A BCS Degree Helps Merge Twin Interests in Social Policy and Technology
When you ask Frank Hangler about his interests, you see him pause for a moment, as if wondering where in the world—literally—he should begin. When he does, he launches into an array of subjects, each one ripe for discussion: world history, music, Canadian health policy, cooking, the relationship between social media and social movements, European travel, web design, dot-com startups, architecture, wine, backpacking,—is there not a topic on which he’s at least conversant, and quite likely very knowledgeable? “I’m afraid I can spend hours on Wikipedia,” he admits ruefully, “just getting lost in the links.”
Interested in many things, but particularly focusing on history and literature, computer science, and chemistry in high school, Frank entered UBC and elected to study political science. “I was interested in how people work together in a variety of settings and I wanted to understand how to apply what I was learning to some of the many social problems facing the world.” Finding much to like in his studies at UBC’s Department of Political Science, he helped launch and become an assistant editor at the peer-reviewed UBC Journal of Political Studies. Frank spent his third year at UBC on exchange at the University of Nottingham, where he continued his studies. Taking that year expanded his outlook and offered new avenues for exploration and learning, and not just in the classroom. “The great thing about the British educational system is that they have long breaks between semesters, so I got to travel around Europe.” By this time he was becoming increasingly interested in political philosophy and had begun contemplating graduate work in the field. At the same time, he was hesitant to head straight into a PhD program without having any experience outside of academia.
Complicating his decision was the fact that computer science was exerting a draw on his interests again. While studying at UBC, Frank had developed his programming skills by designing and maintaining class and personal websites for Dr. Alan Jacobs, for whom he worked as a research assistant from 2003-06. Though he enjoyed this experience a great deal, he felt limited in what he could do. “I’d done some programming ever since high school, and I knew HTML and CSS, but I really didn’t know much at all about how to build a fully-functional web application, with all its technologies—databases, web programming languages, and servers.” This was frustrating, as he’d begun to really enjoy his role in managing websites and facilitating online communication and in applying what he was learning in political science to these online realms. “I was getting really interested in the kinds of questions that are coming up in the age of technology. ‘Is there such a thing as technological progress?’ ‘Can social media be used as a democratizing force in the world?’ and so forth.” He also found that he was increasingly drawn to understanding how people interact in business settings.
The decision wasn’t completely a slam-dunk, however, as Frank was cautious about the idea of leaving the study of political science, in which he’d invested so much of himself. (Indeed, given that he’d received both the 2005 Goel Prize for Outstanding Scholarship in Political Science and the 2005 Political Science Gold Medal for the graduating student with the best departmental average, it’s clear this was time well spent.)
In the end, the career options afforded by the BCS program were enticing enough that Frank decided to go for it. He entered the program in the fall of 2005 and from the start found it exciting and challenging. “The program really was exactly as advertised. All of the BCS students were pulled together into a single class. We were a very diverse bunch from a range of backgrounds. None of us had any significant computer science training, so in that sense we were all in it together.” Frank had never found math to be among his strongest suits, but this wasn’t an obstacle in the program. “Despite the fact that there are plenty of courses like algorithms and data structures, courses that are more theoretical, you don’t have to be a math genius to be in BCS,” he notes.
What he found very appealing in BCS was its ability to deliver to students a first-rate co-op work experience. Frank did two co-ops during the program, looking for (and finding) in each a substantially different set of experiences. His first co-op placement was with Business Objects (now SAP-Business Objects) of Vancouver, where he was hired in the fall of 2006 as a software developer. There he worked on a test automation team that programmed test cases to interact with Business Objects’ software packages andevaluatingevaluatewhether and how those packages were working as specified. In this role he ported existing test driversintonew environments to automate the testing of various web applications, set up proof-of-concept prototypes, developed and implemented test cases and test sets in Java, developed test frameworks, and wrote extensive project documentation. “This was my first full-time job,” Frank notes. “I worked in a large company and learned a great deal. I saw, for example, that the type of programming work I was doing was valuable. I also realized but it wasn’t quite the kind of work I wanted to do full time. And I recognized how much I still had to learn!”
After finishing the BCS degree in spring 2008, Frank was hired by TELUS as a Developer/Analyst and enrolled in TELUS’ Business Transformation Leadership Development Program (BTLDP), a program oriented toward recent computer science and computer engineering graduates. In the BTLDP, a new employee undertakes one year of Quick Wins work followed by three or four six-month rotations on other projects. Quick Wins projects—which interestingly enough were co-developed by UBC CS graduate Juanita Lohmeyer --are small projects that can be rapidly developed, with most taking two to six months. These projects are often temporary solutions meant to provide quick return on investment and are typically handled by teams of two to three people. Frank notes that these projects “offer a good introduction to TELUS technologies, products, and methodologies” and as such are a great way for incoming TELUS employees to get an overview of the company and its practices.
In the three subsequent program rotations he’s been able to gain new skills that are orienting him toward new internal ventures with the company. In the first rotation, Frank was a Business Systems Analyst who developed project delivery metrics to assess how well the company was delivering projects to customers relative to its industry peers. In the second he worked in a Project Management Office to help manage a Quick Wins project portfolio of more than one dozen projects. He also developed a new Software Development Lifecycle process for use in Quick Wins projects.
Frank finds the BTLDP a valuable program not just for the breadth of projects available to new employees, but for the flexibility it provides. The rotations are designed to help employees experience various projects that synch up with their interests, so that one employee might focus on technology-based projects like system architecture, while another might gravitate toward less technical areas such as project management or analysis.
It was in his third rotation that Frank seems to have found a near-perfect match for his interests in both technology and in the human scene that surrounds and gives meaning to technology. In this rotation, he works on TELUS’ Social Media Research and Technologies team, helping plan and develop TELUS’ internal and external social media tools. In the first of these roles, Frank helps run TELUS’ internal microblogging site – similar to an internal Twitter–in which employees, from the newest hires to senior VPs, are invited to weigh in and respond to a number of news events and conversations of interest.
Frank smiles as he describes some initial skepticism he had around the use of social media such as Twitter. “I think of myself as being ‘technoskeptical,’ aware of the wonderful possibilities technology brings, but not blindly jumping for a technology just because it exists, and not believing that technology will automatically prove to be a positively transformative tool for humanity. The great thing is that the social media team at TELUS isn’t blindly evangelical about social media, either.” TELUS’ internal microblogging platform provides an interesting counter-example to the popularly-held view of Twitter. With the internal site, everyone knows these are work-related conversations and so are thus much less likely to post about trivial topics. “There’s very little ‘what I had for breakfast’ on the site,” Frank notes. Instead, conversations open up along multiple company-specific topics, including news events that affect the industry. “The way we’ve set it up is that the initial posting is limited to 160 characters, but replies after that can be of any length. We’ve found this to be something of a democratizing force, with VPs posting questions and team members responding and entering the discussion and vice-versa. And it’s interesting that in a lot of cases, the people who have the largest internal following aren’t necessarily those in the positions of greatest formal leadership. It’s opened up the conversation we’re having at TELUS.”
In the second role in this rotation, Frank is developing a customer-facing site in which social media such as Twitter and Facebook are integrated. Though he notes that some companies such as Google allow their product managers to have Twitter accounts, telecoms traditionally have been hesitant about the extent to which they publicly share customer feedback. “Because we provide a service to hundreds of thousands of customers, building capacities into this site and then managing them will be interesting.”
Frank’s experience with the BCS program has helped situate him in an exciting place in the marketplace of technology and ideas—his latest self-study is to try to understand why certain IT startups succeed and others fail—and he’s certain that this can be the case for prospective students entering the BCS program. “For anyone considering IT, the BCS program is a standout. It’s a relatively quick investment of your time and it can be tailored to your own interests. In my experience, at least, companies treat the BCS degree as they would any other computer science degree, so having it makes a person very marketable. IT skills are relevant everywhere these days and many of those skills are transferable between jobs as well. And what’s more, starting salaries are quite high across the industry. All in all, the program sets you up for a lot of opportunity in the future.”