Why You Should Learn Computer Skills: An Interview with William & Mary’s Nate Owen

It is an entirely new way of thinking.

For too long, educators have demanded that the 3 Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic – remain the foundation of the American academic curriculum. However, this archaic axiom fails to capture the necessity for learning new skills in the modern economy.

Students are not adequately prepared to flourish after graduation. Computer technology is the fastest growing sector of the job market with stellar pay to boot – in 2015, the average computer programmer made $84,360. Yet, less than 20 percent of high schools (paywall) teach these programming skills.

Many colleges struggle to develop coherent technology programs due to competition when recruiting top-tier talent. Because demand for computer science and engineering professors is so high, the best teachers have more lucrative employment options at private schools.

The interview

This puts the burden on students to learn computer skills and others like them on their own. At the College of William and Mary, the local chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery helps students do just this. I met with Nate Owen, chairman of the organization, to learn more about their growing impact on the campus community.

What does your club do to prepare students for the modern economy?

“We are the Association for Computing Machinery, which is a local chapter of the international organization of the same name. We have a lot activities on a weekly basis. Every week we do technical interview preparation. We partner with the Career center on Mondays for 1-2 hours each week and prepare students looking to get jobs in technical roles, specifically software engineering at prestigious companies.”

What is a technical interview?

“If you’re applying for a technical role in programming, the company is going to ask you technical questions. You could think of studying for these interviews with big companies around the same difficulty level for studying for the GER or the LSAT. You need to invest time to hone the fundamentals.”

How can someone learn these skills?

“Most people benefit from the structure of learning to code in school. With that said, there are a lot of great resources online. Many can teach themselves programming without a mentor and without going to school. The tutorials online are wide ranging, very available and mostly free. Once you learn the fundamentals of one programming language, it becomes significantly easier to learn a second, and a third and so on. For a lot of people, the real challenge of getting into software development is getting through those first few steps of changing the way that you think about problem solving. It is an entirely new way of thinking.”

How does the club engage the community?

“Each year we host an event called Tribehacks, William and Mary’s annual Hackathon. It is a huge software developer competition in which we invite students from schools all across the east coast to come to campus for the chance to win monetary prizes and share great ideas. It is very entrepreneurial in nature. We welcome all majors and levels of experience. Your idea can be for fun, for learning or something that you want to spin into a startup. It will be judged by its creative spirit and viability in the real world.”

What do you wish more people knew about your club?

“We primarily exist to be social with one another in the context of technology. We do prepare students for interviews and have brought in employers to discuss the technologies that they use. We talk about different technical topics and encourage people to work on side projects. But, we also have a lot of fun. We race drones and make cool machines. The stereotype of the anti-social computer science major can make bringing people together more of a challenge. Computer developer and software engineers are normal people, just like any other profession. Technology is less obscure than the media portrays it to be. It becomes a lot less mysterious after that initial push.”

Going forward

You can check out ACM’s website here and find information on the upcoming Hackathon at tribehacks.com.

College graduates well-versed in capabilities of computer technology will be better prepared to join a demanding job market and solve complex problems. Those who don’t take the time to hone these skills could very well find themselves obsolete in the near future. Organization’s like ACM are bringing students together to shed stigma around the rapidly-evolving world of tech, educating and equipping those students will the tools necessary to succeed.

“When people associate with one another in a friendly manner,” said Owen, “that is when really great ideas come forward.”


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Header image: Adobe Stock


Posted 02.28.2017 - 03:00 pm EDT