Computer Science Education Week: How I Got In The Field

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XKCD Tshirt
“Stand back, I’m going to try science” tshirt by XKCD, purchased and photographed by Ariane Coffin

This week (Dec 4th – 10th) is Computer Science Education Week, a week long celebration of computing and computer science education. In honor of this event, I am doing a series about computer science. Today’s topic involves my personal success story and explains how I ended up in this field.

I am not a teacher, so what can I do to improve recognition for computer science? I can share the love. You see, I am a programmer and I love what I do.

I was not destined to become a programmer, like some are. My brother, for example, was a quiet smart computer whiz from a very young age. No one had any doubts that he would go into some engineering field or another. Me, however? I was a wild child and a boy-crazy teenager.

It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do. I loved animals, I excelled at music. Not exactly financially viable options. I attended community college while I took classes from every field under the sun. I thought about majoring in industrial arts, graphic design, computer animation, or multimedia arts. At every step of the way, I got a little closer to computers.

Finally, one day, it clicked. What I loved about my digital art classes was the more technical computer stuff! That’s when I took the jump, I applied for a computer science program at a 4-year university. I was scared. I was not a computer geek. Would I fit in? Would I crash and burn, fail horribly?

It was a steep hill learning to walk the walk and talk the talk. I kept my mouth shut more than once because I had no idea what people were talking about, hardware this and network that. Then one day a fellow computer science student in my undergrad program admitted being bad at programming. I thought: how can you be bad at programming and still be in computer science? How can you admit that out loud and not get kicked out of the program?

And that’s when I understood that computer science was a very wide field with lots of nooks and crannies. Theory, systems, application. Virtual reality, video games, algorithms, compilers, artificial intelligence, image processing, data management. Java, C++, Python. No one was good at everything in computer science. I had my limitations, but I could make choices to find my niche and ultimately be good at what I do.

If there’s any wisdom I can pass on to students considering computer science it is to give it a try, even if you don’t think you’re “the type.” There’s a subset of computer science that will fit who you are and will benefit from your unique perspective.

A few weeks ago, I caught myself telling my husband, “I wish I was a scientist.” And then I started laughing: I have a bachelor of SCIENCE and a master of SCIENCE in computer SCIENCE. “Wait, I am a scientist!” My husband, also a programmer, gave me a doubtful look.

I guess it’s true what they say, programming is an art.

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4 thoughts on “Computer Science Education Week: How I Got In The Field

  1. hello Mrs. Ariane Coffin, how funny i stumble upon this article reading about CS articles on Google, i am currently in a job with no real future and am in the process of beginning a new stint in community college to pursue a career in computers, i enjoy technology and know that this is field that has paved the way for our current society and will pave the road to the future. i am currently looking at an associates in computer science, not sure if i will pursue bachelors right away afterwards, mainly just want out of current work, i do currently possess a bachelor of arts in psych but it is of no real use. i am curious if you have any advice on a good way to start or place to start to get into the field. my main interest would probably be in coding, but i am unfamiliar with the breadth of languages or there applications in the field. any advice or helpful information would be appreciated. awe serendipity. thanks

    1. Hi Jeremy, sorry for the late reply. First of all, thanks for your comment!
      Second I would say from my experience that it would be very hard to get hired as a proper software engineer without a Bachelor’s degree. I like the keep an eye on the open jobs in my area and most big companies require a master’s degree or a bachelor’s degree + x number of year experience. Not that it should discourage you, an associate degree is a good place to start. It might be different if you’re more into the visual stuff (front end, javascript, etc) where I think there might be more self-employed/contracts jobs available based on a portfolio instead of just having a strong resume.
      About getting your feet wet, I hope my second post in the series helped. I would suggest taking a wide variety of CS classes at your school to learn what you like. There’s not much other way to learn what you like than trying it out! The goal is to get a solid foundation because that’s what companies look for during an interview. They don’t care if you are applying for a Python job and have only Java experience, they know you can quickly learn a new language if you’re smart and have a good foundation.
      Hope that helps!

  2. Wow, this website is a breath of fresh air! I just finished a Java with data structures class and the final about ate my lunch. I started to think maybe I shouldn’t pursue programming. I know I just feel this way right now and I probably will go through with it. My brain just feels tied in knots sometimes. . . graphs and merge sorts and recursions and such, are not the easiest thing to understand you know, much less memorize.

    So, how do you go about studying this, being this normal person who likes all that right brain stuff? I bet you’re good at math!

    1. Wow, you’re good, I was a math minor! 🙂

      I would suggest you push through it. Because for every major, there are classes you will love and classes you will hate. Easy classes and hard classes. Bad teachers and good teachers. These are the things that will help you determine what job will be appealing to you after graduation.

      And you know what, you will never have to write a mergesort in the “real world”. This is purely an educational exercise (warning though, lots of interviewers like to test you on foundation stuff like sorts). In the industry, you will most likely never need to write something that’s already available in a library! That’s the beauty of object oriented languages and well-designed code: reusability. Once it’s been written, it’s counter productive to write it again. It’s just good to learn how these tools work so you can use them correctly and efficiently.

      Being able to write a good recursion will come in handy though, you just have to sit down and reason it out step by step, line by line.

      Data structures is a pretty confusing class, power through it! Pen and paper are your best friend, don’t try to figure it all out in your head 🙂

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