With unemployment higher than the cast of Snoop Lion’s documentary, creative types in Canada might be reconsidering that medieval poetry degree right about now. But what if you knew there was a highly creative career path out there, one that is in huge demand, with a boulder-solid paycheque to boot?
Software engineering is a rapidly growing field in which creative limits are considered a mere challenge, and demand is sky-high. This means you’re less likely to die of ramen-induced scurvy. Appealing, we know.
If you love to learn, are friends with math, don’t pass up difficult opportunities, and are constantly wondering “what if?” then you just keep right on reading.
Dr. Liam Peyton is an associate professor at the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Ottawa, the first Canadian university to offer a software engineering degree. Peyton has ten years of consulting experience with his own company, MirrorWorks, and says right now, everybody needs software engineers. “They’re hiring computer scientists and computer engineers, or electrical engineers,” he says, “anyone with any experience at all with software, because we don’t have enough people.”
Digital is “eating the world,” you see. Think of that device in your pocket that calls itself a phone, but has replaced your diary, mp3 player, USB, rolodex, alarm clock, book shelf, post office, microphone, GPS, pocket phrase book, and anything else you can think of. Today, anything that can be replaced digitally—from health care records, to classroom lesson plans—will be. “It’s really changing our whole society, the whole world,” says Peyton. “And if you have a degree or career in software engineering, you’re in the middle of all that.”
Mentally, you’re picturing guys with pizza-stained shirts, coding by the glow of their computer screens in their mothers’ basements. Yeah, the computer sciences do labour under some pretty unflattering stereotypes. But one thing you don’t know about software engineering is the need for people who use both sides of the brain. That is, those who speak computer and “people-ese.” “There’s a huge, huge demand for people who can bridge the gap between that expertise [pure code-writing] and the demands of the marketplace,” Professor Peyton says. “[To] be able to communicate what’s possible, what’s not possible, and be able to manage teams of ten, 20, 30 developers building a really significant software system ... . You can be nerdy, but if you have a balanced set of skills, that’s really good.”
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Emilie Lavigne is 29 and has a degree in history, but wasn’t really feeling the career path it was leading down. Today, as a fourth-year software engineering student at the University of Ottawa, she already has her dream job lined up, just in time for graduation. But she warns that to reach this kind of success, you need to be a real self-starter. “What is taught in class is mostly theoretical, and a lot of things that need to be applied, you need to learn on your own,” she says. “You need to be interested enough to go research it, to go try it out.”
Female software engineers like Lavigne are a rarity. For example, when she starts her new job next year, she’ll be the only woman on her team. But it doesn’t faze her, nor does it bother her classmate, Sophie Jeaurond, 22, also in her fourth year of software engineering at the University of Ottawa. She agrees that women software engineers are a minority. But it all depends on your attitude: “I think it's only a boy's club if you make it a boy's club,” says Jeaurond. “If you go in there and you bring fresh ideas and your personal touch, if you have the talent, they don't have any choice but to accept it.”
For those who accept the challenge, according to Peyton, the rewards are huge. “If you have the interest and the aptitude, I cannot tell you how exciting and meaningful your career will be if you’re in software engineering.”