Y'know, I'd really like to be a luthier.
May 13, 2007 11:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm a college sophomore on my way to a CS Major / Religion Minor. Apparently my initial career options (just from that major) are a little bit better than my English-major friends. But I'd much rather make interesting things than work in a cubicle. How do I do this?

My school offers a little bit of engineering, but it's basically a physics minor. Not incredibly practical, but somewhat. What inspires me are companies that make things that are useful and really change lives. iPods, wah pedals, guitars, zoom lenses, etc. A company like Frog Design, I'd kill to work at. How should I go about this? Is it possible / practical / worth it at all? I'm thinking of attempting to get into an HCI program, maybe at CMU, but I know that program is nearly impossible (I have a 3.9 major gpa, but outside of my major it ain't so hot).
The thing is, compiler construction and algorithm analysis just annoys me. And computer science (as opposed to engineering) has a whole lot of that. I'd like to have a tangible effect on the world. But... how? Also, I have some business classes, and some art talent.
posted by tmcw to Education (13 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
The best resource that I can recommend to how to find the answers and then make it happen is Barbara Sher's Wishcraft.
posted by metahawk at 11:27 PM on May 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

You can definitely put that engineering knowledge, coupled with your art/liberal arts background, in a few positions:

1. Product/Program Management at a software firm - you won't have to code, but the engineering knowledge will be helpful when understanding where the engineering team is coming from. If you have a strong sense of HCI, this can help you with feature design and some UI work, which leads to...

2. Straight-up UI work. Not all companies require HCI degrees for User Interface positions - a portfolio or a strong sense of process (along with good instincts) can get you just as far in some companies.

3. Product Design - you alluded to this in your post. PD positions (at least at the firms I've seen my PD major friends apply for, like Frog, IDEO, etc) are very difficult to get into, especially without the relevant background. However, it certainly isn't unheard of for people with CS backgrounds with artistic talent to work at these firms, so it's certainly worth a shot. Doing a year of design school would boost your chances, as would developing a portfolio (taking one of the above two jobs might be more relevant in the short-term)

Hope that helps - I have a similar situation, majoring in CS/HCI but not necessarily wanting to go into full-time coding.
posted by mikeyk at 11:30 PM on May 13, 2007

Hmm, you sound a lot like me (although I don't care about the useful part so much as the fancy part...I'm not entirely convinced of the usefulness of an iPod or zoom lens as opposed to a pacemaker, say, but they're definitely fancy). I'm graduating with my CS major in *checks watch* five weeks and taking the most stereotypical CS job imaginable.

I think that if you want a job making fancy things, you are going to have to work pretty hard at it, and it's probably more valued to have experience and demonstrated "passion" than any kind of real education. Everyone wants to make something fancy, pretty much, so in order to actually get hired you need to be able to demonstrate that not only do you want to make a fancy thing, you know how and have successfully done it.

I've decided that probably I'm going to work in my CS job for a while and work on learning art skills and making skills and such in my spare time. If I'm content with living that way then I will, otherwise I'll have done enough hobby stuff to know where my skills lie and what I really need to do in order to get to where I really want to be. In other words, computer science has taught me the debugging skills to apply to my life :)

Have you had any work experience coding, btw? I can almost guarantee you won't do much algorithm analysis or compiler construction in a typical CS job. In fact, if you make consumer software, you may well be working on something that has a tangible effect on the world. It sounds like what you really want is to make something with a physical presence in the world, in which case, yes, CS is probably not going to stop being unsatisfying.
posted by crinklebat at 11:31 PM on May 13, 2007

Best answer: Maybe you should take a serious look at luthier schools. If your heart is set on high tech, maybe take that What Color is your Parachute (a book with good advice, among many other things, of targeting particular jobs in particular companies) approach and seriously investigating your "dream jobs," unhampered by assumptions about what you can really manage. Try to find people from inside the relevant companies (former or current) who will communicate with you.
posted by nanojath at 11:43 PM on May 13, 2007

Looked at industrial design as a path?
posted by kaydo at 3:40 AM on May 14, 2007

Don't worry, you still have hope!! College perpetuates this myth that whatever you choose as your major will radically determine the rest of your life -- and to a certain extent, this is true. It's a lot easier to, say, become a nuclear engineer with an undergraduate degree in physics than 19th century French lit. That being said, you always have opportunities to choose a new path. I myself have moved from ex- political science scholar to user interface developer, while I have a friend who has made the even more radical switch of history major to med student. So don't ever worry that you are "locking yourself out" of a future that will make you happy -- there are always opportunities to change your life, so long as you are willing to learn and work really hard.

All that being said, you are in an excellent position right now to pursue the goals you listed here. Keep the comp sci major -- while a good amount of what you're learning might be incredibly boring / uninteresting to you, keep in mind that what you'll be applying in the real world are the core skills, rather than any academic exercises. Keep driving ahead with courses outside of Comp Sci. Try to learn about whatever interests you. I find that with the positions you're interested in (UI design in particular), a liberal arts background with strong technical skills / aptitude is the desired combination. If you have any interest or skill, try to take at least one visual art class.

Finally, you're making a great start with this post here. Ask questions of EVERYONE you can who works in the field. Most people will be more than happy to help you. Network, network, network. It'll not only help you get a job, it'll help you know what exactly you want to do with yourself when you graduate. You're a sophomore -- you have plenty of time!

Good luck!
posted by SanctiCrucis05 at 4:42 AM on May 14, 2007

Above answers have focused on the value of networking, and diversifying your technical classes. To complement that, I really recommend adding some fundamental business classes to your n-year graduation plan. Having enough grounding to run your own business can be done on the fly, but there's also a lot to be said from taking Marketing 101, Accounting 101, etc. Depending on the type of school you're at, they may even have classes through an extension department that are geared towards professionals starting their own businesses.

Where does this fit in with your question?! A little business background means that when you have a good idea, you can take it and run with it.
posted by whatzit at 5:20 AM on May 14, 2007

With a CS/religion combo, there's only one thing to do: start printing out the Nine Billion Names of God.
posted by adipocere at 5:46 AM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Luthiery Schools.

There are also universities and colleges out there that have good solid programs in Engineering Technology, Industrial Design, and CS with an HCI focus. If those are closer to what you want to do, what are you doing in a program without those things?

Especially since a computer science is only a marginally useful as a vocation-focused degree, and a good chunk of it seems to be annoying to you. :)

You're a sophmore. Until you're a senior, it doesn't make sense to finish out in a program you've found your interests diverge from. Look around and don't be afraid to switch tracks, especially as early as you really are in the game.
posted by namespan at 7:29 AM on May 14, 2007

Best answer: tmcw - don't take this as weird, but if you're still around Williamsburg, I'd be interested in grabbing coffee and chatting with you. I've got some ideas for you. My e-mail's in my profile.

If that's not helpful, no worries.

But I would say that the advice (upthread) to take some business classes is good (on-preview ... looks like you've got that covered). W&M's business program does a good job of career prep. Sadly, the liberal arts departments there do a terrible job of it. You won't get ID recruiters at the career fairs, but sticking a foot in the business major's world (anathema to me as an religion major undergrad) is a smart move. I'm actually not sure if you have to be "in" the business program to take the upper-level classes, but you can look into it. Maybe up-sell the b-school powers-that-b (der) on the benefits of inter-disciplinary cross-pollination.

Also (and maybe this is moot ... I think you said before that you'd be in Williamsburg in the summer?), any ID / HCI internships you can get would be really helpful. Maybe too late for this summer, and the killer ones ... IDEO, Frog, Adaptive Path, et al. ... will probably be taken. If you aren't committed yet this summer, you might contact the companies hiring here, to inquire about internships.

Finally — and if you haven't seen this yet, you might pee yourself — but Stanford's d.school looks phenomenal. If I were you, I'd be shooting for that as my post-college plan.

But, again, if you want to grab coffee and chat, I'm local.
posted by Alt F4 at 8:50 AM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Thank you, tmcw, for posting this question. It's very timely as I find myself in a similar position now.
posted by nilihm at 9:55 AM on May 14, 2007

Alt-F4 or tmcw, feel free to shoot me an email if you have any questions about the Stanford dschool - I'd be happy to tell you about pros and cons and what the best way to get involved with it is (for example, it's not a degree granting program, so you have to be doing a Master's or PhD in something else to take classes there - on the other hand, if you're in the Stanford Product Design program, you'll have amazing classes anyway and probably won't be in too many dschool classes)
posted by mikeyk at 10:57 AM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think, in time, Ask posts auto-close, right? Well ... before that happens ...

tmcw - Haven't heard from you, and no worries on that. Just so you know, that's a standing invite to get in touch. I'd hate for, two years from now, for you to be all "oh, it'd be handy to get in touch with him now, but I never did before, and now it's awkward." I'm holding lightly to the offer, and if I never hear from you, I won't be offended. But should you decide to get in touch down the road, cool.

And, mikeyk, thanks.
posted by Alt F4 at 2:18 PM on June 15, 2007

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