Saturday, November 16, 2013

Careers in Computing - A CS Alumni Panel

12:35 PM

As a part of the recent Portland State of Mind community celebration, MCECS hosted an open house showcasing our LEED-golden, ISS-connected, 3D-printing corner of the PSU world.

The day's highlight came for me as Computer Science Department Head Dr. Warren Harrison moderated a panel discussion on careers in CS. On hand were MCECS alumni from a variety of positions in local industry:

Ryan Catlin (BSCS, '13) is a software engineer with, where he "wears a lot of hats" from writing C++ and Java to test automation and quality assurance.

Ryan Larson (BSCS, '13) is a software engineer with Tripwire. He is currently working primarily with PHP back-end feature integration and mobile optimization.

Holly Rasmussen (MSCS, '99) is an application developer for USBank ATMs, where her challenges include not just writing rock-solid software but compliance with the numerous government regulations unique to the financial industry.

Jack Weast (BSCS, '99) works in the Interactions and Experiences department at Intel, a multi-disciplinary unit planning how Intel will support the experiences they aim to provide across cultures, societies, and generations.

How did the panelists come to be interested in technology and study CS?

All had some initial experience that "hooked" them on computers (RC building and tinkering with computers, RL logging into a mysterious server to play games, HR being intrigued by the arrival of internet and email at work, and JW learning programs out of hobby magazines), but took different paths to their CS degrees: RC started at PSU as a Marketing and then Accounting major, RL as a biochemistry major, and JW as a Music major; HR took her undergrad in Romance Languages and became an attorney before earning an MS from MCECS. Eventually something "clicked" for each of them in CS and they pursued it.

Why did they come to PSU?

RC and his friends came to cool Portland from familiar Roseburg. RL knew PSU was up-and-coming and offered a unique experience with University Studies. HR was a practicing attorney downtown and started at PSU part-time to make sure she could "hack it". JW grew up in Portland, wanted to stay in the NW, and couldn't justify private tuition. They all loved the combination of cost-effectiveness and urban setting.

The stereotypical computer geek is antisocial, clacking away alone in the dark - how much of the panelists' time is actually spent working on their own?

RC: 80%, with regular check-ins and meetings. RL: 40% - his schedule is full of collaboration whether in-office or via skype, IRC, or phone. JW: 20% - his function relies on constant interdisciplinary communication. HR said it has changed over the years: when she first graduated, she spent 80% of her time coding alone; now she finds much more of her time allotted to collaboration and documentation.

Given the great resources for self-study in programming, should an aspiring programmer get a degree in CS?

"Yes" was the unanimous answer, not for any particular course, but for the combination of fundamentals taken together. A strong and thorough understanding of computing trains your brain to solve problems more effectively, regardless of the particulars of the time. While platforms and languages come and go, a CS degree allows you to adapt quickly and advance, as each of the panelists has done multiple times in their careers.

How healthy is the Portland computing industry?

RC said "you would have to not answer email to not get a job." RL commented on the ubiquity of job postings and that Portland boasts a huge market full of start-ups and demand.

As a hiring manager, JW shared that demand in Oregon is "off the charts" and encouraged CS students to intern or work while in school, as their major and PSU's location uniquely allow them to do. He also shared that Intel looks for 3rd-year students who "make an extra effort", challenge themselves with electives, are involved in their community with extracurricular activities, and offer unique personal experiences (such as post-bac students or those from underrepresented groups).

The entire panel shared the sentiment that the combination of a CS degree with relevant intern or work experience would virtually guarantee a job.
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