A few months ago, I finally got around to something I'd been meaning to do for literally years - join Toastmasters! I love planning presentations and writing speeches. I enjoy having serious discussions in meetings of various participant sizes. But I hate standing up in front of people. There's something about the standing and all those eyes on me that makes me nervous. Even just sitting makes the nerves completely disappear - for five years I taught a course with a colleague. The number of participants ranged from 5 to 35 and I would spend three long days lecturing my co-workers on modeling. But I was never nervous - because my colleague and I sat down at the front of the room behind a desk, in stead of standing in front of some Powerpoint slides.
So I finally got around to something that should help, or at least mediate, the nerves. While my time already feels stretched, with a semi-abandoned blog and a never-ending to do list and a calendar that's never been busier, I realized this could be a two-birds type of a thing - Toastmasters and the blog! So here is my first speech. I'm giving it this week, so constructive criticism is welcome but if it's too extreme (this is complete garbage, Nicole), please keep it to yourself.
For my Toastmasters Icebreaker and to introduce myself, I decided to use a question we’re all familiar with - What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? When we’re little, it’s a question that inspires us and leads to daydreams and fantasies. We can be whatever we want to be! Then we get to high school and college and first jobs and the question starts to become real and a bit daunting as it leads to university choices and major selections. For me, the answer has evolved from ‘doctor’ to ‘software engineer’ in a way that, I promise makes sense, and that I will now share with you.
When I was a little kid, in that fantasy, day-dream stage, I wanted to be a doctor. It was a profession I was somewhat familiar with. A doctor got to help people, contribute to society. Save lives and explore science, technology, and medicine. It seemed like a challenging, interesting, and rewarding profession. For several years, ‘doctor’ was my answer to the question What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up. But then I hit middle school and started to appreciate a different perspective. Helping people and saving lives was great. But what about the people you couldn’t help, the mistakes you might make? What if I failed to diagnose something or made the wrong call during a procedure? I could hurt someone or worse. That seemed like a lot of responsibility to a middle schooler. Fortunately, at this time, my parents finally got cable and I discovered Law and Order and my solution – pathology. Pathologists only work on deceased individuals and tissue samples! You can't hurt a tissue sample or a dead body. So I would be a pathologist. I could help the living by diagnosing the dead, provide solace to the dead's family, and maybe even help put a bad guy behind bars (Hello, Law and Order).
But then I transitioned to high school and started to look into pre med college programs. That question, What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up, started to take real shape. It wasn’t just a fantasy any more, but manifesting in high school curriculum and college prep decisions. Suddenly finishing high school, then four years of college, then medical school and residency, seemed like a lot. I pictured myself at age 30, ancient and still studying, still not contributing to the world. I took a step back and re-evaluated and came up with a compromise - biomedical engineer. I could still help people by working in the medical field. I could still explore science, technology, and medicine; still be challenged and rewarded. But, it only required a four year degree!
And then I did it, I enrolled in a biomedical engineering program. To me, an engineering major made so much sense. The job title is right there in the name of the degree ‘engineer!’ There was a clear path, unlike something like English or History. But then, my freshman and sophomore year, I started to see the older students graduate. And the world seemed to open up again as they went into government or industry, taking on any variety of roles in RnD. Or going into an MBA program and business. Field services and sales. Law school and patent law. Or, yes, even med school and medicine. I thought I had started to answer the question What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up by picking a college and a major but that didn't seem true when I saw what my older classmates were doing with their degree. Then it was my turn as I reached my senior year. I graduated college in early 2009. Which was about the worst time you could graduate college. My classmates all took one of two paths – continue in the safe, protective bubble of academicia for a few more years in an extended degree, or take whatever job you could get in industry. I chose the latter. For the prior two years, I had interned at a medical device company as a systems engineer. I had enjoyed working at the company and was proud of the stuff the company made but there weren't any systems positions open at the time. There was, however, a software engineering entry level position open, if I was interested. I remember interviewing for the position. The hiring manager asked me if I was passionate about software, if it was where I saw myself in the future, even though it wasn't as related to biomedical engineering as something like systems engineering. The adult versions of What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up, basically. I smiled and nodded, thinking that I was graduating in two months and had student loans and the economy was tanking, so sure, I could be passionate about software.
I got the position and started as a software engineer. And luckily, it was just the right position for me. I had an incredible manager and mentor who helped guide me in my role, someone who still helps guide me in my career today. I enjoyed the products and the team, my role in the development process. And I really did become passionate about software – it’s place in the product, the architecture and design, the interfaces and interactions, and of course, my favorite, the user experience. Software engineer wasn’t a job that I knew existed when I first answered that question, What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up, several years ago. But I’m so glad that’s where I’ve landed. And today, as I continue to learn more about software development and the industry, I realize that I’ll never stop asking myself that question or that my colleagues and I will ever stop asking of each other. The exact wording of the question may change and the answer certainly will, but it's a question we should never stop asking.