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What excites and interests you about technology?
It was a pretty standard, harmless, and overall banal question that you would expect from a phone interview. However, when I reflected on the question, I drew a complete blank. It wasn’t a matter of too much information rushing to my consciousness rendering me unable to answer the question thoroughly. I simply blanked completely on one of the most common and easiest questions asked in a job interview.
In any other situation, I likely could have improvised some ad-hoc testimony on how “I’m excited about the ways that new technology can be applied to solve complex problems in the real world.”, sprinkled with an assortment of bromides, and wax poetically as an optimistic futurist. However, the realization that I didn’t have a real sincere answer to the question took me completely by surprise.
Here I was, four years into my software development career which followed roughly seven years of undergraduate and graduate work in the realm of Computer Science and I couldn’t seem to conjure up a sincere and thoughtful response to “What excites and interests you about technology?”
This wasn’t the first time I had been asked this question. Over three years earlier in my career, after officially accepting a job offer, my new boss brought me into his office and essentially asked the exact same question and similarly my answer was lacking. I rolled the question around in my head for a few minutes to see what stuck and then delivered some testimony about mobile applications for diet/nutrition tracking since I had been using such an application recently. It was incredibly underwhelming.
Why was this question difficult to answer? Was there really nothing that just excited me and held my obsession in the area of my professional work and academic study? Why did I pursue and/or continue to pursue Computer Science if there was nothing that excited me or deeply interested me in Computer Science?
I feel like the majority of people who view software development and Computer Science as a means to an end would simply develop a stock response to the question and move on; and there’s probably nothing wrong with this perspective and approach. For these people, software development is simply their job and generally doesn’t hold their interest outside of their professional lives. Honestly, it provides a great balance to the other common archetype in the software development profession, the individual who defines almost every aspect of their being and character through their love for Computer Science and programming.
It also wasn’t like I was the type of individual who had graduated into a programming role only to find that the actual act of programming for a living was at best tediously boring and at worst a mind-numbingly tortuous affair. I enjoyed programming. But if you asked me, What excites me about technology?
I don’t really have an answer.
So I decided to dig a little deeper. Why did I decide to major in Computer Science? Well, like many, I wanted to design and develop video games. I wanted to start my own video game development company. According to my middle/high school career research, to develop video games, you needed a degree in Computer Science (ignoring the different game development specialized programs such as DigiPen that I also researched during this period).
I actually decided against pursuing a degree specific to Game Development because I thought it would ultimately pigeon hole me into a category, whereas a degree in Computer Science would be much more general. As I went further along in these college years, the focus on game development eventually slipped away. My interest in video games, themselves, slipped away. Horror stories of work conditions and oppressive environments coupled with relatively poor salaries sapped what little interest I had left.
Did my focus re-align to some new technologically challenging and relevant area?
Not really. Other areas of life took center stage in my mind. School became a matter of studying enough and working hard enough to do well in the courses. When I left the classroom and homework or studying wasn’t a matter of concern, I didn’t get this mental itch to read up on the latest technology news or immediately start plowing through tutorials on the latest framework. I didn’t run out to participate in the nearest Hackathon event. Computer Science was essentially the means to an end, where the end was to get a college degree that would eventually result in a well-paying job. The same routine followed me into my professional career.
No wonder I didn’t have a good answer to the question of what excites me about technology.
How do I fix this?
Let’s start with the premise that you’re not immediately dismissive to this idea. That you’re earnestly seeking some component of technology, particularly Computer Science, that you’ll be genuinely interested in beyond the confines of “It’s my job…“. It doesn’t have to be some static interest, it can and probably will change; however we want to never be caught with the inability to answer what excites you as a software developer. You should always have a genuine and comprehensive answer for this softball question. Essentially, how do I regain the passion I had for Computer Science, or for some, how do I develop that passion in the first place?
Let’s look at two approaches to this:
Approach 1 - The Integrative Approach
Looking at your existing hobbies and interests. Which ones have the best opportunity for an intersection with technology. This approach hinges on the idea that it’s much easier to segue into an interest in a specific area of Computer Science from an existing interest rather than trying to organically create an interest from the ground-up.
But depending on your hobbies or interest, this intersection may not be very pronounced.
For example, if your hobby is personal finance or market trading, there’s plenty of opportunities to study and build a specialization in both Fintech and/or the application of data science on high-frequency trading models.
If you enjoy art or animation, you may find that building a specialization in different graphics and animations libraries such as OpenGL/WebGL may kindle some flame of passion.
However, other hobbies and interests may require much more creativity to marry the two disciplines. How could your interest in outdoors and camping bolster or ignite your interest in some area of Computer Science? Do you enjoy going to the gym? Fitness? Are there any areas of Computer Science that can easily be applied to these existing interests? Maybe. However, it’s not quite as obvious as the examples given above.
Approach 2 - The Discovery Approach
Let’s say that hypothetically, you don’t have any hobbies or interests. It’s more common than you would imagine. However, you want to create a new hobby or interest out of Computer Science. I feel like this is likely to be the most common and natural approach that most people take. They are introduced, either explicitly or implicitly, to a selection of areas in either their academic career or professional career and they find that they gradually become more specialized and interested in a specific area or field as their academic or professional career progresses.
However, in our case, we went through all of these areas and nothing quite stuck. Hence, why we’re in this predicament of being stumped by this question.
Can we resolve this with a more intentional survey of possible areas?
We can start fairly broad, for example:
These are simply just a few very broad areas to gauge even the smallest amount of intrigue. Obviously, these areas will tend to overlap in some capacity.
Once you have chosen an area, drill down to the next level. In this approach, I would recommend that tailoring my information gathering scope at each level. For example, if you decide that Artificial Intelligence sounds interesting enough to warrant further discovery, I wouldn’t recommend starting a comprehensive study plan to exhaust all possible avenues inside the area of Artificial Intelligence. I would start with the most top-level and general information in the area. In doing so, you will get an idea of the other various jumping off points to more nuanced areas of artificial intelligence that would interest you further.
Allow for your natural interest to navigate you in this process. Simply forcing your interest in areas that you’re naturally indifferent towards can make this approach understandably difficult. In a way, you’re trying to naturally but intentionally build an area of interest without forcing yourself to do so. If you drill-down this path and find that your interest levels have either waned considerably then simply back-track to the next level and re-survey the options.
It may take several iterations before you finally settle on something substantial that you can genuinely build excitement and interest around. Granted, you probably won’t ever settle (depending on how far into a specific area you manage to drill-down).
Is it an issue if your interest deviates from your current professional position? I wouldn’t think so. Though, it may result in an eventual career change. I wouldn’t use your current professional position as a primary driver for this discovery process. Just because you’re a web application developer doesn’t mean that you can’t develop a nuanced interest in Mobile Application Development or some area therein.
Do you need to settle on a niche? I think there’s probably a sweet spot between the more broad areas and the more specialized areas within. I’m not speaking in the sense of carving out a marketable skill set (maybe eventually) through this process. If nothing else, this could result in a starting point for locating a niche of specialization in the business-sense. I’m simply speaking about finding some area of Computer Science that you confidently and authentically proclaim excitement and interest about. Turning that interest into a career or business could come later.
Now many may look at the previous approach and think,
Isn’t this similar to what college is suppose to achieve for most?
Sure, but let’s say that for some reason you didn’t get the opportunity to explore this discovery process in college. Maybe there were limited technical electives. Maybe you simply weren’t in the right state of mind to develop this interest. Perhaps, you didn’t go to college and simply went the boot camp route which limited the available avenues of exploration. Maybe you did develop some interest or area of expertise in college, however this interest eventually disappeared (or became deprecate) after college and you’re no longer passionate about that area as you were.
Maybe one of the above approaches can help you avoid the unfortunate situation described in the beginning and rekindle some passion in your life.
For those who are self-described specialists or have a genuine area of interest, how did you come to discover this interest?
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