Konstantin Biriukov is an Edmund S. Muskie Professional Fellowship Program alumnus from Russia. He recently earned a master’s degree in geographic information science (GIS) and computer science at Saint Cloud State University through the Fulbright Foreign Student Program. He completed his Muskie Fellowship at the Residential Buildings Research Group at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). In this Q&A, Konstantin discusses his interest in software development, the important work he completed at NREL over the summer, and how his experience in the U.S. has impacted his career.
Tell us about your academic and professional background.
I earned a bachelor’s degree in geology in Russia, and during my studies, I became interested in software development. I lived in Novosibirsk’s Academgorodok (“Academic City”), an area full of scientists and IT companies, and many of my friends eventually became software developers themselves, so I was always surrounded by people in the field.
After two and a half years of work at a software development company as a project manager, I decided to try programming and took some courses on the topic before starting my master’s program in the U.S.
I studied GIS and computer science at St. Cloud State University from 2019-2021. I was always interested in software development, and I also have a passion for maps, so it was a good combination. I took half of my classes in the geography department and half in the computer science department.
My program was unique: most GIS programs teach you how to use the software, but my program taught me how to build GIS tools. I learned about a lot of geospatial-related development tools during my program, but my future career path will likely focus on more traditional web development.
Tell us a bit about NREL and what you worked on during your internship.
NREL is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory focusing on research and development in renewable energy, energy efficiency, energy system integrations, and sustainable transportation. I was interested in NREL because it gave me a chance to learn more about the renewable energy field and matched my interest in software development. I have experience in the programming languages NREL uses, so I was a good fit for the position.
I worked with the Residential Buildings Research Group within NREL. I focused on the Foresee project, a home energy management software that uses algorithms to track home appliance energy use. Foresee uses data from user-authorized appliances to predict their future energy consumption. The software learns the occupants’ schedules and patterns of their appliance use and uses this information to make predictions about comfort needs, energy costs, and environmental impacts associated with a household’s appliance usage.
Homeowners can also grant the software some control over appliances—like water heaters and thermostats—so that it can coordinate energy use and shift appliances to run at off-peak times to help manage their energy loads.
Foresee could have a significant real-world impact. NREL’s research indicates that it can save homeowners 5-12 percent on their energy costs; if Foresee is used in every home in the U.S., five percent of total residential energy use could be reduced, which equates to about 10 billion dollars in energy bill savings. The project’s potential was also recognized when it won an R&D 100 Award in 2018—the R&D 100 Awards are “the Oscars of Innovation,” celebrating the 100 most exceptional technology advances from around the globe each year. There has been a lot of progress on the project since then: we have been testing it with users in the Denver area since August 2021 and are currently fine-tuning it for a wider release.
What was your day-to-day workflow like? What did you think of the work environment?
I was interning remotely, living very close to the NREL campus in Golden, Colorado. I worked as a full-stack developer, doing both backend and frontend development. Backend development is responsible for the communication between a user and a server, as well as for organizing and managing data in the database; frontend development is responsible for the user interface and user experience. I was spending about half of my time on each. This gave me a broad perspective on how the project operated since most developers specialize in only front or back-end development.
I was lucky to work on a great multicultural team of experienced and professional software developers and researchers. There were four other engineers, two other software developers, and two researchers. Even though NREL is a large organization, I was working on a small team and where the other engineers had multiple projects—I was the only one concentrated 100 percent on the Foresee project. As a result, I gained a lot of hard skills since I had many responsibilities and was able to work independently.
The team I worked with is very goal-oriented, efficient, and great at planning in advance. Even though Foresee wasn’t my coworkers’ main project, they were always focused and aware of what was going on with it. They set a good example for me to follow.
This was my first time working in a large organization with stable work processes, a great work-life balance, and a well-established workflow. I had an internship with a small start-up in the summer of 2020, so NREL was also a much different work environment from what I had experienced in the U.S. previously.
I think the work environment is a huge part of any country’s culture. I am constantly noticing similarities and differences between the U.S. and Russia’s work culture; my work experience has been an essential part of my time in the U.S.
Do you have any tips for getting the most out of the internship experience?
I’ll start with some insights about the interview process. I would recommend diligently preparing for every interview. Google what sorts of questions interviewers usually ask in your field and prepare questions to ask the interviewer yourself to learn more about the organization. They are trying to find the best candidate for a specific position, but you are also trying to find an organization that matches your expectations. In my experience, interviewers always had time to answer my questions.
Use this to your advantage, so you can make an informed decision when weighing different internship offers. One of my favorite questions to ask is: “What will my daily duties and responsibilities look like?” The answer will give you a better understanding of your typical workflow and what the employer expects from you.
During the internship, I recommend taking on as many responsibilities as possible to gain knowledge in different areas of your work, especially if it’s your first internship. It’s important to try different things to see what you like. An internship is very limited in time, so you want to make the most of it by getting a diverse experience.
What did you gain from your Muskie Program experience and how will you use it going forward?
The Muskie experience will be a huge boost for my career. It gives participants demonstrable work experience, which is very valuable for developing your skill set and your resume. You will be more competitive on the job market. After my first internship in the U.S., I started to receive more responses from potential employers, and after my NREL internship, about 25 percent of my job applications resulted in phone interviews. This is important professionally, but also gives you a lot of self-confidence in general!
Moreover, the Muskie Program requires participants to complete a volunteering activity in their host community, which is important for understanding U.S. culture. It gave me a chance to search for opportunities to help people and to understand different aspects of U.S. society. I had never volunteered before, but it was a good way to get out of my comfort zone and try something new!
I will use the professional and personal growth from my Muskie experience to become a cultural ambassador and a better employee. When I return to Russia, I would like to share the knowledge I have gained from my experience in the U.S. There are advantages and disadvantages to both countries’ work environments, and my intercultural experience will allow me to use the best of both. I hope this will help me have a positive impact in the software development world in my home country.
Before returning home, I will be working with a pre-launch start-up based in Los Angeles called Aqueous. I will be building algorithms to predict real estate prices. It’s a different focus area and work environment. I will be taking on a lot of responsibility working in a very small team, but my experience with NREL has prepared me for it. I’m looking forward to making the most of my time in Los Angeles!