My conversation with Jake Paris, January 2011

Jake Paris graduated from URI in 2002 with a B.S. degree in Computer Science. In 2008, he received an M. A. degree from The George Washington University in International Science and Technology Policy. Currently, he is a consultant at Touchstone Consulting Group in Washington, DC., working on E-Government initiatives for the Federal government.

FMC: Jake, your career has taken an atypical path for a computer scientist! Tell us about it, beginning with graduation from URI. 

JP: Well, I did start off more traditionally by taking on positions in computer-science-related fields like web design and IT management. As you'll remember, I worked first as the webmaster, and later as the systems manager and lab manager, for the CS Department while I was still at URI. This was some of the most valuable experience I've had in my life, and I'm sure that it helped me land my first job out of college, working as a desktop computer support specialist at Hopkinton Public Schools in Massachusetts. I actually applied for that job by finding it in the newspaper of all things, but I know it was the experience on my resume that helped me stand out.

I eventually needed to shorten the 1.5 hour or so commute I was making each day to Mass, so I started applying for a lot of higher-level network and systems administration jobs in Rhode Island. The thing I figured out was that again, having that incrementally higher level of experience—this time from working in the school district—was a huge plus, and that again, having a B.S. in computer science helped my resume stand out in a field that doesn't have as many people with that degree applying for the job.

I ended up working for a small consulting firm called Watch Hill Partners, which has since been bought out. This was the first time in my life I was really working without a net at all—there were no more senior programmers I could call on to fix code, and no campus IT staff to run my ideas by for setting up a network. It was a big challenge, but it was a rewarding experience where I learned a ton just by having to look everything up myself, and I probably worked on more different types of technology there than anywhere else in my life. That breadth of experience on my resume became invaluable later, even though I didn't know it would be at the time.

Some time later, I started to become more interested in the public policies I was having to deal with in the field—things I wanted to see changed. An example of this is that while working in Hopkinton, I found out that there was no specific path towards becoming a teacher of computer science at the high school level. Those who wanted to teach CS would have to instead pursue a teaching degree in a related field like mathematics or another hard science like physics. The computing skills "facilitators" I worked with almost every day didn't get paid as or treated like teachers, and that didn't sit well with me. Let's face it, everyone needs to at least have basic computing skills these days to have a chance in almost any professional career—and these were the folks teaching those skills to the students.

So I became more interested in technology policy and education policy the more I researched, worked, and taught—and I decided that those interests were enough to go back to school and get my masters. Since then, I've been able to work on science and technology policy issues in the U.S. Senate, a number of international non-profit organizations, and most recently, as you've noted, as a consultant in the Office of E-Government and IT. 

FMC: How did you balance grad school and work?

JP: Very carefully. And that's not just a joke—I made a number of big mistakes during my first year, including trying to work two part-time paid internships and take a full course load in graduate school during my second semester. That was a very quick path towards burning out on everything, and I really had to prioritize what I wanted to do, so as not to short-change the people I had already made commitments to. 

I ended up trying to do a little bit of everything while I was in graduate school. I edited the articles dealing with science and technology for the International Affairs Review and co-chaired a conference on the societal effects of developments in science while I was still a student at GW. These are the kinds of extracurriculars that can seem like an overwhelming task at first—you’ve got to make sure that you have the time to spend on them while still making your grades—but those experiences really led me to where I am now. They boosted my resume, and allowed me to make lasting connections with my fellow students and colleagues, something I wish I had done more of at URI. That's something undergrads can do just as easily as graduate students.

That's one thing they hammer home again and again while you're going to school in DC: Networking is vital to securing a stable long-term career. I find this is applicable to Rhode Island and other professions as well—and I know that CS students often struggle with that, but it's one of those skills you'll only improve through repetition. Also, you usually get free food at networking events—that helped encourage me at least!

FMC: What led you to study International Affairs for your Masters degree? Did your undergraduate study prepare you adequately for this field?

JP: The choice of International Affairs had a great deal more to do with what I specifically wanted to study, as opposed to exactly what I knew I wanted my career to be when I got out of school. The work I did while in school helped shape my career path, while my studies allowed me to gain the vocabulary and general knowledge required for the field as a whole. Thinking about it now, grad school unfolded quite similarly to my time spent at URI in that regard.

My capstone project (a relatively short thesis with primary research) involved an analysis of the One Laptop Per Child program at the MIT Media Lab, and then provided suggestions for how it might be improved upon to bring inexpensive and useful computing in large quantities to less developed countries. I guess that research was always floating around in the back of my mind, and I knew I needed to learn more about international laws, treaties, and economics to get to that point where I could intelligently study and discuss those subjects.

All I can say about my undergraduate studies preparing me for grad school is that it was a blessing in the most unusual of disguises. My experience has been that CS prepared me for rigorous analytical analysis in a very intuitive way. All those hours spent pouring over C++ or Java code, looking for the infinite loop I had created or the variable I had left unassigned, eventually left me with an attention to detail that I try to apply to my research and writing. It's not the most direct connection, but I don't think I could have made it here without that level of analytical rigor.

FMC: How hard do you work? Does your career leave you with enough time to enjoy life?

JP: It's really all about maintaining a good balance when you work at something that can easily eat up your nights and weekends if you let it. That's something that really didn't change when I switched careers, and I think that time management is probably one of those concepts that computer science students intuitively know more about than most people.

However, I'll be the first to admit that Washington, DC hasn't been for the feint of heart. Work days are most often long and unpredictable because of the many many variables involved. My policy and communications jobs have often revolved around the 24-hour news cycle, which can get crazy from time to time. There are definitely a number of sacrifices you've got to be willing to make if you want to pursue a career in which some of the best of the best try to work. Free time can definitely be one of those things. It's important to stay social outside of work, and to try and fully enjoy the freedom a good job can give you.

FMC: Can you give some advice to our current students?

JP: Looking back on it all, I can't imagine how I would have drawn up a path ahead of time from my freshmen year at URI to working on national policy issues like data center consolidation and creating a more transparent and open government. That said, I do think there are a couple of important things I've learned along the way:

Always keep your eyes and ears open. My first job in college was freshmen year as the webmaster for the CS Department. I found out about it because some professors were talking about how they didn't have the time they wanted to get all the information they needed on the site. You never know what will intrigue you. Even if you don't know what path you want to take today, you might stumble upon something you are absolutely passionate about tomorrow, if you stay informed as to what's going on around you.

I'd also want to encourage any CS graduate students who are interested in the role of science in policymaking to consider looking at any number of the organizations that operate at the intersection of science and public policy. Many of them offer paid summer internships or fellowships for graduate students. If anyone is interested in learning more, Google is how I actually did most of my research before coming to Washington, but I'm happy to help out students if they want to contact me.

Mentors can be a great help. Dr. Robert Ravenscroft (of the CS department) was the man who first started teaching me about network management when I knew next to nothing about it myself. Later, I had mentors who were able to pass on their knowledge regarding specific public policy issues when I was first interning in the Senate. All of them have been extremely positive influences in my life, and have given me access to a kind of tacit knowledge that you simply can't pick up in books. 

I'd remind students that mentors (and even most teachers in classrooms) do what they do because they get something out of it too. They want to pass on that knowledge, and you really just have to be open to receiving it.

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