I was recently invited to be on an alumni panel at my alma mater, Notre Dame, to mentor first-year students considering joining the Computer Science and Engineering program. After having been a developer for over five years, becoming a parent, and assisting DragonSpears to recruit new talent, I had two key insights to share about choosing a software engineer career path.
1. Ask Yourself: Do You Think like an Engineer?
When hiring at DragonSpears, we use a concept called, “G-W-C.” Does the person get it, want it, and have the capacity to do it [the job]? If a person doesn’t have an inherent passion for the key aspects of the role, it’s unlikely that they'll develop the skills to become the top talent and feel like they have a rewarding career.
Before I was even debating colleges and majors, my mom said, “You think like an engineer.” At the time I didn’t really know what that meant, but years of experience have brought understanding. Engineers love solving problems. We see something wrong or inefficient, and we itch to make it better. I remember the joy I felt solving a technical problem once when I was in middle school. A helium balloon had floated up to the ceiling, and I wasn’t tall enough at the time to reach it. I thought, “What tools do I have to get that down?” After a few iterations and failed attempts, I fashioned a device with string, a ping pong ball, scotch tape, and a penny to weigh the balloon down once the ball stuck. It worked! That’s what my mom meant about thinking like an engineer: I had a natural affinity towards solving problems.
2. Be Open to More Than One Path
Much like in programming, there is more than one right path to a solution. At the alumni panel, the students’ questions revealed some of their trepidations and assumptions that if they don’t follow the “right” path, they’ll be jobless, aimless, and lost in a sea of student debt. I can’t make any promises, but here is my experience…
- “What if I don’t have all the answers by graduation?” I wish I could say that graduation is a magical time that reveals all of life’s secrets, but it isn’t. Agile software development is a great metaphor for life: there will be several iterations and opportunities to improve and pivot along the way.
- “What if I don’t get a technical internship?” I had only one summer with a technical internship. I spent two summers in a job that allowed me to serve my church and learn more about myself along the way. Such a journey didn’t hone my technical skills, but it brought about an understanding of myself and confidence in my desire to serve people. This experience helped align me with a service-oriented organization when I was interviewing during my senior year.
- “What was the best advice you got during undergrad?” C’s get degrees. That can be hard to hear as an over-achieving freshman, but it’s true. There is so much more to proving one’s worth than a report card. An ability to learn outside of the classroom can be far more valuable, especially if the opportunity aligns with your core values and passions.
An unexpected benefit of my being part of the alumni panel is that it shed some light on my own life: how I got to where I am and what I look for in my career/teammates/organization. I seek to work with people who enjoy providing excellent service and have a natural curiosity for technical challenges. Recognizing that in myself led me to an organization that aligns with my core values and passions. Whether you’re a student or influencer of the next generation – the best advice I can give is to get clear on your values, natural strengths, and passions and align your actions and decisions accordingly.