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Alumni interview: Q&A with Mads Torgersen, Program Manager at Microsoft

Mads got his MSc in 1998 and his PhD degree in 2001 from Department of Computer Science, Aarhus University.

In 2005, Mads Torgersen swapped his job as an Associate Professor at Aarhus University for the job as Program Manager at Microsoft in Seattle, USA. The past 11 years he has been directing the development lines in developing one of the most used programming languages worldwide: C# (pronounced see sharp).

Why did you choose to study computer science at Aarhus University?

Before entering my studies, I felt torn between choosing the Natural Sciences or the Humanities like ethnography, language or religion. In the end, I chose computer science because it tickled my intellectual interest the most. My father is also a computer scientist from Aarhus University, so I was probably predisposed to follow his example from an early age. His curiosity for logical problems definitely came off on me. 

The complexity of spoken languages has always fascinated for me - and in that sense, it is actually quite funny that I ended up working with programming languages. 

How did you use your education and the competences you gained from your computer science studies at AU?

When you develop and design a programming language, you need to focus on the user needs: a programming language should be both technical, expressive, simple and logical for many users. Computer science is not just about technique, as much as it is about logic – to know how to convert technique into a language that people understand. 

A few years later, I actually studied religion as a minor subject and took courses in philosophy and sociology. This has been a great help for me in my working life – especially in a global company like Microsoft, where it makes a big difference to understand the interaction between people in different cultural contexts when you need to make things happen.  

How did you get to work at Microsoft?

After I got my PhD degree, I was working as a lecturer and later as an Associate Professor at Department of Computer Science, Aarhus University. I worked on various research projects in collaboration with the industry during my 4 years’ employment, and it was exciting to launch new projects that were soon put into practice. I was at a conference, where I was fortunate to get a good contact at Microsoft, who invited me to a job interview for the Program Manager position (editor’s note: the contact was the Danish-born Anders Hejlsberg who is now a Technical Fellow at Microsoft). In one week in Seattle, I went to roughly 10 interviews with many skilled people whose work make an impact on millions of pc users worldwide. Therefore, in the end it was not that difficult to accept the job offer and move from Aarhus to Seattle with my family. It is almost 12 years ago now, and I am still very satisfied with the decision we made back then.

How do Americans approach and use a computer science as a subject? Is it different from what we do in Denmark?

In the US, you consider computer science and software development as two different disciplines, respectively, whereas you do not distinguish between the two in Denmark. 

What do you remember best from your study time?

During my studies at the computer science department, there was quite a good teaching balance between learning concrete technologies and the more general principles. In order to become a good computer scientist it is very important to learn the theoretical core disciplines in depth, in order to understand the underlying mechanisms that form the basis for software. If you only focus on software development, you really just focus on what works here and now. What lacks behind, then, is the necessary background knowledge enabling you to move freely between different technologies and to be able to see the bigger picture. The teachers at the computer science department in Aarhus were – and still are – very skilled in providing the students with a timeless theory as well as concrete competences, which enables the students to put their skills into practice right away. 

What is your best advice for a computer science student?

Broaden your focus and try out many different things. Try out the various programming languages available, and immerse yourself in the computer science study - theoretically as well as practically. The best way to gain independent knowledge is to draw your own conclusions within the many different disciplines of computer science. 

What was your best decision ever? 

The best decision ever was definitely to have many children – and to have them early in life (editor’s note: Mads Torgersen is 45 years and has 4 children aged 12-20). Children are an incredible source of inspiration. You do not become a better computer scientist by having (many) children, but it does force you to break free from the winding and twisting corners that your brain ends up in, when you are working on inventing new things. And this is very wholesome.