Questions about Careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math)

I was recently asked by a high school freshman about my thoughts on careers in STEM.  I thought maybe some of you might also be interested in my answers.

What is your job and what do you do in your job?  How does it relate to STEM?

I am a technology evangelist for Amazon Alexa.  First and foremost, I am a software developer, but the primary responsibilities in my job fall into three categories: learning, building, and teaching.

For the learning part, Alexa is constantly learning how to do new things.  It is my responsibility to be an expert on Alexa, so I am always keeping up with the latest news and releases.  It also means that I need to understand how to use the new technology to write better software.

For the building part, I spend almost 50% of my time creating new things for users to do with Alexa.  Two things I’m currently working on are a giant trivia game, and a Star Wars database.  The Star Wars database will be able to tell you about anything in the Star Wars universe, including droids, characters, vehicles, weapons, planets, etc.

Finally, the teaching part of my job is my favorite, but it’s only possible with the first two parts.  I have to spend a ton of time learning and building to become a credible expert to teach.  I travel all over the world speaking with software developers that want to make their own apps for Alexa.

My role really sits in the middle of all of the STEM letters.  Science is a big part of it, because we are experimenting with artificial intelligence to make Alexa work.  This requires things like hypotheses and controlled experiments to determine what works, and what doesn’t.  Technology is an obvious one, since we make technical devices, and run Alexa as software in the cloud.  Computer engineering is an important part of creating software for Alexa.  Understand what is (and isn’t) possible, and the mechanisms to accomplish them is important.  Finally, there’s math.  Any software developer will tell you that they use things like algebra every day, but this goes even deeper with voice applications for  Alexa, where we use math to determine what you said, the probabilities that it matches our expected outcomes, and to generate responses.

What education did you pursue to achieve your job?

My educational path was a little different than most people in the software industry.  I got a bachelor of science degree in Psychology, where most of my peers have degrees in Computer Science or something similar.  Most of my knowledge and experience in software development is self-taught.  I would take apart the source code of interesting websites, or read books about software development to get better at it.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of working in the STEM field?

There are a couple of obvious advantages: STEM jobs pay really well.  Last I checked, a software developer fresh out of college can make over $70,000 a year.  Even more with some experience.  STEM jobs also have the advantage of being flexible.  It is primarily “thought work,” which means you can often do it whenever and wherever you choose.  This allows me to live in Ohio but work on a team located in Seattle, for example.  We have different time zones and locations, but still work well together.

One of the disadvantages is that most STEM careers require a commitment to constant learning.  If you stop keeping up, even for a few years, it’s easy to get so far behind that you almost feel out-of-date.  The software industry moves incredibly fast, and you really need to keep up to maintain success and relevance.  STEM roles also tend to not be very diverse, which is a huge disadvantage for those involved.  Diversity in the workplace makes software better, because it brings everyone’s perspectives together.  When there is a lack of diversity (85% of software developers are men, for example), the end product is worse for everyone.

Why do you believe STEM is important now?

I think people are talking about STEM today because the diversity problem needs to be solved at a much younger age.  Women and girls are often talked out of pursuing technical careers as early as 6th grade, which leads to the diversity problem I mentioned earlier.

I also think it’s important because it is estimated that there will be almost 2,000,000 STEM jobs that will go unfilled by 2022 because there won’t be enough people with the right education to do them.

How important do you see STEM jobs being in the future? What new jobs might need to be added to the field?

The future is science, technology, engineering, and math.  Every company will need software developers.  Those that avoid it will struggle to compete against those that do.  It adds efficiency, streamlining, and accuracy.  Many of the jobs that require physical labor will be replaced by robotics.  Many of the jobs that involve drivers will be replaced by self-driving cars and trucks.  But this also means there will be a huge need for robotics experts and mechanics to maintain all of this automation.  (It also means scientists will need to figure out how to create human organs soon, because 20% of all organ donations today come from traffic accidents, and self-driving cars will ultimately eliminate those!)

I can see a very near future where an entire restaurant is supervised by one person, but run by computers and robots.  A future where nobody owns or drives a car anymore, but just calls for a self-driving robot to take them where they need to go.

And with voice, where scheduling appointments with your dentist is as easy as telling your voice assistant to schedule one.  The assistant compares your calendar with your dentist’s calendar, checks your dental insurance to make sure it is covered, and makes the appointment.  It probably also books you that self-driving car to get there. 🙂

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