I visited a girls school last month for their school careers fair to talk about PhD’s, NICTA and computing. If even one student thinks about enrolling in CS, it was worth it. This is the talk I gave to them.
My PHD study is in computer science. Day to day I read cool things that other people have done in my field, and design computer programs. In my lap we are working on unhackable helicopters that can fly themselves. These have all sorts of applications – from military and civillian surveillance, to exploring disaster zones to search and locate people and check for hazards before real people enter the scene.
But I mainly wanted to talk to you about how I got to where I am today.
For my HSC I took 4 unit maths, physics, english, IPT and visual art. I loved all of my subjects except IPT. Guess what my best mark was in – it definitely wasn’t physics. It was art. I did pretty well in my other subjects too – but I put the most effort into my major work.
I took a gap year and went to sweden on a rotary exchange, which was really fun. You can do exchanges while at university too and I recommend you look into it – travel only gets harder as you get older and have more things tying you down.
I got back from sweden and enrolled in a telecommunications engineering degree. I wanted to do graphic design, but my maths teacher said I was too good at maths, and engineering was creative too.
But in my first year of uni I discovered two things. The first was programming. I had never, ever written a program before, but we had to take a computer science course for first year engineering. I loved it. I looked forward to my programming courses, did my homework and assignments early and even practiced writing programs when I didn’t have any assignments. Although it doesn’t involve drawing, it’s like creatively putting a puzzle together. At the end you come out with some software that you made. The result was that I changed from telecommunications engineering to a combined degree in telecommunications and computer science – so I could do more programming.
The second thing I learned was that I hated physics. While physics was fun in high school it was different at uni and I just didn’t have fun doing it anymore. I also missed writing and reading, which you don’t do much of in maths and programming classes.
So I changed my degree again – I swapped out the telecommunications for an arts degree. I started off taking english classes, but eventually fell in love with philosophy and got a major in that.
So that’s me. Two degree changes and I finally ended up with a combined degree in computer science and arts, with a major in philosophy.
People were naturally confused. What does philosophy have to do with computers? Why are you taking an extra year at uni just to do arts — aren’t arts degrees pointless?
The answer is no. Arts degrees aren’t pointless. If you love to write and argue, an arts degree perfects your writing and arguing. You read amazing writing of all of the smart people who came before you, and learn to criticise it and tell them they were wrong.
And guess what? Being a scientist or engineer who can write and argue well only makes you a far better scientist and engineer. When I did my honours thesis, I got excellent marks not just because I did good science, but because I knew how to write about it well – something that many engineering students never learn to do.
So here are my points: Picking a degree at university isn’t final, its just a first step. Do what you love. You might find that changes. Follow what you love to do. A career is a thing you will do for 40 hours a week for 40 years. It better be something that can get you out of bed every morning.
I also did a lot of internships during my degree. I worked at downer engineering in first year. at the end of second year I applied for a job at the software company Atlassian and worked there for two years – full time over summer and part-time during semester.
One summer late in my degree I went on an internship with Microsoft.
I got to go to seattle all winter, and get paid a lot. So much that I could afford to go skiing in canada 3 times during that winter, then go to new york for a week at the end of my internship. Working at microsoft was fun and it paid really well. At the end of the internship they offered me a job and a ridiculous pay packet.
I turned them down. Although Microsoft was fun, I didn’t feel like I was contributing much to society by writing software for people to buy to make Microsoft money.
And that’s why I’m doing a phd. I want to invent something new, and push at the boundaries of human knowledge. It will be a very small push. But I think its worth it, and it makes me excited to do my work every day.
The last point I want to make is that with computer science you can do anything. You can start out having no idea what to do and then go work at a bank and make lots of money, work at google on whatever you want, do a PhD, you can write websites or program video games or start your own business. Software is everywhere.
I’d love to be able to reach out to more schools, and not just all girl schools in the centre of the city. Nationally we have a huge shortage in computing enrollments, and a very small number of those enrollments are female.
But I have a PhD to work on. If everyone takes a minor role of reaching out to school students we can advertise our industry, and smash the typical stereotypes that make computing less attractive.