Think about the things you do every day: posting status updates, downloading songs, checking your class schedule online . . .
Do you think it would be cool to design the technologies that make those devices work better? To invent new ones? To help make people’s lives and jobs easier? Then maybe computer science is the right path for you!
But first, let’s set some things straight. Computer scientists aren’t the people you call when your printer stops working. And they don’t sit in dark cubicles all day without talking to anyone.
“Whatever you think computer science is, you’re wrong,” says Dianna Xu, chair of the computer science department at Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
So . . . what is it?
Computer scientists use technology to solve problems. They write software to make computers do new things or accomplish tasks more efficiently. They create applications for mobile devices, develop websites, and program software. And you can find them everywhere, from big tech firms and government agencies to startups and nonprofits.
“It’s more than everyday computing,” says Liz Burd, Pro-Vice Chancellor in Learning and Teaching at the University of Newcastle in Australia. “It’s building the tools that enable everyday computing.”
One of the biggest things computer science majors learn is how to logically think through a problem and find a way to solve it. Chris Stephenson, Executive Director of the Computer Science Teachers Association, adds that good computer scientists also understand teamwork and are good communicators. They work with other people all the time, she says, including those who don’t come from a CS background. “No matter how brilliant you are, at some point you will have to explain to someone how your product works or what your code does,” Stephenson says.
Bobby Schnabel, Dean of the School of Informatics and Computing at Indiana University Bloomington and chair of the Association of Computing Machinery's Education Policy Committee, says some students go into computer science because they like working with computers. Others want to solve problems with technology. Whatever your passion, a CS degree is a great foundation for all kinds of jobs.
Yaw Anokwa, entrepreneur
Anokwa was nine years old when he first programmed a computer. It was his father’s, used in teaching journalism at Butler University in Indianapolis, and Anokwa wasn’t allowed to touch it—but he did anyway, entering an online competition to win a faster modem.
In high school he started a business repairing computers for his classmates’ parents. In college he earned two degrees: one in computer science from Butler and one in electrical engineering from Indiana University—Purdue University Indianapolis. There Anokwa began to think that people could use computing to change the world for the better. After all, computers are everywhere: on your desk, in your pocket, and inside devices you use every day. “Software is very powerful,” he says.
During graduate school, Anokwa spent six months volunteering with a public health organization in Rwanda, where he helped introduce an electronic medical record system that’s now used nationwide. That experience inspired Anokwa to develop Open Data Kit, a platform that replaces paper forms with smart phones and tablet computers. Its tools are used all over the world. Election observers use it to monitor the polls in Egypt, health workers in Kenya use it to track efforts to combat HIV, and Brazilians use it to measure illegal logging in the rainforest. Anokwa and a partner eventually started a company called Nafundi, which consults clients using tools like Open Data Kit.
“These days, day-to-day I don’t do a lot of programming,” Anokwa says. “Those skills are in my head. All the skills I need now I learned in my first couple of years of undergrad.”
Joey Brown, software engineer
Brown meant to study philosophy when he enrolled at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. But he also liked tinkering with computers. He took a class about logic, then classes on computer programming. It might not seem like the two subjects have anything in common, but Brown liked how they both relied on logical thinking. “It seems like a very straightforward correlation,” he says.
The summer after graduating with his computer science degree, he went back to his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee, and got a job lifeguarding at a country club. Through someone he met there he found his next job, in which he helped other companies find new employees for their information technology departments.
Outside of work he joined some informal groups for programmers. That’s how he met the founder of a website called MyRepresentatives. The site makes it easy for people who live in the Memphis area to find out who represents them in local, state, and federal governments. Brown started working for the site as its lead developer. It was an unpaid but valuable position.
He’d been working for MyRepresentatives for a few months when he landed a paid job as a software engineer with Lindsey Software, a company that designs programs for public housing agencies, where he works today.
Eileen Lynch, technical analyst
The computer programming class Lynch took in high school was one of her favorites. “I liked knowing step-by-step logic and understanding how things work,” she says. “How does this work, and how do you solve this problem?”
She majored in computer science at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, where she learned a little bit of everything about computing: programming languages, the mathematical principles behind technology, managing a website, how to attack problems with systems, and more. “The biggest thing my degree did for me is that it gave me the perfect foundation to build on for my career,” Lynch says. “In my experience, it was a general degree. A technical degree, but a very general degree.”
Now she’s a technical analyst for Esri, a software company that uses a sophisticated mapping technology called geographic information systems (GIS). Lynch didn’t even know what GIS was before she joined Esri, but now she can’t imagine working in any other industry. Among other things her company’s software has been used to map the damage Hurricane Sandy left on the East Coast and illustrate where the federal government has sent money for different projects.
Lynch designs applications for companies that use Esri’s software. In her job she helps customers and works with colleagues to develop and test the applications. She likes that she does different things every day. “Every few months something changes, and I get to be at the cutting edge of what’s happening in our field,” she says.
Rick Umali, Web engineer
Umali might not be playing video games all day, but since his company, Turbine, develops some of the world’s most popular online role-playing games, he sometimes needs to play to make sure everything works correctly.
Turbine makes games like Dungeons and Dragons and The Lord of the Rings. Umali works behind the scenes to keep the game running smoothly, making sure users can sign in when they want to play and that the list of the top players is up to date. “It’s a very energetic and dynamic environment,” he says.
Umali graduated in 1990 with a computer science degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Since then he’s had several jobs in the software industry, managing data so people can access it when they need it.
Technology has changed a lot since he was in college, but Umali says that being a computer science major taught him timeless skills, like how to examine and process information. “They taught us principles of how to break up a problem into manageable pieces,” he says. Then he was prepared to learn about innovations in the field, like new programming languages.
Overall, Umali says studying computer science can lead to cool jobs in a wide range of industries.“It’s such a broad field,” he says. “Pick something that you’re interested in and just embrace it.”