It was a foggy drive across the flat Oklahoma countryside to Talequah. I rarely visit the parent Northeastern State University campus but the 65-mile drive to the state’s oldest institution of higher learning was worth it this morning. We arrived with plenty of time and took seating close to the front of the room.
Dr. Datta, an appropriately named computer science professor, normally teaches an 11:00 A.M. class in this room but today there was a special speaker. Mr. Rich Bell, a 34-year-old foreign service officer from the U.S. Department of State, flew from Washington, D.C. to pay the campus a visit.
Mr. Bell wore a vest and tie but held no notes and gave no PowerPoint presentation. Instead he brought the energy, wits, and personality that only come through deliberate life experience accrued in foreign travel. “I work for the U.S. Department of State,” he began. “When I’m feeling important I call myself a diplomat.” Mr. Bell explained that like most of the students in the room, he had been a computer science major. He used this undergraduate degree as a stepping stone to law school. After graduating the University of Pittsburg with a Bachelor in Computer Science, he eventually attended Texas A&M for a short while before working at the U.S. Department of State in 2010. A good writer with interpersonal skills uncharacteristic of a tech-oriented individual, he quickly climbed the department and now serves as a recruiter and interviewer when he’s not living overseas assisting ambassadors in their technical needs.
Mr. Bell confessed he’s never had a productive day of programming in his life. In fact, none of the employees in the Department of State write software. This caused our hearts to sink as we realized that working in this department would be very different from what we were studying in our classrooms. The typical computer scientist in their junior and senior year has starry-eyed visions of writing code in a basement for the rest of their adult life. A job that doesn’t involve typing strange things into a dark screen holds little interest for them. It doesn’t matter how handsomely compensated they might be for replacing a foreign ambassador’s keyboard inside a top-security-clearance facility. Few in that classroom could be convinced that Mr. Bell’s exciting career trumped their preexisting plans. As someone who has a proclivity for writing code, I can’t say I blame them.
Regardless of its reception however, the talk was insightful because Mr. Bell had prepared so little for it. Nothing was forced or staged, and we got to hear his honest opinion about things important. He criticized getting a minor in mathematics or information systems and instead recommended a liberal arts minor, his personal choice being philosophy. He argued that once applicants for a job are past a certain filtering process, all of them have computer science degrees. That’s an assumed minimum. “To distinguish yourself, have something other than CS and math on your CV,” he said. HR knows nothing about what computer scientists actually do, and they need to see something interesting. A student who has minor in a liberal arts program has something interesting to talk about. It gives them a unique perspective over someone who’s invested their entire academic pursuits in hard science and numbers. “Get out of this building as much as you can,” said Mr. Bell. “Check out the liberal arts building. Read books.”
There’s a dangerous tendency among computer scientists to think that any amount of time away from their laptop screens is wasted. They feel that they’re either getting better at their craft or they’re needlessly delaying their arrival at mastery. There’s no in-between. I spend a lot of time thinking about this and it was interesting to hear him affirm that software developers struggle at being well-rounded human beings. He made me thankful for my minor in psychology.
Another point Mr. Bell stressed was the importance of becoming a better writer. “I hate writing,” he stated matter-of-factly, “but I’m good at it.” Most computer scientists write better code than English, and that hurts them in the long run. A clear communicator can be a mediocre scientist and outmaneuver a crackerjack scientist who can’t put two sentences together. He said that writing classes should have more prominence in a computer science program, and developers should take writing more seriously.
Finally, Mr. Bell gave a piece of advice that is often criticized: he urged the audience to follow their passions and guaranteed that success would follow. “Being genuinely curious is the best thing you can do because it will be the best way for you to be on top of your game.” This advice wouldn’t work well with majors whose jobs are in low demand, but by 2020 there will be 1 million more computer science jobs than there are students to fill them. Computer scientists can be picky about what area of their broad field they enter and still have a fulfilling career.
We left the classroom doubting any of us would be applying for the 13,001th position as a foreign service employee in the Department of State. Its excellent benefits are attractive but it has the highest divorce rate of any federal department and requires constant travel to locations over which its officers have no control. The advice Mr. Bell gave us though—we’ll take that to the tomb.