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The Many Shapes of a Computer Science Career

By Andreea Danielescu

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 65 No. 11, Page 7
10.1145/3559771

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When you apply for a career in tech, it often means having to decide: Am I a product manager? A software engineer? A researcher? A designer? These roles are all clearly defined with their own sets of mostly nonoverlapping skills to help companies hire the right talent. But that's not the way we define ourselves. Most of us have a variety of skills that don't all neatly fall into one box.

We collect skills across multiple dimensions over a lifetime of different experiences. We may start in a box, but before long it's a hexagon, an oval, or something that looks more like a puzzle piece: bends, openings, sharp edges, all wrapping themselves around our ever-growing skills. Eventually it becomes three-dimensional, with depth in some areas and breadth in others.

I entered college as a double major in computer science and math with the goal of going into cybersecurity. During my junior year, as a part-time intern at IBM working on C++ code for Tivoli storage and on Lotus Notes databases, I realized that life as a "traditional" software engineer wasn't for me. The edges of my box were bending outward, working toward another shape.

Suddenly, I found myself pivoting in an entirely new direction. I applied to a summer Research Experience for Undergrads in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and picked up a psych minor. After undergrad, I applied to Ph.D. programs in HCI. My interest and foundational work in cybersecurity didn't disappear; it was still in the shape that had once been a box. But now it had company, with HCI stretching that shape further.

As a doctoral student, I worked on everything from cognitive modeling and intelligent tutoring systems to interactive art installations. Eventually, I ran user studies to understand how people would like full-body and in-air gesture interaction to work. This last area became my thesis. My shape grew, shifted, expanded.

I went on to work at Intel in their wearables division on one of the more advanced wearable conversational systems. After spending the first few months as a software engineer, I quickly turned into a "wearer of many hats:" systems architect for a full-stack system, a product manager on the conversational AI side; even an engineering manager for our Android development team. I had a quantitative data scientist on my team and worked closely with our UX / UI teams to design user studies for our product prelaunch. Now, my shape definitely looked like a puzzle piece.

I had a short stint as a Partner Engineer at Facebook before landing at Accenture Labs, where I lead the Future Technologies R&D group. My own expertise is largely in gesture and speech interaction. But my team focuses on all sorts of emerging technologies that blend hard sciences with computation: neuromorphic computing, smart materials, energy, biotechnology, and more. We are all different pieces, made up of material scientists, semi-conductor physicists, mechanical and electrical engineers, industrial designers, HCI researchers, and computer scientists. The group's depth and breadth let us build off one another to tackle more complex problems and spark innovative ideas.

The key things I learned as a computer scientist were how to break down problems into smaller chunks, how to think at the systems level and how systems work—whether they be software systems or systems of people. People are never boxes; they are puzzle pieces that can fit together in more than one way.

My career has taught me it's better not to try to fit in a box. Throw it out. Be a cloud, or a polyhedron, if you like corners and edges. Embrace breadth and depth as they are not mutually exclusive. Learning how things fit together is a skill that can make you successful—no matter which puzzles you find yourself in along the way.

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