Field of Study: 
Human Centered Design & Engineering Graduate Student

My name is John. I'm a PhD student in the Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE) at the University of Washington, and I hope to complete my program within the next three years. I received my bachelor’s degree in HCDE with a concentration in human-computer interaction (HCI) as well. The field of HCDE works to explore and understand the way that human needs and abilities influence the design of new systems and technologies.

Why are you interested in computing?

Sharing information has become a vital component in our daily lives. Computers interest me because they are the intermediary that allows this sharing to happen. In many ways, we are still in the infancy of the digital era, and our future is still being shaped by the computing work that's being done today. If that's not something to get excited about, I don't know what is!

My dream job would be conducting research and development of novel input devices and assistive technologies. In the past, I always thought I’d work in industry, but recently I have warmed up to the idea of staying in academia. Most of the HCI research I'm passionate about lies within the realm of accessibility, and it tends to be conducted in academic institutions.

Does your disability affect your education?

I have a neuromuscular disease called spinal muscular atrophy, which severely weakens most of the muscles in my body. One of the really awesome things about studying a computing-related field is that my studies aren’t very affected by my disability. I use assistive technologies such as speech recognition and other alternative input devices to interact with the computer, and I use a powered wheelchair to get around. With these technologies, my disability hasn't proven to be an obstacle. If anything, the biggest impact that my disability had on my studies was that it motivated me to go into HCDE in the first place. My passions are interaction design, user experience design, and accessibility, as all three of these things have major bearing on the success or lack thereof encountered by disabled individuals attempting to use technology. Currently, I’m researching the accessibility of videogames in terms of their input and interaction.

What can I do while I’m in high school if I want to pursue a career in computing?

One of the earliest things that you can do as a high school student to prepare for a career in computing is to learn the fundamentals of programming. Notice that I didn't say to learn a specific programming language. The world of development is constantly evolving and shifting, and because of that, it's much more important to have a solid grasp on the high-level ways in which programming works than it is to know a particular language inside and out. Now, admittedly, the best way to do this is to pick a programming language and start poking around. It doesn't matter what language you pick, just that you do—and the sooner the better.

Another incredibly valuable thing you can do is find a mentor. Having someone in the computing field that you can talk to is an immense asset. Have a question about work in the industry? You can ask it. Do you have some ideas about what areas you might want to pursue? You have someone to bounce them off of. It can be helpful if this mentor actually works in the area of computing that you're most interested in, but it isn't necessary. You definitely shouldn't feel like you need to wait to reach out until you have your career figured out. Finding a willing mentor can take time, but it's definitely worth the work you put into it. And with AccessComputing, you have an excellent resource at your disposal to get this conversation going.

Above all, the most important thing you can do to get ready for a career in computing is explore. The digital world is a fascinating one, and you'd be amazed what discoveries you can make by digging around. Try to figure out how and why things work the way they do and, in some cases, try to break them! The way I learned most of what I knew about web development coming out of high school was to peek "under the hood" of websites and see how they worked. Modifying or “modding” games helped me learn about things like scripting and 3D modeling and animation. High school is a time of freedom and flexibility, which makes it perfect for this sort of exploration. Take advantage of it!

My exploratory drive, more than any other, is a personal trait that I think helped me. Computing is a field that requires continuous learning as it changes around you, so curiosity and a drive to learn are immensely valuable.

Why should I study computing?

The outlook for computing jobs is excellent. The field is constantly expanding, not just because more and more people are needed for the computing jobs that already exist, but because cutting edge research is continuously expanding the boundaries of the field and creating new and exciting opportunities. Computing is one of few fields young and dynamic enough to say that, so it's an excellent place to be.

One of the most compelling things about the computing field is how flexible it is. There are essentially unlimited ways in which it can impact and change the world. I know that sounds like a grandiose statement, but in this case, it's not an exaggeration. Whatever you're passionate about, there is undoubtedly a way in which computing could make a positive impact. My personal motivation to enter the field stemmed from my drive to improve the life experiences of individuals with disabilities. Systems like robotics and communications technologies are still largely untapped resources for this application. By getting into my field, I saw the opportunity to make a difference.

If I could only convey one message to teenagers about computing careers it would be that it's one of the most exciting fields they can get involved with. When a lot of young people I've spoken to think about careers in computing, they have this mental image of sitting in a dim cubicle for interminable periods staring at line after line of code on a monitor. To be fair, this is a part of the computing industry, but it's only one of many. Game development, web design, robotics, informatics, HCI research, user experience design, and countless others all make up field like a mosaic of awesomeness. So choosing computing isn't about locking yourself into a single career track—it's about opening up an entire world of cool and unique possibilities.