Chris DeJong ’91 grew up playing with stacks of computer punch cards. “We used them for art supplies,” he explained.
Today, DeJong is a technical lead/manager at Google, working in warehouse scale computing, helping to run some of the largest datacenters in the world.
In between, he graduated from Calvin with a history degree.
“Calvin was the ideal place for me,” said DeJong. “I was a computer hobbyist with a strong interest in the humanities. I enjoyed history at Calvin, and I really appreciated studying the big-picture questions that the history department is so good at engaging students in.”
DeJong pictured himself as a humanities professor, so he continued his studies in history at the University of Rochester. “I think I would have ended up at a place like Calvin, where a student like me received a lot of attention from some very qualified people.”
DeJong’s career journey shifted, though, when he realized that he was more passionate about technology and got involved in computer consulting to “help pay the bills.”
After working in computer software design in the Chicago area, he moved west, eventually landing in San Francisco, where in 2010 he began working for Google in cluster management.
Now he works in warehouse scale computing—basically, a large amount of square footage (equal to several football fields) filled with servers, racks and network gear operating as one datacenter. DeJong manages teams that work to keep all of those computers running.
Such massive computing is unique to Google and few other large companies. For example, Google handles 3.5 billion searches a day, or 2.3 million per second, in 146 languages.
“The system is designed to run massive services,” said DeJong, “things like Web search, Gmail, the cloud, YouTube—systems that require tens or hundreds of binaries on hundreds or thousands of machines.”
The swiftly moving world of computing presents a challenging aspect to DeJong’s job. “Everything is changing all the time. I never feel caught up. This is the only job in my life where I’ve never been bored, and I never run out of things to do.”
Even for a person positioned in the midst of all of this technology, it’s astounding: “I’m amazed every day when I walk around one of the datacenters,” said DeJong.
DeJong’s teams are responsible for ensuring that all of those computers work efficiently together, so that people can do everyday things like retrieve photos from the cloud, watch cat videos on YouTube and search for hotels in Africa.
“For me the biggest technology surprise was the phones; nothing in science fiction saw these phones coming,” said DeJong. “Since 2007, when the iPhone came out, the whole world is different. Everyone now carries a tiny computer. Ever since, there has been a huge emphasis on building software for these phones.”
Despite adding a master’s degree in computer science to his résumé, DeJong still credits Calvin history professors David Diephouse and Dale Van Kley, art history professor the late Charles Young, and communication arts and sciences professors Patricia Blom and Jim Korf for introducing him “to a much bigger space, intellectually.”
“Calvin was the perfect place for someone with a diversity of interests,” said DeJong.
Besides majoring in history, DeJong was an “unofficial” philosophy minor, audited art history classes, performed in numerous plays and was one of the founders of River City Improv.
In fact, he still directs, performs and teaches improv with the Leela Theater Company in San Francisco. “Being a teacher is really transformative,” he said. “I think that if I had stayed in teaching, I would have taught the history of technology.
“This industry is having a huge effect on history, and having a better understanding of it would do us all some good.”