Sean Kelley BSIE 2017: From Rural Illinois to the Windy City

Madeleine Hubbard
7/25/2017

 ISE graduate Sean Kelley made the kitchen table and the bed for his apartment. He enjoys woodshop work and says, “When I go home, Thanksgiving, Christmas, I’m going to finish those end tables.”

Originally from the village of Philo, Kelley graduated from Illinois in 2017 with a degree in Industrial Engineering. Philo is located 9 miles south of Urbana and has a population of just over 1,400 people. Today, Kelley lives in Lincoln Park and works for Uptake, an Internet of Things startup company in Chicago. 

Attending the University of Illinois runs in Kelley’s family. Both of Kelley’s parents went to Illinois, as well as his maternal grandparents. His younger sister is currently attending Illinois. Kelley also says, “My grandmother actually taught in the Education Department in Illinois after she got her graduate degrees there.” 

Kelley describes the U of I as having “a really good value for education.” He says, “If you want to go to as good of an engineering school, you’ve got to pay at least twice what Illinois charges you. It’s just flat out, frankly, a really fantastic engineering school.”

When deciding what degree to earn, Kelley says, “I’ve always been a math guy… What I was looking for in a major was being able to get a degree in mathematics that I could apply to solving problems in business, and the best application of that I could find was industrial engineering.”

Kelley went on to focus his degree in operations research. Kelley says that his work in operations research focused on optimization. These classes led him to improve his computer skills. Kelley says, “I realized that if I want to be really good at doing things in optimization, I have to be really good at writing computer programs because optimization is a matter of solving these really big math problems with a computer. That’s how I got into software development and computer programming.”

Kelley was very busy during his time at Illinois. Kelley first got engineering work experience as a consultant for the Office of Technical Consulting Resources. There, Kelley did technology and business consulting for different projects. Kelley also worked at a bar on campus, and says “I don’t suggest that for your mental sanity, but it was a good thing to experience.” 

The second semester of his junior year, Kelley studied abroad in Hong Kong. He says, “Hong Kong was awesome. I really enjoyed it, because when I was there, I was the only American that I met. That really forced me to make friends with people that I didn’t really have much in common with…. It took a lot of work to break down the boundaries of people to form friendships, which I thought was pretty valuable. I hadn’t really experienced being an outsider, and I really had to open up to make friends with people.”

A major influence on Kelley’s current career is his work with agricultrial technology during college. During the summer of his sophomore into junior year, Kelley worked at John Deere writing computer programs. Kelley said that led him to interning at Uptake, his current employer, the following summer. Kelley says Uptake wanted him to help “expand their Internet of Things offering to tractors and combines.”

In fall of his senior year, Kelley worked on Ag-Sensus, a U of I startup that uses computer software and drone technology to evaluate the health of plants in farm fields. 

Kelley says his favorite part of his time at Illinois was his senior design project with Morton Buildings. Kelley says the company was “trying to figure out if they wanted to deliver their own construction equipment to their construction sites with a trucking service they were going to buy, or if it made more sense to have the construction crews that were doing the building, take time out of their work day to move all of their equipment,” which is what they were already doing. 

After spending months on the project, and building a massive optimization model, Kelley says, “I actually found out that it was more efficient for them to have all of the construction crews just keep moving all of their own equipment instead of buying new transportation servers, which is kind of underwhelming.”  

Although the end result was somewhat disappointing, Kelley says, “It was a really cool project to work on. I got to make my own mathematical models which wasn’t like any math model I’d ever seen before, [and] I got to build a bunch of computer programing codes around it to be able to make the calculation around my math model for each time.”

During his time at Illinois, Kelley says “Some semesters, I took hits on my grades because I felt like I had really good opportunities to learn outside of the classroom that I wanted to try, like consulting and developing software. [Students] shouldn't be afraid to make a bad grade or two in order to learn things outside of school that also really interest them.”

Today, Kelley is using all of his skills he learned at Illinois to be a software developer for Uptake. Kelley says Uptake does “predictive analytics for really large machines,” and tries to prevent machines from breaking down by placing sensors on the equipment. At Uptake, Kelley says he writes “software that will like read all the sensors off the engine, tires and gas line.” The software will show machine operators if there is an issue in the equipment and tell them to fix the problem before it ends up becoming a more costly issue."

Being from a small town, Kelley says, “Kids from towns of 1,000 people can be really successful at Illinois too. You just maybe haven’t had the competition or the environment around you to push you like all the kids from the suburbs have had. You’ve learned to work just as hard, just maybe not in an environment where you’ve had to apply it as much, or in the same way those kids have. If you come to Illinois, the work ethic you’ve built being in a small town will serve you pretty well.” 

Kelley also says, “There are a lot of smart kids from small towns that just don’t really consider going to Illinois and getting a degree in engineering.... Even if you don’t outright get admitted into Engineering at Illinois, but you really want to, come for a year or two and study, and make decent grades… There are some engineering departments that will take you, and ISE is one of those....that’s a really cool opportunity.”

Were it not for Illinois, Kelley says, “I would have never thought that I would be working for a super trendy startup writing computer codes, making more money at age 22 than my mom does, and living in Chicago. It’s kind of surreal. Like five years ago, I would have had no idea that was an opportunity for me. Eight years ago, when I had never even left Philo, that would have been pretty incomprehensible.”