Growing up, I really enjoyed math, so when I started college in 1962 at the University of Chicago I was a math major. I loved calculus and related subjects, but as the math courses I was taking got more and more abstract - e.g., algebra, projective geometry, topology, - I realized that pure math was not for me. What I enjoyed most about math was its more applied side, the side that you used to help you solve problems in a variety of disciplines. So, I switched my major to physics, and eventually left the U of C with a Ph D in physics in 1970.
But a career in physics was not for me either. I did my graduate work under the supervision of Professor Clemens Roothaan, one of the pioneers in scientific computing, back in the early days of computers, when they were viewed as suspect by many established scientists. Toward the end of my graduate studies, when it was time to look for a job, I realized that I enjoyed the computing side of my work more than the physics, and thus I switched fields once more and became a computer scientist. Professor Roothaan was a consultant to IBM at the time, and through him I met a number of computer scientists from IBM who encouraged me to interview for a job at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center. I did, and ended up joining the computer sciences department of IBM Research in June of 1970.
During my first several years at IBM I continued to do fairly academic work, now in computer sciences. It was OK, but not great. It was not until the late 1970s when I became involved in more applied systems projects, that I discovered my true passions. I loved complex systems, both their design and analysis in the lab, and the challenges of bringing them to market. In particular, I loved working on disruptive, new system ideas like parallel supercomputing, the Internet, and cloud computing - the more complex and innovative, the better.
If I look back at the arc of my career choices, I went from contemplating becoming a mathematician to finally settling down to essentially being a complex systems engineer. While all the careers in this spectrum of choices are technical in nature, they are very different, calling for significantly different skills. At one end, you have the purer mathematicians, who are generally very deep and relatively narrow in their fields of interest. That end of the technical career spectrum tends to attract people who are very good at abstract reasoning as well as highly focused in the pursuit of solving a problem. As I learned, this is not what I was cut out for.
At the other end of the spectrum, - the one where I finally landed - you have engineers, especially those engineers working on complex, marketplace oriented systems, like the ones I have been involved in over the last thirty years. The skills required for such technical careers are generally quite broad. You have to be good at technology, but also at understanding markets, organizations, people and management. Rather than being a deep expert in any one component of the problem, you have to be good at holistic thinking, where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. You have to be comfortable working on ill defined problems, and on highly complex, integrated systems whose properties will tend to be unpredictable or emergent.
While struggling to find my bearings in my late teens and 20s, I seriously contemplated switching out of a technical career altogether until I finally found myself in my early 30s. Looking back, I am grateful that I hung in there, and have ended up having a fulfilling, stimulating and varied technical career.
But, I wonder how many young people end up not pursuing technical careers even though they have the skills to be really good at some of them given the wide spectrum of choices. I worry that many young people, who like me are attracted to science and technology because they are good at math, end up giving up altogether on technical careers once they discover that the math has gotten a bit too abstract for their liking, not realizing that such abstract math is not required in the vast majority of technical careers.
I am afraid that this is particular problem with blacks, Hispanics and other minorities that are under-represented in technical careers, perhaps because the students and their families don't have the role models that would give them a more complete view of what technical careers are really like and the many choices available to them. Women have also been under-represented, although the situation has been changing, as more and more of them are now pursuing technically oriented careers, especially careers related to biology. I was happy to learn that the number of women undergraduates at MIT is now approaching 50%, and the number of engineering majors is over 35%. The national average for women engineering majors is under 20%, so we still have lots of work to do.
What can be done to better acquaint young people with the large number of systems oriented technical careers we would like them to consider? I think the answer is simple to state, but very difficult to implement. We need to introduce the concepts of systems thinking in core courses in high school and college, right alongside math courses. We need to develop courses that introduce students to systems methods and applications in a variety of industries - health care, supply chains, media and entertainment, retail, finance and so on. We want to make sure that the systems courses emphasize design - perhaps the more holistic part of systems - as well as analysis.
If balancing the view of technical careers by acquainting young people with both the math and the systems ends of the spectrum would help us attract and retain more of them to such careers - why is it so difficult to make it happen?
I think this is due to the conservative nature of education. Up and down the line, from K - 12 through college and graduate school, educational programs change very slowly, and seem to be somewhat insulated from the forces of the marketplace that most other industries need to pay attention to in order to adapt and survive.
This is a very tough problem. But given the central role that technology now plays in just about all fields, and its major role in innovation, economic development and job creation, this is a national challenge that we need to continue to push hard on.