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A publication of the University at Buffalo Alumni Association

Spring 2013

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Tom Occhino, BS ’07

Occhino image

Digital dream job

Facebook engineer blends his social and technical skills to produce user-friendly software for world’s largest social network

Story by Sean Nealon, BA ’01; photos by Mark Madeo

In 2008, a year after graduating from UB with a computer engineering degree, Tom Occhino was being recruited by Facebook.

He was skeptical. He had a promising career as a freelance Web developer in the Buffalo area. And he didn’t want to leave family and friends in the only place he had called home.

After two phone interviews, Occhino visited the Facebook campus in Palo Alto, Calif., for a final round of interviews. He saw huge computer monitors, people riding skateboards around the building and rows of Red Bull in the kitchen.

“It was the craziest environment I had ever seen,” Occhino remembers thinking. “As soon as I walked in I knew it was the right place for me.”

Four years later, he has helped create well-known features on Facebook’s site and traveled with Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, to mutual friends’ birthday parties. Around the office, he is known for his blend of social and technical skills, and for liking his computer code like his closet: neat and logical.

Occhino, 27, grew up in Orchard Park, N.Y., south of Buffalo. He was 11 when his family purchased its first desktop computer. He was fascinated and remembers digging into the operating system. That led him to take a computer programming class at Orchard Park High School.

He entered UB focused on computer science and engineering, and fondly recalls foundational courses taught by Carl Alphonce, teaching associate professor; and Phil Ventura, PhD ’04 & MS ’00, now teaching in Florida. But it wasn’t until his senior year, when he took a class taught by Mike Buckley, BS ’78 & BA ’76, teaching assistant professor and co-director of the Center for Socially Relevant Computing, that the idea that computer software can help people’s lives clicked with him.

After graduating, he found himself drawn to MooTools, an open-source software site aimed at improving JavaScript, a computer programming language. That interest led to his big break: being asked to speak about MooTools at a conference in the Netherlands.

Occhino was then 23. He had never left North America or spoken at a conference. Despite that, he said yes. To prepare, his sister bought him a copy of “Public Speaking for Dummies.”

The talk caught the attention of a Facebook recruiter. A few months later, he was working at the company.

Since then, he wrote the code for the search bar “auto completing” feature, which takes letters typed into the search bar and produces a drop-down menu with instant results. He adapted the same code so that when a user types the “@” symbol in a status update it produces a drop-down menu with results.

Occhino works at a standing desk, with pictures of his 2-year-old niece and speakers for playing electronic dance music. Work weeks sometimes hit 80 hours. But, he loves that he can arrive when he wants and rarely has to set an alarm.

Nick Schrock is a fellow engineer at Facebook who started a month after Occhino. The two quickly became friends. He says Occhino is a detail-oriented person, an attribute that extends from the user-and engineer-pleasing code he writes to his color-coordinated bedroom closet.

Occhino is a beloved person at Facebook because of his selflessness, Schrock says. That was exemplified one morning when Schrock had two hours to prepare a presentation for the entire Facebook engineering team. When his co-presenter called in sick, Schrock reached out to Occhino. He dropped everything to help.

“He is just someone who always has your back,” Schrock says.

Occhino Closeup image

Outtakes

Nickname

Occhino is known as “Tomo” around Facebook because there were already several other Toms when he was hired

What he misses about UB

Chicken finger melt at Bert’s in Talbert Hall

What he misses about Buffalo

Family, friends, Mighty Taco and Jim’s Steakout

Job at UB

Hired by UB Student Association as assistant Web manager to Keith Stabins, BS ’07

UB in the News

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4/11/2014 The medications are deliverd straight to the tumor itself.

TIME Magazine reports on UB study about a new way to get college students to reconsider binge drinking

4/11/2014 Talking about the link between alcohol and cancer may work as a deterrent.

Forbes reports on UB research about the dangers of texting while walking

4/11/2014 UB professor of emergency medicine says putting your cell phone down when walking may save lives.

More of UB in the News