Lindsey Kuper (lindseykuper) wrote,
Lindsey Kuper

Why I study computer science

I recently watched a video of Nora Denzel giving a keynote talk at this year's Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, to an audience made up mostly of women involved in computing academia or industry in various capacities. There are parts of her talk I like and parts I don't, but this post is about a particular bit that I keep thinking about.

As part of encouraging the audience to recruit more women like themselves into the field, she gives them a recruiting pitch they can use. If you want to check it out yourself, it starts at about 42:55 in the video. Here's my summary of Nora Denzel's recruiting pitch:

  • You can wear anything you want to work.
  • They feed you all the time.
  • You get awesome swag.
  • The money is good -- 30% more than other industries -- and the wage gap between men and women is smaller than in other industries (although you shouldn't do it just for the money).
  • Most importantly, you have the chance to change the world -- to change people's lives -- in a way so profound, they can't imagine going back.

Her first couple of points get laughs out of the audience, which I think is very much an intended effect, although I think she honestly means them as selling points, too. But in any case, they're warm-up acts for the main point, which is that last part about changing lives.1

I remember reading somewhere about a study about high-achieving high school girls' perceptions of various scientific disciplines. The study found that they were interested in going into science, because they wanted to do work that had the potential to change the world and improve people's quality of life -- curing disease, for instance. But, for whatever reason, they didn't see CS as giving them as much of an opportunity for changing lives as, say, the medical sciences (which are now over 70% female at the Ph.D. level2). She may have been trying to address that specific misconception about CS with the last of her points, to make clear that there's tremendous potential to change lives in this field.

I wanted to share my own perspective, as well. I got my bachelor's degree in CS in 2004, spent some years working in industry, and then went back to school to study some more. So, I've been doing this stuff for eleven or twelve years now. I must like doing it for some reason. But why? Why did I decide to go into this field, and why am I still here?

It would be great if I could truthfully say I was in it to change lives, like Nora Denzel or those high-achieving high-school girls are. Had that been the case, I might have gone into a more applied area of CS. But my real reasons are much more selfish. Here's a list of them:

Reasons Why I Study Computer Science
(in order of importance to me)

  1. The people are interesting.
  2. The ideas are fun to think about.

That's it. That's the whole reason I'm here. That's why I got into CS when I was nineteen, and that's why I'm here now. I love the people who do this stuff -- not all, but many of them! -- and I love the ideas. I love the ideas so much that when I was twenty-six, I quit a perfectly good job that had "manager" in the title, moved away from Portland, and went to live in a state where Richard Mourdock holds public office, all so I could get a Ph.D. in programming languages. I love the people so much that I married one.

I recall Dan Friedman saying that when he was younger, he wanted to be a comedian. That isn't too surprising if you know Dan. He does what he does for the fun of it, and he unapologetically values the cute, the clever, the unexpected, the funny, the incisive. Those are also the things I love about this field, and about the people in it. They're the qualities I strive for in the things I work on. In fact, I think that if I'd seen Nora Denzel's talk when I was nineteen, then I might have been attracted to CS, but not for any of the reasons she mentioned. I'd have been attracted to it because Nora Denzel is a funny, engaging, sharp speaker, and that's the kind of person I want to be able to spend my career around. That's why I'm here.

  1. I was talking with Janet Davis about this list, and she pointed out that the reason most important to her is missing: it's fun to make things. Once she pointed it out, I was surprised that it wasn't there; it seems like a major omission. That said, "it's fun to make things" doesn't make my own list of reasons why I'm here. I'm less into making things, and more into trying to understand things.
  2. As of 2012, this data was available on a rather nice page on the NSF's website; as of 2013, it doesn't seem to be, and you have to download the linked .zip archive and dig through it. Sorry!
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