Awesome Alums: Brent Spell, Systems Engineer at OpenTable

While all people with a background in computer science know how to program and code, Brent Spell says he got something more from the computer science program at the LSU College of Engineering: a strong theoretical basis in math. “That’s missing from a lot of people in software,” he says. “There’s such a rush and demand for programmers, they end up not having a theoretical background for their computer science. You can tell the difference.”

Spell is now senior services engineer at OpenTable, which provides apps to help restaurants manage reservations. Before that, he spent almost six years as a software architect at HEALTHCAREfirst in Baton Rouge. Spell’s focus is on distributed systems; at OpenTable, that means he works on the wait list, using algorithms to predict wait times that restaurants can post on their websites so people can decide whether to make a reservation, get on a waiting list or eat somewhere else.

Why did he pick LSU? “It has really great resources and computer labs,” he says. Spell says his professors were outstanding and gave him a strong background to work in the industry. “LSU wasn’t really known as a computer science school back then, but the teachers were very strong — I was fortunate to participate in the program.”

MORE MATH, MORE EFFICIENCY

That strong basis in math helps people in computer science positions program more efficiently, he says. “Computer programs solve problems in the short term — and having that theoretical background means you can build things in an efficient manner that is more long-term,” he says. “It makes it much more like civil or chemical engineering. For software and programming, it may be easier to walk into the field and learn a few things, but without that background, it’s hard to build large scale or long-term systems.”

After his time at LSU, he had an internship with a company that was later bought by HEALTHCAREfirst, which develops management software for home health providers. “It was a great field — it was my first year after college, and I ended up staying with the company for 15 years,” he says.

“That was the great thing about Baton Rouge — it has a surprisingly vibrant tech culture. There’s a lot of investment in startups and incubators at LSU, and it’s a great environment to be in.”

A BACKGROUND IN TECH

Spell says he knew what he wanted to do from a young age. “Eighth grade was my first experience with programming,” he says. He made a simple graphic with an Apple IIe — and he went on from there. “In 10th grade, I had a great teacher who introduced me to programming, and then I knew that’s what I wanted to do.” He’s continued tinkering with electronics and robotics.

As for what may come in the future, Spell says something like principal engineer would be the next step of his career. “OpenTable has a great culture around continued education — we do a lot of reading to keep up, and I’ve been trying to develop my skills since graduation.”

Do you know an alum of the LSU computer science program with a cool job? Drop us a line!