• Damien Burks

#HBCUTalks: My Advice to Computer Science Students

Updated: Oct 26, 2021

A few months ago, a colleague and I hosted a virtual event with a number of computer science students from my alma mater: Texas Southern University. The students showered us with several questions regarding the tech industry, the company we work for, and the various paths and certifications that may be necessary to obtain an entry-level role in the field. After we concluded that session, I was inspired to write this post to share some tips on how I've effectively navigated through college and laid the foundation for my career.

Before I get into the tips, however, I’d like to share my experience as an undergraduate CS student at TSU. All I have to say is: Do not expect to just go to class, ace them, interview with Microsoft, and graduate with a full-time position as a Software Developer. It is NOT that easy. First and foremost, like most HBCUs similar to TSU, the curriculum may be “slightly” antiquated. You may find yourself learning material that you may never use, or paying for a course that is supposed to teach you all OOP concepts (super important), but only teaches you half of that and you’re left with learning the rest on your own. Note this: you will have to do more than just going to class and doing the assignments. You must get comfortable with being uncomfortable when venturing into unchartered territory and open to learning new things.

Experiment as much as possible

As I stated previously, you must get comfortable with being uncomfortable when venturing into unchartered territory. Exploration is key. When I was an undergraduate student, I was totally sold on becoming a video game developer for some cool company such as Rockstar or Ubisoft. However, I did not want to limit myself to development and began to research and explore other fields in IT. In the process of doing all that, I was networking with industry professionals to learn more about what tools and technologies I should be focused on learning. The computer science degree is very generalized and can open a variety of doors into several fields within tech. You are not limited or restricted to becoming a software developer. There are a plethora of fields that you can enter into and succeed in such as networking, software development, AI/ML, and cybersecurity.

Get Involved

To make experimentation easier, I'd urge you to get involved with clubs within your CS department. This will allow you to network with peers and partake in any side projects that may interest you. Depending on the level and size of your organization(s), you will be exposed to several different areas within tech or computer science that you could specify in. In the event that your department does not have an organization that you are interested in, feel free to take the initiative to start one.

During my college career, my department only had one organization that catered to those who wanted to become software developers and engineers. Although I was interested in becoming a developer full-time, I also wanted to expose myself to the cybersecurity space. So, a few colleagues and I took the liberty to create an organization for aspiring cybersecurity professionals. Like most organizations, we hosted weekly meetings and workshops to increase our skills and raise awareness. Also, we attended local conferences and capture the flag competitions. Capture the flag competitions are where security professionals and/or students go to complete technical challenges based on a given subset of areas. Through this organization, I was able to learn quite a bit about the field, acquire new skills, and network with industry professionals prior to graduating.

Soft Skills >> Technical Skills

Often times, we neglect to emphasize the importance of soft skills. According to BalanceCareers, soft skills relate to how you work. These skills include communication skills, listening skills, time management, and a plethora of other interpersonal skills. As a professional, you will be expected to effectively communicate and manage your time. For instance, I juggle several projects that could have overlapping deadlines. Also, once the project has been completed and deployed into production, I am expected to present and translate the results, whether good or bad, to upper management or my peers.

Apply for Paid Internships

I can not emphasize how important internships are as a college student. An internship is a professional learning experience that gives the student relevant work experience related to their field of study or career interest. As a computer science student, it is imperative that you actively seek internships to diversify your skillset and figure out which subfield in computer science that you would like to pursue. Between my sophomore and senior year in college, I obtained 3 internships. At the first internship, I was an IT specialist for a local IT company that performed infrastructure maintenance, support, and monitoring. At the time, we would go out to local firms, setup and deploy switches and routers, and configure SOHO (small office home office) networks. Although this internship was a great learning experience, it was unpaid and was definitely a stretch on my ramen noodle budget in college. Yikes!

Word of advice: Make sure you are getting paid! If they do not want to pay you, direct your attention elsewhere. There are plenty of companies that will pay for interns.

My second internship was slightly different from the first. I landed an internship with this global insurance company as a Desktop Support Specialist/Engineer. So instead of deploying and configuring networking appliances, I spent my days configuring and deploying local machines within a fairly fast-paced environment. My third internship was a complete shift from desktop and infra work. This time around, I was actually doing cybersecurity and software development work. For this, I landed an internship with a Fortune 500 company as a Security Software Engineer. At this company, along with a group of 4 other colleagues, we designed and developed a secure CI/CD framework using Java, Python, and other open source technologies.

Attend conferences

Ever hear the saying: “Your network is your net worth”? Conferences are catalysts for networking and landing your next opportunity. These conferences allowed me to network with peers and experts within the tech industry. Depending on the conference that you go to, they can have workshops that you can attend to learn new skills and obtain certification renewal credits if you have certifications. One of the best conferences I’ve attended in college was the NSBE Regional Conference in Dallas, TX in the Fall of 2018. NSBE conferences will usually have professional development workshops and career fairs in which students can have the opportunity to interview with companies on the spot and obtain positions. Aside from attending the various workshops focusing on leadership, mentorship, and networking, I was able to network with several industry professionals, interviewed with a few companies, and landed a full-time position with an oil & gas company.

Find a mentor

No matter where you are in life, you will need someone to help guide you to where you will want to be. These people are called ‘mentors’. Mentors are experienced professionals or people that will help guide the less experienced or less knowledgable individual. Depending on your career field of choice, you’ll want to make sure you’re networking and asking folks for advice. You will want to make sure that you know the path that you wish to take. Ask yourself this question: “Where do I want to be in 5 years?” From here, develop a clear path and SMART goals to achieve that position. After you’ve drafted that plan, you will want to network and seek out potential mentors that align with your overall goal.

College is hard, but life is harder. By following these tips, you will be ensuring your success as a CS student at an HBCU and laying the foundation for your professional life.


Cited Works:

Doyle, A. (n.d.). What Are Soft Skills? Retrieved December 21, 2020, from https://www.thebalancecareers.com/what-are-soft-skills-2060852

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