PNAS: Benoit Hamelin, Computer Security Developer

I've decided to do a new round of profiles in the Project for Non-Academic Science (acronym deliberately chosen to coincide with a journal), as a way of getting a little more information out there to students studying in STEM fields who will likely end up with jobs off the "standard" academic science track.

The eleventh profile of this round features Benoit Hamelin, a biomedical engineer turned network defense programmer.

1) What is your non-academic job? I am Chief Scientist for Arc4dia, a small company in the computer security and private network defense business. I develop software, lead some other developers and teach the courses we sell.

2) What is your science background? I have completed a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in computer science from the Université de Sherbrooke, after which I have completed a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering at École Polytechnique de Montréal. I specialized in large-scale nonlinear numerical optimization and statistical modeling for image reconstruction. My current work is a bit of a "virage" from that specialty -- I have gone back and honed skills developed prior to my (short) research carreer.

3) What led you to this job? I was pursuing a postdoc in medical imaging and, for various reasons, I was not able to build up my set of publications quickly. I was warily contemplating years of post-doc and student-to-position purgatory when Arc4dia's founder, a trusted friend from my days in Sherbrooke, called me to help him start his business. I jumped off and did not look back.

4) What's your work environment like? (Lab bench, field work, office, etc) II have the immense pleasure of working from home. I relish the monastical silence of my basement, where I can write code on a high-end laptop computer, with few distractions.

5) What do you do in a typical day? A typical day is one of a lead developer in a software shop: I plan software projects, delegate some coding tasks and handle some by myself. I'm also the go-to guy when some documentation or technical communication requires writing up.

6) How does your science background help you in your job? Academic research taught me rigor and critical thinking. With software forensics and debugging, in particular, my methods of investigation, cast from good old scientific method, are more efficient and I trust their conclusions more.

7) If a current college student wanted to get a job like yours, how
should they go about it?
The studies over the bachelor's degree were interesting, but I could likely have obtained this job with just the skills from that first program. The research experience makes me really good at my current job, though. That kind of skill can be gathered from summer projects in university laboratories, investing oneself in the research process beyond one's immediate tasks and responsibilities.

8) What's the most important thing you learned from science? Read attentively and critically; write clearly and mindfully; think openly and playfully; experiment carefully and rigorously.

9) What advice would you give to young science students trying to plan
their careers?
The idealized endgame for the Ph.D., the tenured professorship, has become a lofty goal: hard work and competence will get you somewhere, but it's also largely a matter of contacts, luck and privilege. Plan on getting out of academia, at least as plan B: keep an eye out for job opportunities related to your specialty. If you plan on doing research in a program beyond a bachelor's degree, do it *for its own sake*, if you want badly to do this research. If that need wanes, if doing research no longer tingles you, stop at the soonest sane moment: reject whatever shame you get from dropping out, and whatever skill you've managed to gather in the process can sell. One last bit of advice: while you're in some university or grad school, try and enroll in a few business courses, at least to get the gist of it. Knowing your way around biz administration can make starting up on your own an appealing carreer path, especially if you're keeping track of things people need in your field.

10) (Totally Optional Question) What's the pay like? My salary range is that of an experienced senior software developer, so northwards from 70k CAD.

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