Many engineers enjoy working with computers. However, Devin Lafford prefers to get his hands on the hardware that makes computers work.
“I like to be as close to the hardware as possible,” says Lafford, a University of Wisconsin-Madison senior majoring in computer engineering. “If I’m not the one designing the hardware, I want to write the software that makes the hardware function.”
That’s what motivated Lafford to spend his spare time working with friends on projects like building a computer out of simple processors similar to those used in TI-84 calculators, or writing an operating system from scratch—for fun.
“We didn’t need a new system, but we wanted to see how it’s done,” says Lafford. “How to take the hardware from a useless pile of silicon into something that can run programs.”
It’s an ambitious project for undergraduates, but the students know that perseverance will pay off—their hard work and hands-on tinkering will help them make discoveries beyond what they can learn from textbooks alone.
Lafford showed an early aptitude for hardware; as a teenager, he resurrected one of his mother’s old broken-down machines by disassembling its components and putting everything back together again. Yet it took him a while to appreciate his talents.
“I was always good with computers, but I always took them for granted,” says Lafford.
But, Lafford began immersing himself in computer engineering after a gentle nudge from his high school football coach, who also taught coding classes at Milwaukee’s Rufus King—a magnet school on the city’s north side that consistently ranks as one of Wisconsin’s top-performing public pre-collegiate institutions.
But before enrolling in the challenging international baccalaureate-level programming classes, he needed to know some fundamental programming.
So, with the help of some materials provided by his coach, Lafford taught himself the language Java. Since then, he’s learned the languages C, C++, Verilog (his favorite) and Python, the last of which he picked up on the fly during the first few hours at an internship at the Deerfield offices of the automated external defibrillator manufacturer Cardiac Science.
Although Lafford prefers working with hardware, he’s also racked up experience on the programming end during his four years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. During his freshman year, Lafford wrote software as a student employee in the Simulation-Based Engineering Lab under the mentorship of Dan Negrut, the Mead Witter Foundation Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
His most recent internship position was at ARM, the company that designs the processors in most of our phones, in Austin, Texas. He fell in love with Austin’s vibrant culture during his brief stint in the city, and hopes to live there again someday.
Fortunately for Lafford, Austin is a hotbed for computer architecture companies, and a UW-Madison education is a strong asset for engineers at the beginnings of their careers. After graduating with his bachelor’s degree in May 2019, Lafford plans to remain in Madison to pursue his master’s degree on campus.
After completing his master’s degree, he hopes to move to Austin to work at a technology company, although he is open minded about the prospect of one day returning to higher education—similar to his favorite instructor at UW-Madison, Eric Hoffman, who spent several years working in industry before becoming a faculty associate.
Coming from a family of educators and medical professionals, Lafford says his parents always placed high value on academics, yet he’s one of the first in the family to pursue engineering.
Engineering was a natural fit for Lafford’s personality, though, as someone who is always on the lookout for ways to optimize everything from computer architecture to the hustle and bustle of daily life.
“I think it’s an engineer thing to want to make things faster and more efficient,” says Lafford.
Author: Sam Million-Weaver