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Still Early In His Career, Nathan Handler Commits To Supporting Illinois CS Programs

1/14/2019 5:21:39 PM By David Mercer, Illinois Computer Science

Not that long ago, Nathan Handler was a busy undergraduate, volunteering at the first HackIllinois and co-directing the second, giving his time to things he believed were important.

Now Handler is a software engineer, beginning his second post-college job at a new company called Orchid Labs. He’s also, less than four years removed from his graduation (BS CS ’15), made a commitment to give back to the department that he says remains crucial to his career.

Nathan Handler has just begun a new job at Orchid Labs. He gives both time and financial gifts to Illinois CS.
Nathan Handler has just begun a new job at Orchid Labs. He gives both time and financial gifts to Illinois CS.

In particular Handler thinks back to students groups like the campus chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery and events like HackIllinois, which ACM helps organize. And he’s targeting his donations to keep those groups strong.

“My involvement in some of the student groups and helping to organize these events are where most of my memories are from,” said Handler, who came to Illinois CS from Buffalo Grove in the Chicago suburbs. “Putting on these events, it takes money. I want to make sure they survive and that current students are able to share in these same experiences that I was able to.”

“They were a lot of fun,” he added, “and helped make me what I am today.”

Handler now lives in San Francisco. After spending three-plus years as a site reliability engineer at Yelp, this month he went to work at Orchid.

Orchid, just a few years old, is striving to build an open-source network overlaying the internet, providing what it says would be anonymous internet access free of any sort of surveillance or gathering of user data.

Handler says his new role is two-fold: helping build a community of developers around Orchid and working as an engineer to ensure the product’s infrastructure is stable and secure.

The open-source aspect of Orchid appealed to Handler.

He has worked since 2012 as a developer for Debian, the free operating system built by volunteers. And Handler has worked as a developer and in other roles for Ubuntu, another free, open-source OS, built on Debian’s architecture.

That work was done outside school and Handler’s jobs, he said, but there are benefits in the experience itself and in those he has been able to work with.

“A lot of my professional acquaintances at this point are people I’ve interacted with in the open-source communities,” Handler said. “Really, at the end of the day you’re doing it to make the product, the systems, the world a better place. You’re doing it because it’s something that you feel passionate about.”

His experience at Illinois CS helped stoke that impulse.

As a student, Handler was involved in a number of groups. And helped start and run events that are now familiar, such as SAIL, the annual showcase for high school students.

“Honestly, I just enjoy organizing that sort of stuff. We went and pitched it to the department and they immediately were very supportive,” he said. “They got us all the funding that we needed.”

Offering his time comes naturally, he said – he’d been doing that as a student, after all. But deciding to provide financial gifts required a change in his thinking, one he suspects many new graduates can relate to.

“People are still in the college mindset, thinking that they can’t afford anything. Especially when you see the large dollar amounts (of some gifts) thrown around,” he said.

“While I’m early on in my career, I am capable of giving back. It might not be the millions of dollars that would get my name on a building. But even if it just allows the (department) to bring a couple of extra students to an event, it’s worth it.”