Eric Byers of Tillamook, Ore. stood up at the end of the conference to thank the staff for hosting the conference. “This was just amazing. Although I have a relatively focused goal coming out of the program it was very beneficial to talk to the different industry reps to better understand what a career in computer science could incorporate.” Byers has a background in aviation and is applying to work at one of a handful of aerospace engineering firms in the Pacific Northwest.
The outstanding caliber and character of the students enrolled in Oregon State University’s new online computer science degree program was the hot topic among the faculty and industry representatives attending the program’s first conference held in Portland, Ore. on December 14, 2012.
In order to retrain professionals from a variety of backgrounds for the rapidly growing technology job market, the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), in partnership with Oregon State Ecampus, designed the online program specifically for students getting a second bachelor’s degree. The conference brought together students from several states, the program faculty and staff, and representatives from 13 companies such as eBay, IBM, Intel, Garmin, and WebMD Health Services.
And even though Terri Fiez, head of EECS, had already poured over student demographics to see if her intentions for the program matched reality — coming face to face with the students was a revelation.
“Wow! That was so inspiring!” Fiez said after the students introduced themselves and described their past experiences during the opening session of the one-day conference hosted by EECS.
From backgrounds diverse as accounting, Asian studies, engineering, music, and philosophy, each student had a story to tell. Many of them professed a passion for technology or computer programming but for one reason or another took a different path in life, and were now excited to pursue a profession with so many interesting and varied opportunities.
Many students found their initial degrees were not helping them find a job. Justin Ihara of Corvallis, Ore. joked, “Because I have a degree in mathematics I was able to count all the different jobs that are available in computer science that I wasn’t qualified for.” Similarly, Christa Hash, of Riverside, Calif. discovered an over abundance of people with master’s degrees in English competing for very few jobs, which meant the teaching positions she found were often part-time and had no benefits.
Other students, already working in technology fields, felt the formal training would help them in their current jobs. Although Darcy Menard, of Portland, Ore., holds a graduate degree in human factors design and manages a software design team at Oracle, he wanted a better understanding of the mechanics of software development. “I’m now starting to deepen my understanding and be able to really get the implementation side of [software development],” he said.
As Fiez had hoped, several students are looking to merge computer science with backgrounds in fields such as chemistry, healthcare, pharmacy, and sociology to either create new opportunities for themselves or to expand their skills at their current jobs. Riam Kidd, from Salem, Ore., sees great potential in combining computer science with her microbiology and environmental science degree. Recently, in her work as microbiologist, she discovered a key piece of software they were using at her organization was reporting inaccurate results. It was then that Kidd realized software designers do not always understand the testing procedures used by microbiologists, so having both skills could be extremely valuable.
A reunion of sorts
Hanging out together like they had known each other for years, Justin Ihara, Christa Hash, Evan Knight (Creswell, Ore.), and Joshua Urlaub (Minneapolis, Minn.) formed a successful collaborative team online, but had never met in person until the conference.
“It’s nice to make friends that you don’t expect to in an online program,” Hash said. Knight nodded in agreement and added, “I was actually pretty skeptical of the forced workmates going into it, but it really worked out.”
Eric Byers of Tillamook, Ore. and Jordan Lutz of Boise, Id. also worked remotely on class projects together and were motivated to come to the conference to meet each other.
“I had a vacation to Baja planned … but I bumped it back so I could be here,” Byers said.
Byers and Lutz also valued the opportunity to talk with the faculty and staff about issues such as student collaboration and career development. In small groups, instructors and staff solicited feedback from the students about what aspects of the program were working well and what needed improvement. But Byers felt that the meetings also added another dimension: “It helped establish a sense of community — that we are all working towards the same goal,” he said.
Getting down to business
The ultimate goal of the online degree program is to connect students with available software jobs. Thus, the second half of the conference was dedicated to hearing from and meeting with industry representatives.
Skip Newberry, president of the Technology Association of Oregon, led the afternoon with a talk about the state of the technology job market. Newberry stressed the online degree program is helping fill a huge gap for tech companies who are “very concerned” about finding qualified employees.
“The job market is really hot,” Newberry said, assuring students the demand for workers with software skills was not just a passing fad, but a deep and long term need. He pointed out that it is no longer just technology companies seeking people with computer science degrees, but “non-traditional players” such as healthcare and manufacturing companies that are becoming major employers.
“It’s an exciting time,” Newberry said. “[Computer science] is a nice fundamental skill set to have that you can apply in variety of different areas.”
Newberry also said that the students’ previous experience in fields outside of computing gives them a varied skill set, making them an asset to employers. “The more hats you can potentially wear, the more valued you are.”
Industry representatives echoed Newberry’s sentiments and encouraged students to leverage their existing skills when seeking jobs.
“There are quite a few more opportunities open to you because of your previous work experience. We’d love to have someone with a background in legal work to do contract reviews, or someone with experience working with customer accounts work as a technical account manager. Definitely take advantage of your existing experience,” said Kevin Williams, senior director of support at Jive Software.
One after another company representative commented on how impressed they were with the students’ maturity and communication skills, assuring them that those aspects will work to their advantage.
“This has been incredible,” Fiez said in conclusion, praising the students for taking on the challenge of a rigorous program.
“The fact that you are willing to make this big change in your life says a lot about you and what your future is going to hold. I think it’s going to hold great things,” Fiez said.