Programming a New Path: Yan Litvak’s Unconventional Return to Computing

March 20, 2017

In a crowded room full of computer scientists and engineers, Yan Litvak stands out – not because he isn’t an accomplished IT professional, which he is, but because his day job is less conventional. Yan Litvak is an OMS CS student and a uniformed worker for the City of New York Department of Sanitation (DSNY).

Litvak was given his first computer on his sixteenth birthday. He had no formal computer science education, but would spend hours trying to build (or break into) programs. At the age of nineteen he dropped out of college, instead completing a nine-month coding academy program and successfully landing his first job, as an associate programmer analyst at Publisher’s Clearing House. Litvak worked in IT from the mid-1990s till 2004, as a developer on the mainframe coding in COBOL and CICS.

After 10 years working as a professional developer, Litvak was looking for a change and decided to take the test for the DSNY. He was at a self-described “crossroads” in his life and did not expect to take the job.

“The DSNY called me just as my entire department was being laid off and I decided to try it. I always wondered what it was like to operate heavy equipment and I finally got my chance. Now I get to play with big toys – like large wreckers, front-end loaders, skid-steers – and am paid to do it,” said Litvak.

After a few years in sanitation, he decided to go back to school part time, earning his B.A. in psychology from the City University of New York (CUNY). He went on to do graduate work at CUNY but had to drop out when his daughter was born. That’s when OMS CS entered the picture.

“I tried a traditional program, but it did not fit into my schedule,” Litvak said. “Two toddlers and a full-time job keep me quite busy. In addition, as an emergency responder it’s difficult for me to commit to being in class at a certain time each week due to the unpredictable nature of my job. Cost was also a major factor since my employer is not paying for my education and I had no interest in for-profit programs since I am not here for a piece of paper, but rather the knowledge and expertise I will gain in the process.”

Above all else, Litvak values time with his family. He and his wife are busy with life in Brooklyn, teaching the children to love nature and their Russian heritage. Without the opportunity to learn while prioritizing his wife and children, a master’s degree might not have been in the cards for Litvak.

“My wife and I have two beautiful children; our daughter Amelia is 4, and our son Maxwell is 2. They keep us busy with dance, swimming, Russian lessons, and other after-school pursuits throughout the week. We spend our weekends enjoying all of the family activities that New York has to offer. We have memberships at the zoo, the aquarium, the New York Hall of Science, and the American Museum of Natural History. And we live right on the beach, which keeps us busy in the summer.”

Not only does Litvak truly prioritize family, but he has a deep value for community. This was made apparent when OMS CS staff and faculty had the pleasure of meeting him in-person last fall at the program’s Macmillan Learning event in New York City. Litvak is deeply passionate about the people involved in OMS CS and he actively advocates this essential element of the degree program.

“OMS CS definitely fills an industry need for computer science graduates, but beyond that it creates a community like no other. In this program, I’ve made friends from all over the world. The people here are friendly, supportive, and willing to help you when you need help. They come from all walks of life and share a passion for computer science and education.”

In just eight years, Litvak will be eligible to retire from sanitation work at the age of 48. He sees himself as “too young to take up fishing or golf,” so why not a new career direction?

Currently halfway through OMS CS (with just 15 credit hours to go), Litvak has soaked up the opportunity to work with projects like Professor Ashok Goel’s “Jill Watson” research and mentoring students as a teaching assistant in one of his favorite courses, Knowledge-Based Artificial Intelligence. Litvak has aspirations to retire from sanitation work and teach computer science, but because New York has no clear pathway to teacher certification for those with an M.S. in Computer Science, he has his fingers crossed for a flexible Ph.D. program and research opportunities.

In a way, Litvak is returning to his original passion – computer science. But his path has been unconventional and this time, he’s been able to bring his greatest passion, his family, along for the journey.