Matt Blankinship ’17 is a cybersecurity expert who began his career at Amazon before joining another tech giant: Google. Passionate about data privacy in this digital age, Blankinship works to improve security measures for a variety of Google products. His interest in the field intensified through his computer science studies at Oberlin. Blankinship’s time here also included musical pursuits: He joined the percussion ensemble Oberlin College Taiko and created his own duo with a classmate.
In this interview, Blankinship reflects on his college experience, his journey to twin tech giants, his thoughts on the importance of digital privacy—and his most recent adventure: being a reality show contestant.
What do you do at Google?
I'm a software engineer on a cybersecurity team. I try to detect and fix software vulnerabilities in Google products by running thousands of scans every day on millions of different targets across Google and other Alphabet companies [the tech conglomerate that owns Google].
My role is to build the scanning pipeline infrastructure, which ensures that everything runs smoothly and efficiently. I get to work on a range of different projects, including Google cloud instance scanning and dependency scanning for open-source repositories. I've learned more about the different software environments than I ever would on a more typical product team, and all through the funky lens of software security. It's a great gig, and I'm lucky I found this opportunity.
How did you get your start at Amazon right after college, and what led to your transition to Google?
Like most jobs out of college, I got a bit lucky. I cast my résumés far and wide, and one slipped through the Great Résumé Filter, and I got an interview with Amazon. In preparation, I spent a lot of time studying for coding interviews, and [the Oberlin data-structures course] CSCI 151, in particular, was incredibly helpful in preparing me. I believe if you really can understand that course, you’ll be more prepared than your competitors. After a year at Amazon, I wanted to move to a team that aligned with my enthusiasm for digital privacy and security. Given Google's reputation as a data organizer and the security responsibilities that come with that, it felt like a natural fit for me.
Tell me about your experience in computer science at Oberlin.
I initially wanted to study neuroscience, but I guess every class conflict happens for a reason. My favorite part of the program was how math-oriented it was. Looking at a graph of nodes arranged in flowers to prove that one complex problem is similar to another would blow my mind every time. Computer science allowed me to use computers as a medium to build a strong foundation in applied logic.
What did you learn at Oberlin that has helped you most since graduating?
While it might sound strange, I'd say that the most useful skill I learned at Oberlin was actually note-taking! It's the nature of software engineering to always be learning new systems and environments, so your ability to quickly understand and synthesize new knowledge is crucial. I can't tell you how many times good notes have saved me, and even if I never look at them again, taking notes helps me process the roaring cascade of information.
How did your mentors at Oberlin help shape your career path?
A few friends and I got really interested in cybersecurity at one point, and were thirsty for opportunities to apply our new knowledge. We asked our professor for guidance, and they helped us find a security conference in Cleveland, provided us with prep materials, and even assisted in our registration for the competition part of the conference. I went in with zero expectations, but our team ended up winning the whole thing! This experience showed me the power of bringing ideas to mentors who can help them grow and flourish.
Oberlin encourages their students to participate in extracurricular opportunities. Were there any experiences you had that have stuck with you?
A friend of mine at Oberlin, Thanisa Duronkaveroj, approached me and another fellow student with an opportunity to travel to her home country and create a set of films about Thai culture, history, and education. I got to film and crew for the Peanut Sauce Project, and it was a dream come true. We interviewed various individuals, including students and educators, and captured their experiences on camera. It was amazing to see how three students from different academic disciplines could come together and create something meaningful. This project was a testament to the opportunities that Oberlin provides for its students.
What’s your fondest memory of your time at Oberlin?
My favorite memory from Oberlin was when my friend Luke and I started a comedy folk music duo. We wrote and performed songs like “Are You Gay,” about the struggles of ambiguous attraction, and “Asia House Ghost,” about the mysterious sounds we heard at night. We had so much fun making music together, and who knows, maybe we’ll bring back our duo—the Assless Chaps—someday!
You are a contestant on season 44 of Survivor. Why did you audition?
I have watched and loved Survivor for over a decade and vowed to apply when I turned 18. When 18 came, fear held me back, and I failed to follow through. It felt like a personal failure that still bothers me almost 10 years later. Finally, I decided to roll up my sleeves and send in an audition tape. Playing the game I love on a beautiful tropical island was a magical experience, but the real victory was mustering up the courage to put myself out there.
How did your experience at Oberlin prepare you for the challenges you faced on Survivor?
Oberlin is a condensed bundle of wildly varying humans, each with their own stories and perspectives, within which you find ways to express yourself. Add a dash of backstabbing and a lot more coconuts, and that's pretty much Survivor as well!
Learn more about Blankinship’s Survivor experience on parade.com.
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