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SOU alumni, Jesse Williamson, graduated in 1999 with an interdisciplinary B.S. in English and Computer Science, and then again in 2018 with an M.S. in Mathematical and Computer Sciences. For fun, he has a kind of eclectic range of hobbies; during COVID-19’s craziness he has played a lot of chess and some computer games, and also taught himself how to shuffle cards (he can do in-hand riffle and faro shuffles now). He also enjoys cooking, martial arts, long-distance road cycling, and he hopes that travel will be a thing again soon!
In this guest post, Jesse, who is a third generation SOU alumni, reflects on how his diverse interests have enriched life after graduation. He shares some of his best memories while attending Southern Oregon University.
What has your life been like since graduation, and how did your initial career goals shift after attending SOU?
“Believe it or not, I had originally wanted to be a writer, or some sort of mutant new-wave philologist! Unfortunately, it dawned on me both that writing is very hard work and also simply that I didn’t have as much to say as I’d thought.
On the other hand, the stars in many ways had aligned for folks who knew how to work with computers, and I’ve had a lot of fascinating opportunities in my programming career so far and have gotten to contribute to some amazing projects.
Life itself has definitely not been boring—although it has been a roller coaster! I’ve gotten to live and work in different cities and countries, and meet and collaborate with incredible people. I even lived on a boat for about five years. But the view is definitely very different now than it was when I first graduated, that’s for sure. I sometimes miss Ashland a lot, and I still have great friends there.”
Why did you choose to become an interdisciplinary major?
“I guess the short answer is that it was too hard to choose between two loves. I grew up both with my nose perpetually in a book and also having learned to program 8-bit home computers like the Atari 800 and Commodore 64—the Atari had two cartridges: one for BASIC and one for LOGO. I didn’t have a tape or disk drive, so you couldn’t really do much but write programs, but of course the single most-fascinating thing that could have been possible!
When I was starting out I wanted to be a writer, but figured that programming could pay the bills in the meantime. I hate to put it this way, but also the further I’ve gotten along, the less I think I have to say.”
What do you remember best about your time at SOU?
“I had so many memorable moments, some of them quite humorous. One thing that’s important about college can be found in realizing that your professors are often extraordinary people! They may have interests outside of their specific academic discipline that can be inspiring.
For instance, one of my SOU professors, Edwin Battistella, is a strong chess player. It was super fun to get to have games with him. This was before The Queen’s Gambit, so finding accomplished players in Southern Oregon wasn’t so easy! (A couple other teachers were John Graves and Randy Dolinger, in addition to the remarkable Denny Davis (Hoefler), who I first met in San Francisco.)
A couple of my Computer Science professors were musicians– one played mandolin, and another used to wear purple sparkly Doc Martens and play in a punk band.
To ground things a bit more seriously, one of my professors– who I took several classes from and invariably performed poorly in– asked me to come by his office. I was ready for a lecture about what I needed to do better, etc. In a sense, that’s what I got, but in the opposite direction: he handed me a paper with an “A” on it.
As a Master’s student, with ten years between my undergrad and going back to school. I was just so much more ready and so much more focused being back! My relationships with my professors were completely different and those were the most important things. I will certainly say this: being handed a syllabus that contains an actual checklist of things you need to do to succeed is something that sure doesn’t happen outside of classrooms much.
Since I really wanted to be there, I was much more motivated (and also worked harder) and despite other challenges (getting my M.S. took the better part of 10 years, but that’s another story) I enjoyed the experience a lot! I found it far easier to focus, because I wanted to be there and had a sense of purpose. When things were “easy”, I took the opportunity to challenge myself. When things weren’t, I applied myself, tried hard, worked hard; this made a much bigger difference. It was because I wanted to be there.”
How did your interdisciplinary studies degree affect/or shape your life interests post-graduation?
“Being able to communicate effectively is a critical skill not only in my professional field, but in more areas than I can really count. I also firmly believe that programming is an activity that frequently requires a kind of creative problem-solving– and you wind up expressing your solutions with programming languages.
Another important thing, to me at least, is that I think it’s important to nourish different sides of my personality– that’s because they’re not separable from each other. So if I starve my artistic side is too long, it can be upsetting. I even just write doggerel poems or silly story fragments from time to time just to make sure those parts are kept moving.
Diverse interests have always informed my life: I have a perspective on life that I think surprises many peers sometimes. I’ll say that I’ve never regretted time spent with fishermen, street-chess players, people who live on rivers, or generally those with “alternative” perspectives. Without those views, aren’t we left to assume we know how life’s supposed to go?
I also have to say that being able to be in Vienna and have Beethoven, Falco, Hedy Lamarr, and Ludwig Bolzmann all to myself was pretty great. Just sayin’.”
What are some challenges and rewards you’ve faced in your diverse career?
“I would say that my greatest challenges have often been more personal than professional in nature. There are all kinds of ways that life can throw all kinds of different fortunes. Much of this isn’t in our control, but generally our choices and how we react to situations is. It’s not always easy for me to have perspective. When I was a young man, I hadn’t made enough mistakes to understand, but I adapted to it pretty quickly.
A challenging aspect of my profession is that tech fields can by nature be volatile. This is also part of the fun, but as you become more specialized it also becomes difficult to keep up on whatever “shiny new toy” has become popular for one reason or another in industry– so a perfectly good tool you learned how to use eight years ago may simply not be what people hire for any more.
There have been a lot of tremendously rewarding things that I’ve gotten to be a part of! One of the ones I’m most proud of getting to work on software related to the CERN Large Hadron Collider. Although my contribution was very modest, I nonetheless indirectly helped many researchers do their work and in some minor sense got to facilitate further understanding of the universe—to me, that’s pretty neat! I learned that supportive contributions from non-researchers are essential for scientists to do their work.
Being able to—in whatever very small part—help those who further human knowledge has been more rewarding than anything else, to me. But, I also value my friendships and small family more than I ever did. Real love is rare and special. I’ve learned to enjoy it when it’s there, and to appreciate those who care about me a lot.
For most of the last 10 years, it’s been generally been foundations for large-scale distributed storage systems. Broadly, this involves understanding both distributed computing and the needs of different kinds of data storage, but also how to use computing (machine) resources in efficient ways. It’s sad to think of how wasteful so much of our software really is– and this translates into excessive computations and thus electrical consumption. So… money, time, and even environmental resources.
But, our demands on data storage continue to very rapidly increase: phones, smart devices, government offices, research labs all need to store more and more data for longer periods of time, and I don’t see this changing any time soon. It’s an interesting space to be active in.”
If you could offer any advice to undergraduate students, what would it be?
“Enjoy your college experience, and take the academic opportunity seriously. I had no idea that I would be interested in graduate school a decade later, much less that I’d be into math and formal computer science.
On the other hand, two world-culture sites I’d wanted to see are now destroyed; so perhaps I should have prioritized that, too!
Whatever you do, it matters so greatly if you want to be there– that is, the advice you’ve probably heard so much that you should do what you love. But, I’ll also say to be committed to what you do: try to have a larger gestalt, and access what’s around you, and also those /who/ are around you.
Next, research your professors! Learn who you’re learning from. You may find opportunities you shouldn’t ignore– don’t depend on the person to tell you their own details. For instance, my undergraduate adviser in the English department was Lawson Inada. I always enjoyed talking with him, but I had no idea about his extraordinary background. Professor Inada was a very approachable person, and I wish I’d spent more time talking with him.
Take your time in university seriously: it’s your chance to explore and challenge yourself.
Remember, you are not surrounded by antagonists: you’re actually surrounded by people who are trying to help you to succeed! Go after opportunities! Get to know your professors, and very much dig in to their areas of interest even if they’re not necessarily yours: you have the rest of your career and life to pursue your own interests, try learning from experts to gain insight into what “expertise” means, and what it takes to perform at an intellectual level you hadn’t reached before.
Other than that: try to be flexible with life. You never know what’s gonna happen. And, don’t ever feel like you’ll be “stuck” doing what you’re doing– I know plenty of folks who majored in one thing and then went on to do something else they felt totally great about!”
Thanks to Jesse Williamson ‘99 for participating in this series.
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