Alex Lian

Infinite Careers is a collaboration between Career Advising & Professional Development and the MIT Alumni Association to explore career paths and the non-linearity of career decision making. Read profiles of alumni with unique career paths, hear their stories and network at a series of talks.

Alex Lian

Education

  • MIT MIT SB Course 6 ‘98

Biography

Alex is an Engineering Manager at Facebook in London in Developer Infrastructure space addressing build systems at scale. Facebook is choosing to continue pushing at the boundary of scaling developer workflows, and Alex joined to see this challenge through.

Prior to Facebook, Alex acquired a varied experience across startups, medical devices and more recently the games industry. He served as a Director of Development at Unity Technologies in Copenhagen overseeing the product release processes and various internal teams as the company grew from 300 to over 2000.

His game credits include Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons Online. While in Turbine, he supervised the game engine team and assisted with other WB related games backend services which included Batman: Arkham City and Gotham City Imposters.

At MIT, he received a BS in Course 6-2, and while he pursued his Masters of Engineering, he stopped short to join the dot com boom.

Alex’s Story

What influenced your choice of undergraduate major? How has it shaped your career choices and professional ability?

My mother purchased an IBM PC when I was about 7 years old. For me, the initial games, the logic of programming and the puzzles to solve were all lots of fun and drove my interests. When I arrived at MIT, I didn’t want to fall into the default pathway I saw for myself so I poked around and dabbled with considering other majors, but I ended up coming back to Course 6. I still straddled the fence with 6-2, mixing EE and CS, but the large part of my career has been about the CS side of things. Here and there, EE knowledge has absolutely helped me out, but I’ve never professionally applied that knowledge.
 
Coming out of MIT at the dot com boom led me down a pretty much software-only pathway, though I crossed to mixing in management within a few years. At this point, every job expected or tested my CS foundations and coding skills. Now that nearly all industries have tech related work, having a strong CS background makes it easy to jump contexts no matter the work.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently or more of while you were at MIT?

I definitely have nostalgia for my time at MIT. It was both exhilarating and perhaps the most taxing time of my life. To this day, I feel like I’ve never worked harder or had less sleep than while at MIT. If I had the chance to redo my MIT experience, I’d like to say I wouldn’t touch anything. Though truly, I’d perhaps get myself to “stop and smell the roses” a little more often. The drive and focus for students at MIT are amazing and crazy at the same time. Making the time to take a pause and appreciate life a little more often would be what I’d look to add in. (that or more sleep).

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career?

Having outsized impact on the world. For example at Unity, helping deliver tools that enable game creators and nowadays AR/VR creators generate astonishing work from games, to education, from art to practical tools. Being part of that, and knowing I’m helping help change the world in that way gives me immense satisfaction.

What motivates you to do the work that you do?

Making the world a better place. It’s certainly open to interpretation, but generally my work has been about enabling others. Medical devices for medical workers, gaming tools for creators, or nowadays development tools for developers.

Making decisions, especially important-feeling career decisions, is really challenging. What strategies have you used to make career decisions? 

I’ve been lucky to always be considering work that interests me, and also to be able to make my decisions with few consequences hanging over my head of family or other obligations. So mostly I weigh the decisions on two points:

1) What’s the worst that could happen if things go wrong? 
2) How big would my regrets be for not trying?

Ultimately, as humans we tend to be loss averse, so I ended up comparing the potential regrets vs. the potential downsides. So far, I’ve found that the “worst that could happen” tends to always be bigger in our mind, and avoiding regrets has been the usual decider.

What professional development experiences or opportunities shaped your early career?

I was lucky to end up having very different career experiences within the first decade. I went from a startup (Trakus), to a large multi-national (Siemens Medical), and then to a 200-person company (Turbine). Within just these, I got to be on both sides of acquisitions and mergers. The variety of experiences gave me a lot of perspective to empathize and understand decisions as companies grow.

What career advice do you have for current MIT students, or those interested in entering your industry?

Honestly, I’d wave off anyone from the game industry as a first career. It’s an amazing space, but often comes with instability and poor work life balance. Joining later after some experience elsewhere and the maturity to keep control of your own time would be recommended. As for entering the tech industry as a whole, I’d offer that one should keep the classic MIT characteristic of always adapting and growing, and add in the willingness to fail. Be open to feedback and stay self-aware of your strengths and weaknesses. The tech industry doesn’t simply search for the smartest people in the room. They want the people that will constantly strive to be the best, be willing to fail and still improve.

What do you like to do outside of work for fun/relaxation/inspiration?

When my body doesn’t complain, I still enjoy playing pick-up ultimate frisbee wherever I can find it. I’ve been playing on and off ever since playing on the team @ MIT. Otherwise, it’s largely about reading, cooking and traveling.

Last edited 2020