6 Choosing your future

Your future is full of exciting new possibilities, but which of these options will you choose? What are all the opportunities for students of computing? How will you choose the one is best for you? When choosing your future, do you see yourself as a default user or the weird edge case pictured in figure 6.1?

Are you a weird edge case or a default user? What are your options beyond the default graduate scheme with a big blue-chip multinational employer? Default user by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

Figure 6.1: Are you a weird edge case or a default user? What are your options beyond the default graduate scheme with a big blue-chip multinational employer? Default user by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

Perhaps you’re a weird edge case. Perhaps typical graduate destinations such as large multi-national corporations, do not really make you want to Shake Your Thang? (Isley, Isley, and Isley 1988) Perhaps you are more interested in:

  • working in computing in roles beyond software engineering?
  • using your technical skills more responsibly and ethically to make the world a better place?
  • starting your own business and making money for yourself, rather than other people?
  • finding hidden or unadvertised vacancies?
  • joining or founding a startup or a Scale-up company instead of a large multinational corporation?
  • venturing outside of the private sector?

Broadening your initial job search described in chapter 11 will open up more opportunities on your horizon. This chapter will broaden those horizons and get you to think about some of the less obvious options you can choose from.

Many technology jobs exist outside of technology companies, (Asay 2020) because a lot of software is written to be used rather than sold. Consequently, many employers create bespoke software to fit the needs of their business. The people who build it are often employees, rather than people employed by a technology company. In the United States for example, ninety percent of IT jobs are outside the traditional tech industry. Technical jobs outside the technology sector often have the advantage of being more accessible than those within a very competitive technology sector. (Markow, Coutinho, and Bundy 2019)

Your future is bright, your future needs choosing, so let’s start choosing your future.

6.1 What you will learn

  1. Describe the less obvious careers that computer science can lead to, besides software engineering, including:
    • Starting a business or joining a startup
    • Working outside of the technology sector
    • Working outside of the private sector (governments, non-profits etc)
    • Roles allied to software engineering that require you to be a conversational programmer (Cunningham et al. 2022)
  2. Recognise the social responsibilities that accompany the power held by computer scientists and software engineers
  3. Evaluate and compare the values of an employer with your own values and ethics

6.2 Vocational or academic?

Some undergraduate degrees like medicine, dentistry and nursing are highly vocational. Other degrees have a stronger academic flavour. According to some studies, vocational degrees can be the best route to highly skilled jobs. (Adams 2018) Computer Science degrees often develop highly vocational skills and knowledge, through disciplines like software engineering for example. They often contain more theoretical, scientific and academic topics like the theory of computation, graph theory and probability theory too.

What is the blend of vocational vs. academic study in your degree? It’s good to have a mixture of theory and practice, see figure 6.2, because employers value both of them. (Adams 2018) However, unless you’re considering a career in research or academia (see chapter 16) it’s probably the vocational part of your degree that will give you the clearest initial direction into paid employment.

Where does your Computing degree fit on this Computer Science O'Meter? Are you theoretical and scientifically pure (red)? Maybe you lean towards the highly vocational and applied aspects of engineering and technology (blue)? (Meulen 2023) Perhaps you’re a healthy balance of each? Computer Science O’Meter by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC BY-SA. Remix by Yours Truly, make your own at remixer.visualthinkery.com

Figure 6.2: Where does your Computing degree fit on this Computer Science O'Meter? Are you theoretical and scientifically pure (red)? Maybe you lean towards the highly vocational and applied aspects of engineering and technology (blue)? (Meulen 2023) Perhaps you’re a healthy balance of each? Computer Science O’Meter by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC BY-SA. Remix by Yours Truly, make your own at remixer.visualthinkery.com

Those who came before me, lived through their vocations, from the past until completion, they’ll turn away no more. (Gilbert et al. 1983) Many computer scientists live through their vocation of software engineering, but software engineering isn’t the only vocation available to students of Computing. Let’s look at some of the other options so that we can broaden your computational horizons.

6.3 Broadening your future beyond software engineering

The phrase software engineering has been around since Margaret Hamilton (figure 6.3) led the development of software for the Apollo Guidance Computer in the sixties. However, the practice of software engineering has been around even longer right back to Ada Lovelace in the nineteenth century.

The role of software engineer has been around for a long time but there are plenty of other roles for computer scientists to choose from. Public domain image of Margaret Hamilton in 1969 standing next to all of the printed code for the navigation software that she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo Guidance Computer via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3YJW adapted using the Wikipedia app 🚀

Figure 6.3: The role of software engineer has been around for a long time but there are plenty of other roles for computer scientists to choose from. Public domain image of Margaret Hamilton in 1969 standing next to all of the printed code for the navigation software that she and her MIT team produced for the Apollo Guidance Computer via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3YJW adapted using the Wikipedia app 🚀

Software engineers (or software developers if you prefer) are one of the most popular roles for graduates (see e.g. figure 7.8) but there are plenty of affiliated roles that computer scientists can choose besides software engineering, here’s a quick summary of some of them:

The links above give some basic information on what these different roles entail, we’ll look at two in particular in more detail in the next two sections, 6.3.1 and 6.3.2

Do you want to be a data scientist or a data engineer? Will you scientifically ascend into a heavenly future or descend into an engineering hell-hole of eternal damnation? Animation by The Simpsons adapted by an anonymous uncredited source on the interwebs. (Groening 1989)

Figure 6.4: Do you want to be a data scientist or a data engineer? Will you scientifically ascend into a heavenly future or descend into an engineering hell-hole of eternal damnation? Animation by The Simpsons adapted by an anonymous uncredited source on the interwebs. (Groening 1989)

6.3.1 Research software engineering

There are plenty of roles in computing working in research, either in computer science, or working alongside natural scientists, such as physicists at home.cern or laboratory scientists working at the bench. For example, there are lots roles in research software engineering (RSE), using code to facilitate better scientific research, see the Society of Research Software Engineering: society-rse.org. (Woolston 2022; Bell 2023)

CERN employs ten times more engineers and technicians than research physicists, see figure 6.5. For physicists to understand the data that pours off the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), you need armies of engineers to enable the scientists to do their work. A lot of those engineers are working on hardware and software, and many of them won’t be physicists. (Hull 2020)

Many scientific laboratories like CERN employ lots of software and hardware engineers. Computation isn’t just a fundamental part of physics, it is key to all the natural sciences so wherever you find scientists, you will also find research software engineers. Fair use image via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/4qmF adapted using the Wikipedia app 🇪🇺

Figure 6.5: Many scientific laboratories like CERN employ lots of software and hardware engineers. Computation isn’t just a fundamental part of physics, it is key to all the natural sciences so wherever you find scientists, you will also find research software engineers. Fair use image via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/4qmF adapted using the Wikipedia app 🇪🇺

Some examples of science laboratories in the UK and Europe that employ computer scientists is shown below:

These are mainly UK opportunities, but it is a similar story around the world. Many Universities and research institutes have summer internships for computer science students working alongside researchers. For example, at the University of Manchester, summer vacancies tend to be advertised each year around April/May. Wherever you are, speak to the head of a research lab you’re interested in. Ask them if they have plans to take on summer students.

Paul Richmond was interviewed by Nature about the society-rse.org and why science needs more research software engineers. (Woolston 2022) Screenshot of an original tweet @Nature.

Figure 6.6: Paul Richmond was interviewed by Nature about the society-rse.org and why science needs more research software engineers. (Woolston 2022) Screenshot of an original tweet @Nature.

If you’re thinking of doing postgraduate study, see chapter 16. Commercial experience gained on a summer internship or placement year is valued by all employers (not just commercial ones) so doing an internship or placement during your undergraduate degree is valuable wherever you end up, see section 16.3.

6.3.2 Freelancing and contract

It is very common for organisations to employ software engineers and other technical staff as contractors, for fixed periods of time (weeks or months), rather than as permanent employees (typically years). Consequently, there is lots of work available in freelance and contract work. The sites below could help you bid for work available as a self-employed contractor and freelancer

  • toptal.com You need to interview to get invited to join the network
  • upwork.com Can be quite heavy on fees but lots of leads
  • freelancer.co.uk A lot of international competition, but still plenty of work
  • fiverr.com another marketplace for freelancers

The key to getting contract and freelance work via these websites is to get good reviews. You could start out by offering low prices and bidding on smaller projects to get a good reputation before starting to focus on larger, higher paid projects. Beware that if you are going to use the sites above you’ll be paid a low rate as you’ll be competing with freelancers in countries with much lower costs of living. Having said that, any freelance or contract work will look good on your CV if you’re competing with students who have no paid experience at all, not even casual work. Some pros and cons of freelancing are shown in the table below.

Table 6.1: Some pros and cons of freelancing, adapted from a talk by Paul Waring. (Waring 2017)
Pros Cons
Can have greater control over work Fewer employment rights, no pension, no annual leave
Can have a variety of clients and work Limited cover for sickness, emergencies and redundancies
Can facilitiatemore flexible working conditions, hours, workload and location renting and buying property can be more challenging for self-employed people

To find projects where you can work directly with the client (without going through a broker or agent), a good place to start is attending local meetups. Organisations like technw.uk, meetup.com and eventbrite.co.uk etc are all good places to start looking.

Other good leads are friends and family, can you develop software or hardware that solves a problem that your friends or family have? You could charge them “mates rates”, to get your business off the ground.

6.4 With great code comes great responsibility

Whatever kind of Computer Scientist you decide to be, you might find yourself wielding significant power and responsibility. We know that:

The greater your code, the greater your superpower. The greater your superpower, the greater your responsibility. What powers does computing give you and how can you use that power responsibly? (Shapiro et al. 2021) With great code sketch by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

Figure 6.7: The greater your code, the greater your superpower. The greater your superpower, the greater your responsibility. What powers does computing give you and how can you use that power responsibly? (Shapiro et al. 2021) With great code sketch by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

Given the growing power of computing in the twenty-first century, computer scientists have a duty to society to use that power responsibly and justly. How can they do so? For example, recent advances in Artificial Intelligence have raised many ethical questions. (Hogarth 2023) According to some people (see figure 6.8), the people that control AI, could potentially rule the world or save it. (Andreessen 2023)

According to Putin, whoever becomes a leader in Artificial Intelligence will become the ruler of the world (Putin 2017). Whatever you think of this point of view, there is no denying that AI and computing can give it’s creators lots of power, responsibility and (sometimes) wealth. Ex-Googler Geoffrey Hinton puts it another way: “It is hard to see how you can prevent the bad actors from using it (AI) for bad things”. (Metz 2023; Heaven 2023) This isn’t just the case in the AI but many other fields of AI’s “conjoined twin” of computing. (Haigh 2023) CC-BY licensed portrait of Vladimir Putin by kremlin.ru on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/6bRD adapted using the Wikipedia App 🇷🇺

Figure 6.8: According to Putin, whoever becomes a leader in Artificial Intelligence will become the ruler of the world (Putin 2017). Whatever you think of this point of view, there is no denying that AI and computing can give it’s creators lots of power, responsibility and (sometimes) wealth. Ex-Googler Geoffrey Hinton puts it another way: “It is hard to see how you can prevent the bad actors from using it (AI) for bad things”. (Metz 2023; Heaven 2023) This isn’t just the case in the AI but many other fields of AI’s “conjoined twin” of computing. (Haigh 2023) CC-BY licensed portrait of Vladimir Putin by kremlin.ru on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/6bRD adapted using the Wikipedia App 🇷🇺

Since there’s so much power and money tied up in computing, do computer scientists need to sell their soul to the highest or most powerful bidder for their services? How can computing be used to make the world a better place, not just making rich people richer? Or powerful people more powerful? This is not a book about ethics in computing, (Reich, Sahami, and Weinstein 2021; Gotterbarn et al. 2018) but lets look at some of these questions in more detail.

6.5 Do you need to sell your soul?

You will sometimes hear people saying you need to sell your soul to get a job, shown in figure 6.9. See for example:

In European folklore, doing a deal with the devil is a recurring theme. Wealth, power and knowledge are some of the items that might be traded for a persons soul as part of diabolical deal. Will you need to sell your soul to the devil to get the job you want? Public domain image of an engraving by Adolf Gnauth showing Faust doing a deal with Mephistopheles on Wikimedia Commons at w.wiki/3zio adapted using the Wikipedia app 😈

Figure 6.9: In European folklore, doing a deal with the devil is a recurring theme. Wealth, power and knowledge are some of the items that might be traded for a persons soul as part of diabolical deal. Will you need to sell your soul to the devil to get the job you want? Public domain image of an engraving by Adolf Gnauth showing Faust doing a deal with Mephistopheles on Wikimedia Commons at w.wiki/3zio adapted using the Wikipedia app 😈

So when you’re searching for jobs and researching potential employers, one of the first things you need to find out is what the values and ethical principles of an employer are, see section 11.4. This is a quick way to evaluate what makes an organisation who they are. Most employers publish their values and ethics openly, here’s a small selection to give you a flavour:

Morgan Stanley is an American multinational investment bank and financial services company headquartered in New York City. The firms clients include corporations, governments, institutions and individuals. CC-BY picture of Morgan Stanley HQ in Times Square by Ajay Suresh on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3Vnt adapted using the Wikipedia app

Figure 6.10: Morgan Stanley is an American multinational investment bank and financial services company headquartered in New York City. The firms clients include corporations, governments, institutions and individuals. CC-BY picture of Morgan Stanley HQ in Times Square by Ajay Suresh on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/3Vnt adapted using the Wikipedia app

Let’s look at Morgan Stanley (figure 6.10) as an example, I’ve chosen these values because they are brief and self-explanatory. Morgan Stanley’s values are to:

  1. Do the right thing: act with integrity
  2. Put clients first: listen to what the client is saying and needs
  3. Lead with exceptional ideas: win by breaking new ground
  4. Commit to Diversity and Inclusion: value individual and cultural differences
  5. Give back: serve communities generously with expertise, time and money

Look at these values carefully, or choose the values of another employer you’re interested in. What do they mean to you?

Do an employers words match their actions? The words Don’t be evil are easy to say but harder to action. Good intentions are often easier said than done.

So back to our original question, do you have to sell your soul?

  • You don’t have to sell your soul (I. Brown and Squire 1989)
  • It depends what’s in your soul anyway
  • If you need help doing some soul searching, see chapter 2

6.6 Computing the future

The human race faces some huge challenges in the 21st century:

The overwhelming scientific consensus is that our climate is changing much more rapidly than we’d like. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) we are less than twelve (now eight) years away from being unable to rectify our mistakes. As Greta Thunberg put it, our house is on fire. (Thunberg 2019) How can computing address this, and other global grand challenges that the human race faces in the 21st century? CC BY portrait of Greta Thunberg speaking at Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts in 2022 by Ralph_PH on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/5sEK adapted using the Wikipedia App 🔥

Figure 6.11: The overwhelming scientific consensus is that our climate is changing much more rapidly than we’d like. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) we are less than twelve (now eight) years away from being unable to rectify our mistakes. As Greta Thunberg put it, our house is on fire. (Thunberg 2019) How can computing address this, and other global grand challenges that the human race faces in the 21st century? CC BY portrait of Greta Thunberg speaking at Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts in 2022 by Ralph_PH on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/5sEK adapted using the Wikipedia App 🔥

How can computing be an ethical force for change that improves the lives people everywhere, not just those that are lucky enough to be on the wealthier side of the digital divide?

  • How can computing make a difference?
  • How can YOU use Computer Science to make the world a better place?

Here are some examples to get you started:

Are your algorithms fair or are they perpetuating biases against minority groups? Dr. Joy Buolamwini founded the algorithmic justice league to unmask harms in algorithms such as those used in facial recognition and voice recognition. CC BY-SA portrait of Dr. Joy Buolamwini by Niccolò Caranti on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/5Jar adapted using the Wikipedia App. Thank you Dr. Joy Buolamwini for permission to use your picture.

Figure 6.12: Are your algorithms fair or are they perpetuating biases against minority groups? Dr. Joy Buolamwini founded the algorithmic justice league to unmask harms in algorithms such as those used in facial recognition and voice recognition. CC BY-SA portrait of Dr. Joy Buolamwini by Niccolò Caranti on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/5Jar adapted using the Wikipedia App. Thank you Dr. Joy Buolamwini for permission to use your picture.

How will you use your superpowers of computing we mentioned in section 4.3 to make the world a better place?

6.7 Breakpoints

Let’s pause here. Insert a breakpoint in your code and slowly step through it so we can examine the current values of your variables and parameters.

* PAUSE ⏸️
  • How closely do a given employers values align with your own? You may need to revisit section 2.2.4.
    • You might not get a 100% match but you’re unlikely to enjoy working for an employer where your values don’t match very well at all
  • Are the stated values of an employer the whole story?
    • Are there any unwritten or unspoken rules?
  • Is there anything missing?
  • How much do an employers actions match their words? What an employer says and does may be contradictory. Actions speak louder than words
  • What can computing do to tackle global challenges described in section 6.6
* RESUME ▶️

Once you’ve thought about these questions, you stand a much better chance of working out if a given employer is a good match for you. So do you have to sell your soul as shown in figure 6.13? It depends on what you value and if an employer shares those values with you.

Here’s a dilemma: Do you need to sell your soul to your employer? If so, how much can you get for it? What percentage stake of your soul will they ask for and how much are you willing to give? How do your values align with those of your employer? Soul selling dialog box sketch by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

Figure 6.13: Here’s a dilemma: Do you need to sell your soul to your employer? If so, how much can you get for it? What percentage stake of your soul will they ask for and how much are you willing to give? How do your values align with those of your employer? Soul selling dialog box sketch by Visual Thinkery is licensed under CC-BY-ND

6.8 Summarising your choices

Too long, didn’t read (TL;DR)? Here’s a summary:

Your future is bright, your future needs choosing. Choosing your future will help you design your future. Designing your future will help you to start coding your future.

This chapter has looked at the choices and options available to you as a student of computing. Each of these choices are starting points, directions rather than destinations, so you don’t need to get too hung up worrying if they are the right choice for you in the longer term. As Bill Gates puts it, your life isn’t a one-act play, see figure 6.14.

“The five things I wish I was told at the graduation I never attended. The first thing is, your life isn’t a one-act play. You probably feel a lot of pressure right now to make the right decisions about your career. It might feel like those decisions are permanent. They’re not. What you do tomorrow—or for the next ten years—does not have to be what you do forever.” —Bill Gates (Gates 2023) If you’re bewildered by the choices outlined in this chapter, don’t be. Try something out and if you don’t like it, you can easily change direction because its one of the opening acts of your career, not the whole play. You can read the other four things Gates wishes he was told in his commencement speech at Northern Arizona University. (Gates 2023) Public domain mugshot of college dropout Bill Gates aged 22 in 1977 by the Albuquerque Police Department (Ibrahim 2022) on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/6icm adapted using the Wikipedia App

Figure 6.14: “The five things I wish I was told at the graduation I never attended. The first thing is, your life isn’t a one-act play. You probably feel a lot of pressure right now to make the right decisions about your career. It might feel like those decisions are permanent. They’re not. What you do tomorrow—or for the next ten years—does not have to be what you do forever.” —Bill Gates (Gates 2023) If you’re bewildered by the choices outlined in this chapter, don’t be. Try something out and if you don’t like it, you can easily change direction because its one of the opening acts of your career, not the whole play. You can read the other four things Gates wishes he was told in his commencement speech at Northern Arizona University. (Gates 2023) Public domain mugshot of college dropout Bill Gates aged 22 in 1977 by the Albuquerque Police Department (Ibrahim 2022) on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/6icm adapted using the Wikipedia App

In the next part of this guidebook, chapter 7: Computing your Future we’ll take a broader look at why computing is a subject for everyone, not just Computer Scientists.

If you’re studying Computer Science as a major or minor part of your degree, you can probably skip this chapter which is aimed at a more general audience and go straight to chapter 8: Debugging your Future which will help you identify and fix bugs in your written job applications.

This chapter is under construction because I’m using agile book development methods, see figure 6.15.

Just like the Death Star, this galactic superweapon book is under construction using agile book development methods. Image of agile weapon engineering in Star Wars via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/5N6q adapted using the Wikipedia app

Figure 6.15: Just like the Death Star, this galactic superweapon book is under construction using agile book development methods. Image of agile weapon engineering in Star Wars via Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/5N6q adapted using the Wikipedia app