Step 72.3: Help Non-CS Students Start Technical Careers

One of the most promising sessions – which I found myself, but also which several students caught and recommended I attend, is titled Pursuing a Technical Career without a Computer Science Degree. Clearly it was relevant for Occidental College, where students can’t get a CS degree even if they wanted to! Victoria Wobber (People Analyst at Google), Alison Song (People Analyst at Google), Gabriela Alcala Murga (Data Scientist, Facebook), and Manizeh Khan (Data Scientist at Amazon) hosted the session. Although they called themselves a panel, most of the session was interactive, with only one panelist on stage while the others walked around to talk to the audience. The session started with stories from each panelist of how they ended at their current positions, but then turned into pair/group discussions of our individual aspirations for a technical career.

Two things struck me about the introduction of the panelists. First, although they may not have any programming background, most of them were already in a STEM (or STEM-ish) field before switching. Tori has a doctorate in biology, Manizeh has a doctorate in psycholinguistics, Allison majored in 2012, and Gabi majored in math and stats. Second, the focus of the workshop was decidedly on data analyst positions: all four panelists mentioned learning SQL, and at least two of them mentioned R. My original interpretation of “technical career” was about software engineering, so I thought the title was ambiguous in that way. (I wonder if there are technical careers that are neither programming nor data analysis; perhaps lab-technician like positions might qualify?)

I was surprised a second time to find out that the main interactive portion of the session was about concrete steps to learning skills. First, our hosts helped us identify what each person wanted to learn, what resources they had to learn it, and how it might tie into their current or future jobs. The second half was then about setting short term (next week) to intermediate term (next year) goals, and how they might make themselves accountable. It was obvious that the session was a success, as the specific topic and the concrete steps meant most people walked away with an action item.

My main thought, as I was leaving, was how I could apply what I learned to Oxy’s students. When I decided to attend this session, I was hoping for more perspective on what careers exist that mix technical knowledge with other fields, or perhaps stories of transitions, or tips for navigating the job search and interviews. As it stands, the session was targeted more at early career professionals than at current/graduating students, who have a lot more opportunity to learn a technical skill while not juggling other responsibilities. So, although I thought the presenters did a great job leading us through the exercises, culminating in a concrete plan for improvement, I’m not sure it would be as helpful to my students as I want the session to be.

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