Thursday, January 02, 2020

A Brief Career Memoir

Blame Mike Zamansky for this one. In my last post I mentioned that I am planning on retiring from the classroom this spring. Mike wondered how my perspectives have changed over the years and through different aspects of my career. Now my career (so far) has four main parts. I worked in the computer industry, mostly developing software, for about 18 years. After a big layoff I went into teaching for about 9 years. Microsoft hired me away to work with educators. My job was to promote Microsoft products for teaching computer science. I spent 9 years there. Seven of them awesome. Management and priorities changed and I found myself leaving Microsoft and after a brief hiatus returning to the classroom seven years ago. It’s been a ride for sure.

During my first 18 years I didn’t see computer science as something for everyone. Education was important and I was involved. I was on the board of a private Catholic K-8 school for 6 years. I was twice elected to 3 year terms on the local public school system’s budget committee. I mostly saw computers and something students needed to be literate in. That meant applications. I believed, and still do, that computer applications can be powerful learning and teaching tools. I saw computer science mostly as vocational. It was, after all, my vocation.

After a layoff, the school I had been on the school board for hired me “while I thought about what I wanted to do” as a part time computer teacher. For the most part, in K-8, that meant typing and computer literacy. I picked up another part time role at a K-6 school and worked at those two schools for a year. My son was in a private Catholic high school and one night at parent teacher conferences I had a long talk with their computer science teacher. I started teaching there the next school year. I stayed for eight really goods year.

I was hired to teach HS CS in 1995 and it was rare for a high school to have one computer science teacher let alone two. But the administration believed that computers and computing was important. It was important to parents as well and we developed a good program. We still taught a lot of computer literacy and applications use but we were having some fun teaching real computer science as well. I still saw it mostly as an elective though.

We moved from a mini-computer (PDP-11 running RSTS/e) to PCs during my first few years there. I posted about many of the changes were were making to curriculum and tools to social media (mostly email lists of course) and caught the eye of someone at Microsoft. We were using Visual Basic for programming and Office for applications. This lead to some side gigs with Microsoft as I helped other teachers learn about teaching CS with Microsoft tools. I got a lot of training and previews of software during that time. Microsoft was developing the .NET Platform and the C# language both of which I adopted for my own use. In my eyes, C# fixed the things I didn’t like about Java.

Microsoft was forming a new group of what they called Academic Developer Evangelists whos job was to promote Microsoft platforms and tools to university professors.  Eventually they hired me on. Note that I joined Microsoft because I believed that Microsoft tools were good teaching tools.  My combination of technical knowledge and education experience was a natural fit for one of these rolls. Over time I expanded my portfolio from New England Universities (I joked that my territory was from Dartmouth to Yale) into high schools.

Computer science was growing in high schools and I really wanted to help make that happen. In my role at Microsoft I was able to give away a lot of software and help create free curriculum resources. I also met with teachers all over the country. The big lesson that I tried to bring back to corporate was that teachers wanted to teach concepts not tools. Curriculum had to be content and concept based not product based.  Sure you need to know the tools and I did a lot of workshops on using them. Using the tools to teach concepts was more important to me, and still is, than the tools themselves. I like to think that the resources we created and gave away were help in teaching more than the tools themselves.

During this time people were starting to talk about computer science as being more than vocational. Not so much at companies but by educators. Microsoft saw computer science as the environment that they lived and did business in. They saw promoting computer science education as not to provide them with more workers, they could get all they wanted, but to help their customers and prospective customers get trained people for their businesses. Still pretty vocational of course.

Others, ACM and the fledgling CSTA were starting to promote CS education as being more about understanding the world around them. I really wanted to be involved in CSTA and I was. I was lucky enough to serve on the conference committee for a couple of years. I have no doubt that my being at Microsoft was at least responsible for that but I didn’t care. I was involved. The conference was and is important.

When I left Microsoft I ran for and was elected to the CSTA Board. That was awesome!

Microsoft moved on in priorities but happily  they gave a lot of support to Kevin Wang and the TEALS program he created. My perception is that Microsoft’s support for K12 CS has moved from product based to supporting CS education more broadly. MS Philanthropies made a huge contribution to CSTA not long ago. I still wish they had someone in my old role but that’s life.

But I digress. 

Leaving Microsoft  and returning to the classroom was interesting. Over the previous years I had met, talked to, learned from, and made friends with CS educators all over the US. I was anxious to bring what I had learned from them into my own classroom.  I was also starting to see the need to computer science to move from the vocational to the core of a good liberal arts education. My years at Microsoft had let me see how teachers were doing more cross curricula learning. Bootstrap, perhaps being the best example – learning math and programming/computer science as mutually supportive. Emmanuel Schanzer is one of my heroes for his work at Bootstrap. So how do we make computer science relevant for everyone? And how do we get schools to make the learning happen?

Over the last decade I have been privileged to work on a couple of curriculum initiatives. The ACM/IEEE CS 2013 Task force which gave me great insights into higher education curriculum and the broad field that Computer Science has become. The  K12 Computer Science Framework which really opened my eyes to the possibilities of computer science before high school. I was also a part of committees who put together CS Teacher certification and K-12 standards for the state of New Hampshire.

It’s been a journey but I see computer science as a lot more than a vocational track in schools. With things like artificial intelligence, Machine Learning , virtual and augmented realty, big data, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things growing in importance in our daily lives I see understanding CS as being as important as understanding some basic physics, chemistry, biology, and yes, even math.


Garth said...

Meeting you back when you were a MS Evangelist was one of the best things to happen to me as a CS teacher and to my school's CS curriculum. Not just the free stuff but more importantly the ideas. Thank you.

Learning about bees said...

Enjoyed reading your bio.