Filling a Demand for Technical Expertise

When Margo Seltzer, the Herchel Smith Professor of Computer Science in the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, taught introduction to computer science in the 1990s, she articulated why students needed technical coursework.

“Most of you are not going to go become programmers, but someday you will be in positions where you are going to hire expensive consultants like me to come help you with your business problems,” Seltzer remembers telling students at the beginning of the semester. “And I want to make sure that you know how to ask me the right questions and when and how to push so that you get the answers you need to do your job more effectively.” 

This need for technical expertise has persisted. For students who will take the Programming and Data Science Systems course, led by Seltzer and Professor David Malan in the Harvard Business Analytics program, being able to interact effectively with technical experts could provide a competitive advantage in their careers. We asked Seltzer about her career in computer science and her goals for the course.

After studying computer science at Harvard, you gained some industry experience and continued on to Berkeley for a Ph.D. in computer science. How did you become interested in studying computer science?

I did a one-week summer program at the U.S. Naval Academy between my junior and senior year of high school. One of the things we got to do was actually play with a computer, which at that point in time meant we had typewriter-like terminals that produced paper and were connected to some computer far away. We learned a little bit of BASIC programming, and I thought that it was kind of fun.

In the late 70s, the first home personal computers were just becoming available, and there was one from Tandy Corporation called the TRS-80. I convinced my father that we really needed to buy one. To place this in context, the permanent storage on this machine was a cassette tape recorder that you plugged into the computer.

Unfortunately, my father fell in love with it, and I really never got to play with it much, but the seeds were planted. During my senior year in high school, I did a little bit of BASIC programming. By the time I got to college, I felt like I had some computer programming knowledge, and I had an older brother who had studied computer science when he was in college. So, I knew that if he could do it, I could do it, and it seemed like a reasonable thing to try.

My first year at Harvard I took AM110, which had a reputation as a killer course. I ended up being that student in the terminal room whose programs would exhibit bizarre bugs. I’d raise my hand, and the teaching fellow would come around, and the response was almost always, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.”

So, I would not say that computer science came easily to me, but it was certainly engaging. I do remember that during that first course, at some point, the bit flipped, and I began thinking, “Oh, this could be fun.”

You’ll be teaching Programming and Data Science Systems along with Professor David Malan for the new Business Analytics program. The course will help students “make technological decisions even if not technologists themselves.” How do you approach supporting students who have less programming and technical expertise?

Our goal for the course is not to turn everybody into a data scientist or computer programmer. Instead, we want to expose them to some of the tools that data scientists use and more fundamentally, make sure they really understand both the limitations and the power of tools that they’re probably already experienced with. We assume that everybody has used a spreadsheet at this point, and a spreadsheet is actually an incredibly powerful business analytics tool. We use that as a starting point to show them that you can, in fact, do interesting analytics, and they are probably already doing something in the way of business analytics.

Then, we will push that technology to the point where they can see questions they might want to ask for which a spreadsheet is really not equipped. We want to help students see that there’s really no magic; there are just different kinds of technology, each of which provides an increasingly powerful way to let them answer complex technical or quantitative questions. The reason we want to teach them some programming is to give them that internal gut feel for how every tool has its limits, every tool has its power, and even if you’re not going to be the one doing the analysis, you’d like to have an understanding of the process and be able to ask the technical team the right questions.

Why is technological expertise an increasingly important area for business students?

I think it’s pretty obvious that we are becoming an increasingly data-driven society, and I think there are two sides to that. It is suddenly much easier to collect lots and lots of data. We want people to be able to think critically about not only the data they collect, but before that, what data they should be collecting, and therefore, what data maybe they should not be collecting. I think a lot of the discussion around data tends to focus on how do we keep it secure and how do we protect it, but I think there’s a question that comes before that, namely, should we be collecting it in the first place?

Given the deluge of data and the questions around the sensitivity of those data, I think it’s important for all business leaders to have an understanding of the process that goes into collecting, managing and then using that information. They also need to grapple with some of the really thorny questions around the ethics of collecting the data, using the data, and storing the data.

You serve as one of the faculty advisers for the Women in Computer Science group at Harvard, which seeks to create a community of technical women. How have you grown as a mentor throughout your career?

In some ways it took me until I had junior colleagues to really understand what some of these issues were about women in tech. I think fundamentally what has made me an effective mentor is that I genuinely enjoy working with students. You know, at this point in time, if you’re a computer scientist and you don’t like working with students, there’s no reason to be in a university. You can work less and make more in industry, but I fundamentally love working with students, and that is what gets me up in the morning. For the most part, being willing to be open and genuinely caring about students are really the two criteria you need to be an effective mentor.

With a persistent shortage of women in STEM fields, how can pursuing additional education help women get ahead in the tech industry?

I think that you can still be an effective leader if you can interact effectively with your technical people, understand what they’re doing, and know how to ask some of them the right questions.

Part of leadership is understanding how to effectively manage people who have more expertise than you do in some area. Good leaders will surround themselves with people who are better than they are in particular areas, and that’s totally fine. I think some people forget that and believe that once they become leaders, they’re supposed to be the best at everything, but I think that’s fundamentally flawed.

If you are going to surround yourself with people who are better than you in some way, shape or form, you need to be able to interact with them effectively, and you need to be able to act on their expertise so that you can maximize both their value and your value. I think programs like this Business Analytics program give a set of leaders, including women, some tools to manage more effectively.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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