James Turk

Reflections On Four Years

[another old one, only lightly edited (despite inclination to delete the entire thing) - from shortly after I left RIT]

I graduated in May from Rochester Institute of Technology with a degree in Computer Science although I’m sure it still hasn’t finished sinking in. I decided to write a bit for self-reflection on my time there, and hopefully it will be of benefit to others in similar situations.

Four years ago I went to RIT to study computer science, but not unlike most college freshman it wasn’t long until I felt that I’d perhaps made the wrong choice. The CS courses I was taking simply weren’t challenging or holding my interest, and I’d narrowly chosen going to school for computer science over something like political science. I have enjoyed programming since I was 13 and it has always been something that has come fairly easily to me, but after my first year in college it occurred to me that perhaps it wasn’t what I truly wanted to do with my life.

At RIT, CS majors are required to do four quarters of co-op before graduation, which are typically either done at local Rochester companies or at the big software companies. I had decided to wait until after my first co-op before transferring to a political science program elsewhere, so I wanted to try to make that first co-op count. In 2006 I compiled a list of over 20 political organizations and managed to get in touch with most of them to find out if any had need for an intern with my skills. It turned out several did have internship programs, but mostly for more typical internships, nothing that would count for my co-op requirements. It did occur to me that it would have been much easier to apply via the school’s "JobZone" that listed hundreds of jobs I was eligible for but seemingly none that fit my interests.

I ended up finding a co-op with Project Vote Smart, a non-profit that collects information on politicians and candidates. There are a couple things that are important to note about working on the dev team at Project Vote Smart: it is a very popular site that gets massive traffic in election years, the development team is extremely small (a third would be that it is based in Montana, but that doesn’t come into play in this discussion). These details meant that this massive site was basically being written and maintained by just three people. This was a great opportunity as it meant that I wasn’t given the typical grunt work given to many of my peers on their first co-ops. Being the only intern on a small team meant that I was given a large amount of responsibility, and after a few weeks I had proved myself and I was given a fair deal of autonomy. Working there proved to me that coding 8+ hours a day can be fun and rewarding even when it isn’t on the most exciting application in the world.

Of course, I decided to continue to pursue my CS degree, with the hopes that I could complete it in two more years and if I wasn’t happy with CS then go on to grad school for something else. In the next two years at RIT I added minors in public policy and political science and my coursework generally improved. I also worked at a more typical co-op once just to give it a try (it was worse than I had imagined, which is a story for another time). In the summer of 2007 I did another co-op at Sunlight Labs, then a relatively new creation of the Sunlight Foundation that proved to be the perfect place for someone like me that has straddled the politics/technology fence and wished there were more people thinking about how to bring the two together.

I stayed on at Sunlight as a consultant for my last year at school and now that I’ve graduated have made the move down to DC to work in what is perhaps the best possible place for someone with my skills and interests. Any regrets I had early on about choosing computer science over political science are long gone.

One of my reasons for writing this post is that my brother is on the verge of entering college and like virtually everyone else at that age, he isn’t entirely sure what he wants to do. I know five years ago when I was applying to colleges I spent a lot of time fretting over where to go/what to study, but I think what I’ve learned from all this is that what really matters is finding out what it is that you want to do, not what major you want to have for four years.

There is a lot of advice out there about choosing a major, ranging from "go with what you love even if you can’t think of a purpose for it" to "pick the degree that will get you the best job." I suppose if you define "best job" as job that allows you to fulfill your potential instead of earn the most money, then my advice would be a combination: to pick the thing that you love that will help you find a job that maximizes your potential.

This is a hard equation to get exactly right, and I’m not convinced that many people can find that in the short amount of time that they are at college. I suppose the good news is that we tend to live and work for about four decades after our four or so years in college, so there’s plenty of time to work on finding that balance.