Understanding how to work effectively on a team is critical for a successful career in computer science, you can be a great programmer no matter when you start learning — and, yes, the perks for employees at big tech companies are pretty sweet.
Those were some of the takeaways from a panel that the University of Washington Computer Science & Engineering department hosted on Friday afternoon as part of an annual event called CS4HS to expose middle and high school teachers to computer science.
Five UW alumni, who graduated from the department and now work at Seattle-area companies, shared thoughts on their work experience after graduating and what teachers can do to help encourage more students to study computer science.
Here are highlights from the panel.
What should middle and high school teachers — and students — know about learning computer science?
Dana Wen, UW ’08, Software Engineer at Clean Power Research: “I’m one of those people that didn’t start programming until I got to UW — I was 18 years old when I wrote my first line of code. I just want to let people know that you don’t have to have been programming since middle school or younger. It’s something you can become good at at any age. I also wish I knew how much of a community there is in this industry. You don’t think ‘community’ when you think of the tech industry, but there are a lot of resources and mentors out there. I didn’t realize that until the last few years.”
Tam Armstrong, UW 03′, Game Developer formerly with Bungie: “My high school did not have a computer science track. Part of what we’re talking about here is how to get resources to students other than direct class time. I want to encourage that — just a way to foster interest in programming. Computer science is very interesting and if you can help spark that fire in students with some of the great tools that are available — even if you don’t take part it in yourself, the encouragement makes all the difference.”
Carolyn Hughes, UW 09′, Director of Engineering, Storage Management & Analytics Software at EMC/Isilon: “When you’re looking at the students you have, maybe they may not seem like [computer science] candidates … but as you’re talking to kids about coming into a field like this and evangelizing it, remember that there are many, many routes to computers. It’s not just video games or geeking out on math problems. Building fan web pages with mark up for your One Direction fandom, even that’s a great avenue to computer science. This is a wonderful route to a phenomenal career in anything they want to do, so try not to pigeon hole them.”
Taylor Williams, UW ’14, Software Analyst and Developer at Intentional Software: “I just want to reiterate that you can start at any age. Two of the smartest people I know — one started coding in their senior year of college, the other in first grade. It’s a toss up. You can start at any time.”
Jeff Prouty, UW 07′, Software Engineer at Google: “Computer science is nerdy and geeky. Some people who start early get that label. Maybe it’s not this way anymore, but you were more of an outlier 10, 15 years ago. Looking back, it’s like, man, I’m doing sweet stuff now. If I didn’t have that courage to stick with it along the way, I would have been kicking myself now. The students who aren’t sure or are on the fence about it and would rather go do football and be cool — don’t worry about that. There are so many cool things to do that aren’t about being cool. Once you’re out of high school and middle school, computer science is cool.”
What kind of churn are you seeing in the tech industry? Do people move around a lot?
Hughes: “We’re going through another huge boom right now and everyone is hiring like crazy. As a manager of engineers, we make sure people are invested in problems they are working on and that their day-to-day life is happy. If that’s the case, most people will stay put unless they have something else they are really driven about and want to try something else out. So there’s a lot of opportunity available right now, which is good.
“I graduated in 2007, which was a horrible time to go into the job market. I had two jobs, but both companies ended up downsizing. Then I landed at EMC/Isilon and have been there for six years. What I found is that we are very cyclical. We have had booms and busts in the tech industry in the past. But we’re always flexing and changing. There’s always new technology coming up — it’s a very robust industry in that way. I think people feel a lot of flexibility where they can go chase opportunities. If you are out of a gig for a while, there’s always something new popping up.”
Armstrong: “In my experience, how long people stay at a company varies greatly depending on where you work. I’ve had six jobs ranging between 10 months and six-and-a-half years. At most companies, if you had been there for two or three years, you were relatively tenured compared to your peers. But at Bungie, as a counter-example, with a strong culture and a relatively successful company, there were people there for 20 years. It seems to depend on more where I was working versus the state of the market, at least in the gaming industry.”
Did anything you learned in school help prepare you for the work environment?
Armstrong: “My work is essentially the same group work we had to do in class. It’s more real than students realize. Also, math is something that I learned to appreciate very late. It wasn’t until I figured out what I could do with math when it became interesting to me and I suddenly fell in love with it and everything changed. If anything could have been done to help me, it would have been figuring out how to get me engaged more.”
Wen: “For me in my work, one of the most important things I learned and still continue to learn is how to be an effective communicator and work well with others on a team. Looking back at school, any activity I did where I had to collaborate closely with others — and it doesn’t have to be computer-related — is very similar to the discussions I have with my team today at work.”
Prouty: “When you’re young, you don’t realize that in the real world, you’ll probably spend more time with your co-workers than your friends and family if you add up the math. You don’t know that as a kid and you don’t get why being on a team is important. When I was younger, I said, ‘OK, fine, I’ll work with people, it’s not a big deal.’ But it is a big deal. Finding a way to communicate that or to help students understand that sooner is good.”
What about the gender disparity in the tech industry?
Wen: “It’s a very important issue and something as an industry we have to address. When I started at the UW, there were very few women here … people expressed doubts as to what I could do and sometimes I felt out of place. But I’m definitely hopeful and positive that we can change things as an industry. People are generally wanting to move in a more positive direction. …Coming back to campus today, it’s just amazing to see the support available for women. But there is still more to do.”
Hughes: “I’ve had pockets in my career where I’ve run into [gender-related] things, but it’s not overwhelming. There are certainly companies out there that have weaker cultures in this regard than others. Everybody in the industry really wants to see this change and there’s a lot of momentum to do that. I would say that the most common thing you experience is just from being underrepresented. Most meetings that I’ve been in since the beginning of my career, I’m the only women in the room. When I was in school, there were one or two girls in a class of 30 or 40. The only thing you end up missing out on or get used to is this feeling of otherness. You have to try harder to bond with your peers or to get that dialogue going on a friendly level that may come naturally to others. …Yes, I’m the only women in the room most of the time, but it’s not something I notice or affects me very much.”
What are some of the best perks of your job?
Prouty: “One of my favorite ones at Google is subsidized massages. I take part in this. It’s $30 an hour and you can get a massage in the middle of the day — how cool is that?”
Hughes: “Aside from the free soda, food, pizza, and t-shirts is that I get to travel a ton and meet with customers all over the country doing cool stuff.”
Armstrong: “It’s really fun to meet people that created a character you grew up such a huge fan of. You get to be a fanboy sometimes. There’s also free video games. I don’t want to spread a misconception that working on video games means you get to play them all the time. But you do get free video games.”