and Technology in the Volgenau School of Engineering.

She also assisted Mason computer science professor Kamaljeet Sanghera in the development of a class that will be part of a Mason cloud computing bachelor’s program in partnership with Amazon Web Services.

“Through my tenure as a teaching assistant, I was exposed to a great diversity of students who come from different educational backgrounds,” Devabhaktuni says of her time at Mason. “The experience I gained through my work at Mason helped me get better at leadership and teamwork. I learned time management and to work independently and do everything on my own.”

Devabhaktuni says she was not surprised Amazon chose Northern Virginia, considering the high-quality universities in the area, especially Mason—a place she says she so enjoyed, “I wish I could have taken more courses.”


Mason's tech programs helped build his Amazon career

Jason Paul Pate said a combination of classroom and online classes helped him manage his work obligations at Amazon. Mason also helped him build his professional network. Photo provided.

What Brandon Mohabir, BS information technology, '15, enjoyed most about Mason went beyond the education he received, even though, as he says, “It covered pretty much everything I wanted in terms of skills and practices.”

The added bonuses were opportunities to get hands-on experience working in Mason’s ITS Support Center and the help he received finding a job through networking and assistance in putting together a résumé.

“It was not just having the degree, but the physical experience in the field,” Mohabir says. “Those two things combined, I believe, helped me become a strong candidate, once I graduated, [with] a strong chance of landing a position at a highly regarded company.”

As he has just been promoted to cloud support associate, Mohabir said his new role with Amazon in Herndon, Virginia, is still being defined. In his previous role as a network technician, Mohabir did hardware deployment and configuration. He and his colleagues fixed things when they broke but also managed multimillion-dollar projects from conception to installation, making sure systems were operational before handing them over to the team in charge of maintaining them.

It is challenging work that Mohabir, who also minored in business, says he was comfortable undertaking because of the preparation he received at Mason. That included the dos and don'ts of interviewing, which, he said, helped secure his new job.

“The teachers were very helpful and provided me with good information to go in and take the certification exams I was aiming for and provided me with a good fundamental baseline of knowledge to make me confident enough to enter the job space I was looking for,” he says.


What she learned at Mason, she applies at Amazon

Prinkle Lopes said her classes at Mason kept her up to date on industry standards. Photo provided.

If Prinkle Lopes, MS information systems '18,  ever wanted to convince her friends back home in India to study at Mason, she says she would talk about campus diversity, the flexibility to choose course work, and opportunities to work on campus.

“I was very picky about my courses because I wanted to learn about databases and networking, and that’s exactly what I’m doing [at Amazon] right now,” Lopes says. “I think all my courses helped me get into [Amazon Web Services].”

As a cloud support associate, Lopes, who works out of Amazon’s Herndon, Virginia, office, helps clients resolve issues relating to system infrastructures and databases.

She says she sees herself eventually becoming a cloud support engineer and then a solutions architect, someone who helps companies who want to use Amazon Web Services evaluate their needs and build their systems.

“I got more than what I was expecting,” Lopes says of Mason. “My professors took a practical approach. They told us about what was currently happening in the industry, what we need to look out for, what kind of courses we should take. They helped us even though we weren’t asking for it. That’s something I really loved.”


No tech degree, no problem. He still works at Amazon

Cameron Isaac said the skills he learned as a conflict analysis and resolution major at Mason transferred perfectly to his job at Amazon. Photo provided.

The thing about working at Amazon, Cameron Isaac says, is you don’t necessarily need a tech degree or tech background to land a position with the tech giant. There are plenty of job opportunities in design, product and program management, public policy, communications, and instructional system design that do not require experience in that space.

“It’s really more about someone who will always work to better our customers’ lives, is scrappy, and who can bring ideas to life,” Isaac says.

Take Isaac, who uses his Mason bachelor's degree in conflict analysis and resolution to help him succeed in a position in which he recruits, interviews, and evaluates those who wish to join Amazon’s senior design leadership. Isaac, who graduated in 2011, says the analysis and negotiating techniques he learned at Mason, as well as the art of how to break down and understand complicated and hot-button issues, are the foundations for his work.

For example, while his favorite part of the job is hunting for prospects and exploring through interviews whether they will be the right fit for the company, he also enjoys picking the brains of the senior leaders who are looking to hire and learning through their experiences.

“It’s understanding how to go more in-depth with people right off the bat,” Isaac says. “Once you can go in-depth and understand a leader’s vision, their roadmap to goals and product launch, and understanding what their skill gaps are, you are going to be able to bring in people who are going to be a better fit than just a body.”

Isaac came to Mason from Northern Virginia Community College. And though he diverted from his original goal of working for the U.S. State Department as a foreign service officer, he says his Mason experience is invaluable.

“I use what I learned at Mason every day at work,” says Isaac, who works out of his home in Richmond, Virginia. “For conflict analysis and resolution, the biggest takeaways I had from those courses is your approach with people. What I learned was seeking to understand as much as you can in a short period of time, how to analyze data, and using it to drive toward a solution.”


His Mason education was made for the tech industry

Brandon Mohabir said the hands-on experience he received at Mason helped prepare him for his job as a cloud support associate with Amazon. Photo provided.

What Brandon Mohabir, BS information technology '15, enjoyed most about Mason went beyond the education he received, even though, as he says, “It covered pretty much everything I wanted in terms of skills and practices.”

The added bonuses were opportunities to get hands-on experience working in Mason’s ITS Support Center and the help he received finding a job through networking and assistance in putting together a résumé.

“It was not just having the degree, but the physical experience in the field,” Mohabir says. “Those two things combined, I believe, helped me become a strong candidate, once I graduated, [with] a strong chance of landing a position at a highly regarded company.”

As he has just been promoted to cloud support associate, Mohabir said his new role with Amazon in Herndon, Virginia, is still being defined. In his previous role as a network technician, Mohabir did hardware deployment and configuration. He and his colleagues fixed things when they broke but also managed multimillion-dollar projects from conception to installation, making sure systems were operational before handing them over to the team in charge of maintaining them.

It is challenging work that Mohabir, who also minored in business, says he was comfortable undertaking because of the preparation he received at Mason. That included the dos and don'ts of interviewing, which, he said, helped secure his new job.

“The teachers were very helpful and provided me with good information to go in and take the certification exams I was aiming for and provided me with a good fundamental baseline of knowledge to make me confident enough to enter the job space I was looking for,” he says.


For this student, Mason and Amazon are a good fit

Taylor Cacciotti, an information technology major, said taking online classes at Mason helped him manage his work schedule at Amazon. Photo provided.

Taylor Cacciotti got his job as a data center technician at Amazon through a friend of a friend who connected Cacciotti with a hiring manager. Hired first as a contractor, Cacciotti became what he calls “a real Amazon employee” in September 2018 as a data center technician.

Thank goodness, he says, that Mason offers so many online courses.

“I’m not just trying but succeeding in only doing online courses,” says Cacciotti, who will graduate in Deceber 2019 with a bachelor's degree in information technology. “Once I got this job, I kind of delayed my graduation by taking fewer classes a semester because I didn’t want to overwhelm myself.”

Cacciotti has varied tasks at Amazon’s Ashburn, Virginia, office, including servicing and diagnosing hardware problems and determining and repairing faults in fiber paths. He says his classes at Mason were the perfect training ground.

“Most of my classes in the IT major touched on hardware and what it does. And I took a networking class that was almost exclusively on fiber,” he says. “I was able to demonstrate that knowledge in the interview [with Amazon] and in my work.”

That said, it was the totality of the Mason experience that Cacciotti believes set him up for success.

For example, his capstone project, which he led for a semester, implemented a paid-time-off and work-space reservation system for a local company and was a real-world endeavor that provided leadership and teamwork experience.

“Having the ability to take online classes has freed up so many opportunities for me,” he says. “Without that, I would be at a huge disadvantage. It would be, like, ‘Decide whether you want to stay in school or keep this job,’ and I don’t want to be in that position.”

Especially with Amazon’s new headquarters already under construction.

“I think it’s going to provide a lot of opportunities for current Amazon employees like myself,” Cacciotti says. “My dream job is somewhere in HQ2. I just have to keep working toward it.”