(On July 16, 2009, I asked for volunteers with science degrees and non-academic jobs who would be willing to be interviewed about their careers paths, with the goal of providing young scientists with more information about career options beyond the pursuit of a tenure-track faculty job that is too often assumed as a default. This post is one of those interviews, giving the responses of David Warman, a computer game system designer.)
1) What is your non-academic job?
Title: Game System Designer. Function: Computer Systems Generalist. I did not know such a job existed until it found me last year. Oh Joy!
2) What is your science background?
1: 1973, B. Sc in Mathematical Sciences with Physics, Birkbeck College, University of London. (I have to name-drop here: David Boehm was my prof in Props of Matter and Quantum Physics. Made a difference.).
2: 1986, Incomplete M.Sc in CS at California State University, Northridge. Completed 24 of 30 units, the remainder being the thesis, with 4.0 GPA, but left to continue development in the commercial field. I only went back to brush up on the jargon, the degree itself was not important to my career by then.
Both colleges required me to have a concurrent normal full time job. Time was tight.
And, of course, continuous on-the-job learning. For my entire life. Which is how I am a still voracious learner in my present 60's, and not moribund.
3) What led you to this job?
Final collapse (managerial failures) of my startups left me open, they found me on Linked In. Dream job.
To regress a bit, my first job waaay back was passed on to me by an interviewer who saw something in me I did not know was valuable or that I had it. He sent me to another company about a job I had no idea existed, let alone if I was interested. Since then I have not had to cold interview, all my jobs came to me. (This latest job is the first where I did not know anybody first, but the interview was hardly 'cold'). Hence my eclectic path from discrete DTL logic computers, chip design, embedded systems design, data-communications and protocol design, FPGA design, and finally to high level apps. All the way I kept having the thought "and they want to pay me to do this? Wow!". So I have zero advice on how to plan a career. Mine just happened.
4) What's your work environment like?
10' Cube. With windows. Two sides benched. Better than the open plan desk only in my previous job. Looking forward to an office with a door some day.
5) What do you do in a typical day?
Analyze. Specify. Design. Code. Test. Document. Consult. Answer questions. Ask leading questions. Study, study, study.
6) How does your science background help you in your job?
Math and Physics not so much (but sometimes critical). All of my CS comes into play at one time or another. Heavily leavened by experience and pragmatism. Also see #8.
7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?
My job is very senior, and I was attractive because I have worked in just about every stage and logical level of computers in my 42 working years, from transistors to 4G graphical programming language design. So a student would be unlikely to drop right into it. See 8 and 9 instead.
(For the graphical programming language project, see http://www.davidwarman.net/vnos_info.shtml Contact me at dwarman atdavidwarman dot net if you want to play with VNOS. Ignore the email address at the bottom - it got spammed out and I have terminated it.)
8) What's the most important thing you learned from science?
How to reason. How to formulate and test hypotheses by experiment. How to learn from mistakes and failures. Well, I know that's three not one, but they form a sort of orthogonal continuum. I rely on these on a daily basis.
If you are bright enough to finish a degree, you are probably bright enough to acquire or absorb the information you need at any time in any technical job. The critical skills are more meta - how to find information, how to integrate info into knowledge, and how to apply it, all of which are highly personal achievements and not really teachable skills. But you need teachers who lead you through the minefields that by Mother of Invention rules induce you to develop those skills.
9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
See #8. Also, my experience (as an employer) has been that Physics is a better pasture for young programmers than pure CS. Unless you are already a rising star, look for a niche such as Embedded Systems or FPGA design rather than C#/.net work-houses. Your value will strand out and in smaller companies will be rewarded. Avoid political situations if you can. Cultivate mentors. Avoid being a cog in a giant organization if you can. If not, seek the smaller departments with the more unusual missions.
My general advice to students (in any field), who are looking at a non-academic future, would be: what do you do that excites and exercises your intellect anyway, regardless of curricula or putting food on the table? Then do it as much as you can, do it very well, talk about it or show it off whenever you get an opportunity so your acquaintances know about it, and keep your eye out for a company that needs it. The rest will fall out naturally. At least, it did for me. The best jobs in the world are those that pay you to do what you would be doing in your spare time anyway. Except for the little problem of "having a life".
It might not be a good idea to continue in startups past your 45th birthday (unless you have already made your retirement fund). And never, ever, put your own money up. Not even 'just' to live on while the company 'gets going'. Trust me on this one. But most of all have fun!
10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like?
CS is pretty good. Sr Programmer at Microsoft is in the $65K and up region, and you could get there by your 30's if you are upper level competent. Jr Programmer start is $45K these days, IIRC. But know your stuff. And don't BS it. This is one of those fields where your rep lives on how your programs work or not, not on your BS. And that is independently verifiable. Unless you get trapped in a political quagmire, in which case get out ASAP. It won't get better, and you'll end up with the short end. So keep a couple of months cushion in the bank so you can afford to quit.