Inspiring Tech Discipline

I wrote in a previous piece about the need to inspire “tech dreams.” Dreams need to be ignited for students to have the internal motivation to want to pursue careers in the emerging tech sector. This, however, is just one needed component on the road to the actualization of the dream. Every dream requires discipline to bring it to fruition. Motivation will help students get started, but discipline will keep them progressing towards the fulfillment of their promise.

Discipline will be the bridge that students can use to get from dreaming their desire to accomplishing it. The discipline that is required to persist on the road to completing the qualifications to be equipped to adequately fulfill a gainfully compensated role in the tech industry often involves the ability to delay gratification, put forth consistent effort, and embrace the developmental process.  Dr. Marcus BrightDr. Marcus Bright

One example of the implementation of discipline is the journey of my younger brother, Marlon Bright, in obtaining a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering at Florida International University (FIU). I have listed four takeaways from his journey that can be used to inspire “tech discipline” in others:

1.    Put in Overtime

Marlon joined the FIU men’s basketball team as a walk-on and eventually worked his way into playing significant minutes and being a meaningful contributor to the team. Playing Division I college basketball requires a tremendous amount of time that includes training, practicing, games, travel, film study, and other associated activities. When you combine that with a rigorous computer engineering course schedule, time becomes a big factor. In order for Marlon to maintain his close to 4.0 grade point average (GPA), he had to put in a lot of “overtime”. 

Overtime consisted of study sessions in the engineering lab after games that frequently lasted until well after midnight. It also meant studying on airplanes and buses, in hotels, and various other settings to keep up with his coursework and learning workload. One key that kept him engaged for several hours at a time was that he found areas of interest that were connected to the areas that he was studying. For example, if he was working on a project to build a customer management application, he would look at it as if he were building a game. He found ways to connect math to how airplanes, rockets, and satellites worked.

New perspectives can help students see that a particularly hard concept can help them to understand how a computer or game console works. Putting in “overtime” can be an enjoyable experience when it is connected to a passion and a purpose.

 

2.     Make Key Tradeoffs

A cost is what you give up for something else. There are tradeoffs that must be made to accomplish certain things. Marlon chose to make some key tradeoffs at pivotal points to complete his computer engineering degree. He grew up playing sports and enjoyed his first two years of playing on the FIU basketball team, but as the coursework in his major got more difficult it became harder to navigate around the significant number of classes that he had to miss for games and travel. He decided to not play basketball during his third year at FIU and redirect that time into his studies and other extra-curricular activities on campus.

A key to him having the flexibility to make this tradeoff was that he went to school on an academic scholarship as opposed to an athletic scholarship. He made a cost-benefit estimation that having a great year of basketball was not worth sacrificing the academic learning that he needed to get from his computer engineering curriculum to set him up for his long-term future. Students need to ask themselves if certain activities are worth the cost. They must do their own cost-benefit analysis and be able to make key tradeoffs.

One of the additional endeavors that he took on while sitting out of basketball during that season was to work on a research project with a professor in the computer science department. He volunteered to do additional work to obtain some research experience with the hope that it would bolster his graduate school applications. The professor happened to be connected to a partnership with IBM that sponsored students to do international research. Marlon was selected to be a part of that project and garnered a paid internship with the Barcelona Supercomputing Center in Spain. He ended up being at the right place at the right time, but it was “tech discipline” that put him in the right place to be selected. His tradeoff paid off.


3.     Be Aggressive About Getting the Help that You Need 

A part of having “tech discipline” is doing all that you can in pursuit of an objective and then going and getting the help that you need to do the things that you can’t initially do. You must do your homework as well as you can do it, but you also have to be aggressive about tapping into the resources that you have to learn things.

Marlon sought help with problems during his professor’s office hours, he joined student study groups, and utilized online resources to get the assistance that he needed to maintain a stellar GPA and ensure that he was learning the necessary concepts that he needed to progress in his program. Institutions of higher education typically have a great deal of resources to assist students with their learning and academic development. Many of these services are underutilized by the students who need them the most. 

Collaborating with likeminded students can offer great benefits like exploring new ways to look at concepts, learning new study skills, and holding each other accountable. A student that has a clear understanding of the material can sometimes explain it to his or her peers with more clarity than even the professor can. If students want a clearer understanding of aspects of coursework that they may be struggling with, then they must be diligent about seeking out the help that they need. 

4.     Expand Your Horizons

The tech sector can seem like a different world with a different language. There is a unique set of tools and experiences that people need to be able to operate in that world. Accessing that world at a high level requires one to expand their horizons. It requires having a desire to pursue and create experiences and will take a person to the next level. Discipline is a pre-requisite for the development of needed skills and to be in position to experience certain opportunities.

Marlon’s hard work to keep his G.P.A. at an elite level put him in a position to be eligible for great summer internship opportunities like the Goldman Sachs Technology Division, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center, and the Southwest Research Institute that he was able to participate in. His grades were a great start, but they would likely not have been sufficient if not accompanied by other efforts like utilizing campus resources, taking on leadership positions in student organizations, and participating in extra-curricular activities.

For example, in preparation for an internship fair that eventually led to his summer role with Goldman Sachs, he took advantage of the resources that FIU offered. He went to the career center and utilized support for resume assistance and mock interviews. He took the time to research the companies that would be at the fair in advance and applied to positions that he desired in advance. The discipline to put in this additional work paid dividends when the fair took place. He set himself up for success.

He was also very specific about what he wanted to do so that he could pursue and create opportunities that would push him in the right direction. As he continued to go in his desired direction with discipline, his desires began to manifest one after another. Marlon went on to get a master’s degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas. He currently works for John Deere as a Tech Stack Systems Architect where he drives advancements in technology application to agricultural crop production globally using technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing.

His work has taken him all over the world to destinations that include Australia, Brazil, India, China, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. He was focused on what he wanted to do, he enjoyed the process, and he remained persistent until he accomplished his desired goals. One can’t accomplish the tech dream without going through the tech process.

It can feel to some who are pursuing tech careers like they are trying to break into an inaccessible world. Shifting a limiting mindset and belief system is the first step to being able to access the abundant opportunities that are available in the “tech world”, but discipline is the admission ticket that students will ultimately have to punch to complete their journey to fulfilling their tech dreams.

Dr. Marcus Bright is a scholar and educational administrator.