Engineering a Career Change via the ARC/BCS Program

Jody LeBlanc, now a Database and ERP Systems Administrator with SAP, laughs as she recalls her initial thoughts about computer science. “When I was in high school, computers were still relatively new and I was one of those people who was a little bit afraid of them. Actually I didn’t really want to touch them!” She did love science, however, and she had a particular interest in math. Enjoying the outdoors as well, she participated for four summers during high school in the Ontario Ranger program. Administered by the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Ranger program brings teens together to clear hiking trails and canoe portages, plant trees, and provide campground maintenance in the province’s parks.

Jody’s twin interests in math and the outdoors led her to the Forest Engineering Program at the University of New Brunswick, then and now the only Canadian university to offer such a program. An intensive five years, the program appealed to her because it had such a strong applied science component. In it she took a variety of science and engineering courses, including mechanical engineering, wood science, and design. In the end, drawn to the prospect of good jobs in the forest industry, Jody concentrated on forest operations, learning to design roads and bridges that would be used by foresters.

Her instincts were good, and on graduation she was offered a job with Cascade Forest Engineering. Moving to British Columbia and with Salmon Arm as her home base, Jody began work as a forest engineer, designing roads and bridges in areas to be logged and delineating boundaries of cut blocks in the forests. The work was challenging and interesting, but it wasn’t without its drawbacks. For one, Jody spent a considerable amount of time in the field, estimating she was in the forest for 70% of the summer and 20-30% of the winter. Living in tents, camps, and hotels, she couldn’t count on having a stable home life. The work was physically demanding as well and she found it “hard on the body and wearing me down.”

During much of her time with Cascade, the company had been outsourcing its computerized mapping to other companies, but in the sixth year of Jody’s employment they brought those jobs in house and assigned them to Jody. Talking with mapping experts at other firms and generally teaching herself Microstation, ArcView and ArcInfo, Jody began to be curious about the deeper workings of computer programs. Despite her initial misgivings about computers, in college she had actually done some programming. “At the time the courses were taught in FORTRAN, which is an ancient language. I was very surprised that I actually really enjoyed them and I thought, well, if this forestry gig doesn’t work out then maybe computing would be a good thing to try at some point.”

The forestry gig was in fact proving hard in a larger sense as well, given that by that point the industry was in a slump. Considering her options, Jody knew that if she stayed with her current job she faced continued work stressors and lack of a stable home life. Making a lateral move in the industry wouldn’t work given the bleak prospects overall. And though she was enjoying the use of mapping software, she was finding it a bit repetitive. Increasingly wondering “what’s going on underneath [the program]?” and “how do they design these things?,” she realized she was really interested in switching fields in order to investigate computer science. Researching her options, she found numerous undergrad and a few interesting masters’ programs, but her eye was drawn to the UBC BCS program (called ARC at the time). In the ARC program she would be able to take the same courses offered by similar undergrad programs but in a condensed, 20-month format, and without electives requirements. As well, since it offered substantial co-op opportunities, the ARC program looked like a terrific choice.

Jody found the switch from industry into ARC a challenge. As she recalls, she was one of the few members of her class who had moved from industry; most of the other students were transitioning directly from a previous degree or moving from another country looking to retrain in a different field. In the first term she took three courses, but remembers feeling as if it were a full course load because the experience of attending classes and completing labs and assignments felt so new after having been out of school for so long. What helped a great deal was the small size of the program, with some classes having as few as ten students and some composed solely of ARC students. The department also provided a dedicated group of TAs and special tutorials. And finally, professors readily made themselves available for office hours. Jody recalls seeking them out on many occasions, remembering that she “probably drove some professors crazy!”

What Jody did enjoy about the move into the program was recognizing the difference between her undergrad experience and the ARC experience, feeling she had a bigger and better perspective on what she was studying, and why. “When I did my first degree, it was more about the experience of being in university, the social side of it, less about the school and more about having fun and being away from home and being in a different place. This time around I knew what I wanted and I was much more focused on trying to understand the information they were teaching me.”

Like most other ARC students, Jody took advantage of the co-op program and after two school terms she did her first of two co-op placements, working for a geologist who was developing software for the geology industry. In the four-month placement with his small startup, Jody helped develop a web application that tied into ArcView. Drawing on her forestry mapping skills, Jody found the placement a good fit, though it reconfirmed that her original decision to leave forestry was sound because she was ready to branch out in other directions. Jody’s second co-op experience took place in the much bigger workplace of Business Objects (now SAP). There she worked as a Systems Application Developer for eight months on their “Tools Team,” developing applications such as bug-tracking, requirements management, and time-tracking tools to be used internally in the company.

Of the co-op program Jody is enthusiastic, noting that the co-op office coordinated all of the details of the placements and made the process of landing a position relatively easy. She particularly enjoyed her second placement, as by that time she’d had more classroom experience and so had more options in the workforce. On the issue of the coursework-workplace mix, Jody feels the ARC/BCS program is excellent. “The timeouts into the workforce helped with the coursework. It put a lot of the school work into perspective, when you actually go into a real world situation and see, ‘yes, these things I’m learning in school are actually useful to know when I get into the workforce.’ I found something very different in forestry, where you learned a lot in school and it was a little more conceptual. Then once you got into the job there was a lot of stuff on the ground that you just learned by doing and that you couldn’t really get in school. In computer science…it was definitely what you were learning in school applied directly to what you were doing.”

After completing the second placement, Jody returned to the program, where after four months of coursework she completed the degree. Business Objects then hired her as a full-time Systems Applications Developer. One of her responsibilities was to  integrate Business Objects’ business intelligence software into the tools she was developing. With business intelligence software, a customer can create reports, charts, dashboards, and graphs, using customized data and making decisions from that data. In addition to developing such software in house and selling it to customers, Business Objects also uses it internally. In the bug-tracking tool, for example, a developer might want to know how many bugs he or she has been assigned for fixing, when are the fixes are due, and how many have been fixed in the last month.  

After two years as a Systems Application Developer, Jody made a lateral move into the  role of Business Intelligence Analyst. In that role she helped manage the internal deployment of the Business Objects Enterprise System, helping to oversee system administration tasks such as monitoring, sizing, upgrading, and troubleshooting hardware and software issues. “When a company uses its own software it’s referred to as ‘drinking your own champagne,’” she notes with a smile.

Further reason for champagne drinking occurred in 2007 when Business Objects was acquired by SAP, a German company based in Walldorf, Germany. Jody’s position was unchanged after the acquisition, but now rather than working for a company of 5,000 she was part of a workforce of 50,000 employees. Wanting to understand the new corporate environment, Jody applied for and was accepted into an internal six-month fellowship program. The program encouraged employees to move around within the company, and Jody opted to move straight to Walldorf, where she worked as a Board Assistant for a SAP executive board member, researching material for speeches and keynote presentations and preparing briefing materials for customer meetings. SAP was at the time also initiating a shift in its corporate culture to help improve employee satisfaction, and to that end Jody helped collect and distill survey data and then roll out a project to promote improved employee participation.

While she was in Germany, Jody’s original team in Vancouver got restructured and on her return she wasn’t sure that she wanted to return to her role in that group. Fortunately she was given the opportunity to become a Product Manager with the Cross Product Management Team, a group that assisted in a large, company-wide initiative to improve the security of the firm’s installed base and new product releases. In that role Jody worked with other product managers and software developers to implement a number of process and technical changes that have been defined to improve security. In this position, Jody found she was playing more of a project management and less of a technical role, a move that she felt played less to her strengths. With that in mind, in the spring of 2011 she took on the job of Database and ERP Systems Administrator. In the future, she notes, she may look to expand on her skill set by engaging in roles that require more people and project management, but for the time being she’s thoroughly enjoying her position as a technical specialist in the firm.

When she’s not working hard at SAP, Jody is playing hard, enjoying ultimate and indoor volleyball games with fellow SAP colleagues and playing for a women’s field hockey team in Vancouver. One of the things she misses about forestry is being outside, so she devotes time to hiking in the mountains near the city. She’s also in the process of training for her first half-marathon.

Reflecting on the ARC/BCS program, Jody notes that, “mine is a definitely positive experience. I’m really happy that I made the decision to do it. It was not an easy decision to make by any means. I mean, to quit your job, to have had some stability and then find yourself back in school, a different world with no income…it was certainly not a decision I took lightly but it really paid off in the end. Not that I didn’t enjoy what I was doing when I was in forestry. I had a great time in forestry but I got to a point where I needed a change, and this really ended up fitting as that change that I needed.”