First Things First

       It’s been an autumn of firsts.

       I went to my first User Experience symposium a few weeks ago.  It was a good conference, two full days, and I learned a lot and met a number of smart and interesting people.  For me, the first speaker, Scott Berkun, set a positive tone for the weekend with his very first point:

       “Whoever uses the most jargon has the least confidence in their ideas.”

       In short, words matter. Amen.

       My name is David Byrd, a doctoral student in the Information and Interaction Design Program at the University of Baltimore in the United States.  I’ve got two classes and a dissertation to go until graduation. I am not a traditional student.  First, at 54, I’m a bit (read: a lot) older than my classmates, and probably most of you reading this.  Also, I work full-time as a researcher and writer, with some project management on the side—but not in the tech industry. My academic background is in journalism, history, political science, and international studies; math gives me a headache, and I did little to nothing in computer science, or even interaction design or information architecture, before I came to Baltimore. Even my avocation, photography, is a “soft” skill. So, essentially, I am a Liberal Arts guy by disposition and training, in a world—especially here at ACM—populated by techies and STEM types.

       So, of course, that’s why I agreed to write this, my first blog.  No matter the realm, words—plain, straightforward, concise—matter.  More broadly, the skills and perspectives of the liberal arts matter. At some point in this blog I might suggest taking a literature or creative writing class—both of which teach you how effective stories are told, or better enable you to empathize with the stories of others: for example, your customers or users. Knowing their stories is the first step to finding out what they want; being able to convey them the first step to selling your solution. Maybe I will say something about poetry—what else is poetry except finding the exact right word, delivered with the right rhythm and force? All of these attributes are important to information architecture, important to web design.

       It’s not just writing. The best photographs aren’t just images, they suggest or tell a story. Philosophy teaches us, among other things, different ways to look at the same problem.  Sociology provides a perspective on other cultures, and lets us know what’s important to them. History tells where people came from, and from this, perhaps, we can learn where they want to go.

       So I’ll jot down my experiences with these and other topics here, and try to show where it applies to the world of technology development. I think the perspective you receive will be a little different than most.

       I hope to hear from you, whether on Twitter or email, or drop us a comment at the blog.  Let me know what you think, whether I make sense, whether I’m off in left field somewhere, whether I shouldn’t write after that second glass of Pinot.  I can always use a little SOS in my endeavors, so just give me a shout.  Hopefully we can start a conversation that helps you as well as me.

The Internship Hunt

Around this time of year many students look for summer internships. Some want work experience so they can land a better job after graduation. Others hope to advance their research or improve their academic qualifications. Everyone appreciates the extra cash.

I’m now in my third year as a theory PhD student. Last summer I interned at a financial company and this summer I will intern at a tech firm. Because I had worked in software a number of years before grad school, I was not looking for job experience. My motivation (besides the extra cash) was to get a taste of working on research projects in industry. Also I find that immersing myself in “real-world” problems from time to time adds breadth and perspective to my theory research.

Whatever your motivations for seeking an internship, here are some suggestions that I’ve found useful.

Start early. This is mostly common sense so I won’t belabor the point, but consider this: crunch time at the end of the semester is busy enough without having to prepare for tech interviews, crank out a programming exercise, or schedule on-site visits. What counts as early varies, so ask the places you’re interested in.

Use your network. As pointed out in Lora Oehlberg’s recent blog post, your personal network is the first place to look for job opportunities. My first internship in high school, my first job out of college, and my internship from last summer all came through personal connections. People you know who work at a company you’re interested in can help you through the process and even vouch for you. If you know people who’ve done an internship you’re thinking about, talk to them about what to expect.

Practice. I was nearly eliminated from consideration for my internship last summer because I wasn’t prepared for the first tech interview. A friend of mine in the entertainment software industry told me that whenever he goes on the job market, he expects to flub his first interview from lack of practice. I’m not suggesting you should plan to flub interviews; just know that doing well on a tech interview takes mental readiness.

How do you practice? This is where advice from your connections (see previous point) comes in handy, especially from fellow students who have gone through the process before. I’ve found that working through online programming contests or problems at Project Euler helps get me into game shape.

Be candid and upfront. It’s tempting to be cagey with potential employers about competing offers, availability for the summer, or other constraints. Don’t do this. Last spring I interviewed with two companies and got two offers. I was forthcoming about this during the process, so when I had to turn one company down, I was able to keep the door open for the future. That company offered me a position for this summer, and the recruiter specifically mentioned my candor as a factor.

Do you have ideas for successful internship hunting? Cool internship experiences you want to share? Let us know in the comments.

Welcome Theory Student Bloggers

Several new bloggers will be joining the XRDS student blog over the next few weeks, expanding its scope to theory related stuff and beyond! Welcome, and looking forward to your posts (posts tagged “Theory” will appear on the theory of computing blog aggregator).

The XRDS blog has been up and running for six months now, with posts written by and for CS students on a range of topics (security, HCI, being a post-doc in Paris to name a few…). The motivation behind the blog is similar to the one described here – to help carry the conversation for the student community, a place to share thoughts and get up to date. If you like the idea and would like to support this initiative, please add us to your blogroll.

Tomorrow – internships!

An American Post-Doc in Paris: Settling In

After finishing my dissertation in the fall, I recently moved to Paris to do a post-doc with an HCI research lab. In my first month in France, I’m finally getting the hang of things. If you’re at all interested in studying or researching abroad, here’s a bit of logistical advice to get you off the ground:

As always, networking is the best way to find a position.  Like most post-doc openings, mine was more a matter of meeting my now-boss and agreeing upon a research topic than it was applying to a job opening online.  I did ultimately apply officially online, but I was still able to check in with my contact to see how things were coming along.  And, even if you meet someone who’s not in your field, they may still be able to point you towards colleagues who need research help.

Do not underestimate bureaucracy. Perhaps it’s just a French thing, but I’ve found that there are many, many layers of bureaucracy required to settle into functional, non-tourist living in another country.  While I’ve had a lot of help from the administrative staff at my research lab, it’s still a bit overwhelming sometimes – I started keeping a flow chart to track what documentation I needed to apply for the next layer of documentation.  After getting a scientist/researcher visa at the French consulate in San Francisco (level 1), now that I’m in France I can apply for my carte de séjour (residency permit – level 2).  After I have my carte de séjour, I can apply for national health care (level 3).  And this doesn’t even include just finding a place to live – Paris is like New York, where rental agencies manage the market (and charge an additional fee for their services). They also require a hefty amount of documentation for anything beyond a 3-month “vacation” rental – bank account information, tax forms, 3 months of pay stubs, etc.  I ultimately found a short-term apartment  where I could stay while I build up the requisite paperwork and look for a long-term apartment

Don’t let language stop you.  Most major conferences are in English – which means that most research groups either already speak English, or have a vested professional interest in improving their English.  My research group is very international – France, United States, Germany, Chile, Mexico, China, Brazil – and so we communicate on our linguistic common ground, English.

Do use the opportunity to learn the language around you.  While professionally I work in English, I try to talk in French as best I can with the people around me on an everyday basis.  I was fortunate enough to have learned pretty good French in high school, and am functional enough to order food at a restaurant, explain to a salesperson that I’m looking for a powerstrip by dancing around a word I’ve not learned yet (turns out, le multiprise) and describing its functionality instead, and chit chat with the woman next to me on the métro about what I’m knitting.  I’m still looking for a proper French class, but in the meantime I’m expanding my knowledge of French by eavesdropping on my French coworkers’ lunch conversations and watching dubbed episodes of “Les Simpson” on TV with closed captioning turned on.

Do you have any advice on the nuts and bolts of doing research internationally? Any particular topics you’d like an American-post-doc-in-Paris to address? Comment!