Southeast Computer Science Alumnus Finds Success as Vizient Software Engineer

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As a high school student, Stephen Sladek discovered he had a passion for building and programming computers. To build his own computer, he ordered parts and a book to guide him through the process.

“After I got the PC humming to life, I was instantly hooked on all things computer technology,” he said. “A couple of years later, I learned of an initiative called the “Hour of Code,” a campaign that motivates people to dedicate one hour towards trying out coding to see if it is for them. I tried it. It was for me.”

Sladek, a native of Gordonville, Missouri, decided to pursue his newfound passion at Southeast Missouri State University, graduating in 2019 with a Bachelor of General Studies and a minor in computer science.

The skills and knowledge he gained and honed at Southeast, allowed him to launch his career as a software engineer at Vizient in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. His time at Southeast prepared him to thrive in the southeastern Missouri region and find success at his new job.

Vizient is unlike any other company I have come across in southeastern Missouri,” he said. “Vizient treats its employees like people. Everybody gets a voice, the benefits are staggeringly amazing, and they are flexible with people’s busy lives.”

On what inspired him to start his career at Vizient:

When I first started out on my journey to learn how to code, I wanted to either become a virtual reality developer or develop software for the medical industry. Vizient is the nation’s leading healthcare performance improvement company and has more than 500 members, including some of our own local hospitals. Through them, I am helping hospitals and small clinics find optimal solutions for maintaining their inventories and contracts. I also do virtual reality projects on the side as a hobby, so it balances out.

On his role as a software engineer at Vizient:

There are so many good things going on at Vizient. If I had to pick just one, I’d have to say it’s the culture. Vizient embraces a mindset of “learn-it-alls” as opposed to know-it-alls. They are not afraid of learning through failing. They welcome the voice of all their employees – even the new guys – and they have a huge push on collaboration. More traditional software companies just let their developers hide in a closet, but Vizient does pair-programming. This means that there are two programmers that get paired up together to tackle a task, and you hardly ever have the same partner as you did the day before. This opens up communication, helps everybody get to know each other, and breaks down knowledge silos. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, our company transitioned smoothly towards remote work and used voice channels to keep our communication active and open.

On his future goals:

Vizient has a fairly streamlined way of progression within the company. Essentially, the more responsibility you are able to handle, the better of a candidate you become for promotion. I am currently a project owner of one of our side projects, and I managed to receive my first promotion in just over a year after having been hired on. Currently, I am aiming to fill the role of senior developer, and then I will work towards becoming a lead developer.

On one of his favorite memories at Southeast:

I was taking an elective called Introduction to Game Programming. I was in a group with three other students. We worked ourselves into the ground on our project. The day we delivered the final product, we were as proud as we could be. We had created a side scrolling game called “Wizard Wreck” where you control a wizard who has wind powers. The object of the game is to push a giant boulder using your mastery of the wind and to wreck as many monsters as possible before the boulder comes to a stop. We created an upgrade system for it, did all the menu selections and worked on the artificial intelligence (AI) for the enemies. The whole process was an adventure. All the late nights coding and designing, creating and editing our own videos in the recording booth at Dempster, hiring a guy from Armenia who does the voices for Harley Davidson commercials to do a voice over of our game trailer and laughing at all the inside references that the other groups placed inside their own projects made for the absolute best class I could ever have asked for.

On how Southeast prepared him for a successful career:

My time at Southeast gave me three things that I really needed: a foundational skill set in computer science, experience in working with groups of people on the same project and the confidence to sell myself. The skills I learned in the core computer science courses, databases courses and advanced web development courses gave me technical skills that I still use today.

I was president of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) for two years. I was also a member of the Computer Science Club, Special Interest Group for Artificial Intelligence (SIGAI), Remix on Campus and the National Society for Leadership and Success (NSLS). During my First Step orientation, our guide told us that the two most important things to get from college are a degree and a network. Being more of an introvert at the time, that second part really struck me. I made myself get involved with clubs and made tons of friends and connections by doing so. In ACM, we held presentations and workshops on all the nerdy topics we were passionate about, and we went to the MegaMiner AI coding competition as a group several times.

On advice for Southeast students and graduates:

Don’t expect the degree to do all the work for you. Our company has interviewed tons of people, and there is always a significant difference between those who have applied themselves and done their own projects as opposed to those who just coasted along. I would recommend that you start up your own side project and see where it takes you. Whether the project succeeds or fails, what really matters is the experience and confidence that you will gain through the process.

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