Finding Visual and Other Rewards in a Career in Computer Science

Many of the profiles on this site showcase the ways in which BCS students use computer science skills to make radical shifts in their careers. For Roula O’Regan, the shift involved taking her then-current career, graphic design, and altering and transforming it so that the pleasure of the graphic product would still be there, but with a different and deeper sensibility surrounding it. Her story as well is one that showcases the kinds of transformations young professionals increasingly make as the economy shifts from manufacturing to service, with information technology playing a key role in the transformation.

Roula has long been attracted to aesthetic pursuits. As an undergraduate at UBC, she majored in art history, delighting in the diverse course offering in the Faculty of Arts: Scandinavian theatre, for example, and the history of jazz and film. Wanting to look further into the commercial arts, upon graduation she took publishing and editing courses at SFU and then did an internship at Vancouver Magazine, where she worked on a feature article on male prostitution in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. The article earned her and her colleagues a National Magazine Awards Foundation Silver Award for Words and Pictures. Cognizant that her strengths lay with the visual arts, she decided to try her hand at graphic design and undertook the Certificate in Media Arts Core Studio program at the Art Institute of Vancouver, where she learned Adobe Creative Suite and other design programs.

Getting some graphic design software under her belt helped propel her to her first job, that of graphic designer and brand specialist for AMEC Americas, Ltd., an engineering, project management and consultancy company. At AMEC Vancouver, Roula worked for over three years as a graphics and media designer primarily in the mining and metals and business development units of the company. The job proved quite diverse, with Roula managing small and large projects that required graphics content, designing internal and external custom proposals, brochures, and itinerary booklets. Because she was the brand guardian of the Americas and took direction from the firm’s head office in London, she was responsible for supporting other graphic designers and business units in the Americas, ensuring that their work correctly followed established brand guidelines. At AMEC employees were encouraged to sign up for classes and Roula took every opportunity she could to learn new programs, studying Maya, a 3D application, and Adobe Flash. In addition, the job paid well and provided her with financial security.

Nevertheless, she began to feel a certain flatness with the work. “I really feel like I learned so much there, but after awhile the work itself wasn’t really that interesting. I had all these great soft skills, but I felt I was just reproducing the same product.” In thinking about her options, she came to the somewhat dispiriting recognition that her employer wasn’t the problem but that the work itself wasn’t that exciting in the long run. “I felt like, ‘well if I go to another graphic design company, I would still be limited to print.’ That got me interested in looking at the software I was using, which was visual, it was helping me achieve my tasks, and it was a complete user experience.”

Because she was getting interested in design software and thinking about how she could learn more about the technology of design, she was primed to notice the UBC website and its description of the BCS program. “I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. That’s for people like me who want to bridge their previous expertise with computer science.’” Interviewing with the department, Roula learned that her math background wouldn’t be sufficient for entry to the program. “I didn’t know how to plot a line on a graph,” she recalls ruefully, so she signed up for Math 12 in an adult education program. In September 2007 she began the BCS program and with that, she notes, “I haven’t looked back.”

From the start Roula really enjoyed the BCS program and she largely credits the faculty for making the experience so compelling and challenging. “The instructors want you to succeed! You really feel it. The students’ success is their success. The people really make the department,” she notes, warmly recalling in particular the guidance of instructors Kimberly Voll and George Tsiknis. The first year of the BCS program passed uneventfully, and then in April 2008 Roula took two simultaneous second year courses in a six-week summer session. She and other students found this extremely stressful, feeling as if they weren’t absorbing the material because it was coming at them too quickly. When they talked with CS administrators, they found that their concerns were taken very seriously. Today in the BCS program, those two courses cannot be taken simultaneously during the summer session. Roula notes, “I was really impressed that they listened. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really cool.’”

Like other BCS students, Roula applied for the co-op program for the start of her second year, but in an interesting twist she ended up not taking any co-op positions. This was because her fiance (now husband) was studying architecture in Los Angeles and she wanted to be near him. Applying to become an exchange student—the first ever in the BCS program—Roula studied for a year at U.C. Irvine, which has a reciprocal arrangement with UBC. She took 11 computer science courses there and had a great experience. Upon her return she talked with instructor Ed Knorr about one of her Irvine classes that had most impressed her, and he noted his interest in developing a similar course at UBC. Again Roula was amazed at how much the department is willing to listen and learn from other people’s experiences in hopes of fostering a better department. “Now I’ve sampled different computer science departments and taken 14 different courses at UBC with mostly different teachers and I can say that UBC really is amazing.” She also saw just how much the effort on the part of UBC faculty is matched by student energy and commitment. “I feel like the students’ concerns are taken seriously here. There’s a lot of student awareness and student buy-in here at UBC,” she says.
Back at UBC in June 2009, Roula applied for and received an NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award for the department’s Sensorimotor Computation Lab. This job allowed her to transition into an academic workplace where she did her first-ever programming, helping to develop the user interface for a 3D viewing panel that produced photorealistic renderings of musculoskeletal systems generated by a biomechanical simulator.

As the BCS program graduation neared, Roula found she was nervous about her job prospects, but her worries were unfounded. For one, the department provides excellent support for student job searches. Career Planning and Placement Coordinator Diane Johnson offers a variety of job placement and presentation skills workshops, and Roula took many of them during her time in the department. In the spring of 2010 Diane posted an ad for Method Studios, a Vancouver-based visual special effects firm whose credits include Salt, Red, and Invictus. Roula responded to the posting and was quickly contacted. Though the firm didn’t have a position immediately open, they wanted to stay in touch with Roula, who then worked for the department as a camp instructor for the first Tech Trek Computer Science Summer Camp.

The summer over, Roula’s contact at Method noted that she was eligible for an internship with the company, which she then took, and shortly thereafter in 2010 she was offered a full-time contract. As a Pipeline Technical Director (TD for short) with the company, Roula and her team work to insure a smooth workflow among the various specialist departments that develop visual special effects for the film industry. Building an efficient infrastructure for these departments is labour-intensive work, but it results in an error-free process for the artists, who are often working in parallel with each other on the same individual frames in a film. Ensuring that these frames all synch up correctly during the film’s special effects development is essential. Occasionally the workflow is interrupted by some unforeseen glitch or error. When this happens, Roula’s team works to patch the problem. The daily goal is to streamline work efficiency and keep the artists from having to worry about intricate details of the process. “We just want them to press a button so that they can just concentrate on the visuals looking great and not be burdened by these details. ”

When Roula reminisces on her thoughts about computer science prior to the BCS program she laughs. “I thought that CS was all about some nerd hacking into a computer doing all these nerdy things. They’re sitting all by themselves in a dark room, they’re really antisocial, and they’re coming up with these crazily intricate and ingenious programs. But what I see now is that this kind of behaviour isn’t sustainable in the workplace. The most important thing working on a team is communication and documentation. Employers won’t hire developers with poor communication skills. Plus, employers want simple coding solutions, not convoluted ones.” She also has had a chance to re-think her views of herself and her skills and capabilities. “I always thought math was really scary, but I really felt like with BCS I conquered my math fear. I went from not being able to plot a line to solving quaternions and non-linear equations and programming these algorithms, too!”

And more than that, the BCS program gave this visual person a new outlook on what she can accomplish and how she can get there. “My goal is to have design and technology merge. Before I wouldn’t have been able to do the technology end, but now with the degree, I can find more solutions to design problems, whether it’s a beautiful image or a great user experience. Technology was just a dark cloud to me before, but now I know how to navigate in that cloud and I’m not intimidated by it any more.”