What is Computer Science?
For many people — if not most — the only interest they have in their computer and the software that runs it is whether everything works. Is it all doing what it’s supposed to do? Can emails be sent? Can the internet be surfed? Can documents be created? Can games be played and videos streamed? That’s pretty much the extent of their concern. However, for others, this is just the tip of the iceberg; these individuals have an insatiable curiosity about how computers and other technologies work, what’s possible with software development, and how to solve problems related to computer technology and its applications. So, who are these people who possess an interest in computing that runs deep and wide? They’re computer scientists — IT and systems specialists, cybersecurity professionals, information systems analysts, game and software developers, hardware engineers, network architects and programmers, to name a few — and they’re in an industry that’s one of the fastest growing segments of our economy. What is computer science all about? For one Navy veteran, it’s all about an exciting career.
Getting an Early Start
For Brandon Bishop, a U.S. Navy veteran and National University graduate, curiosity about anything and everything related to computing started early. “Software development has always interested me,” he says. “I started writing programs when I was 9 years old to see how computers work.”
That interest in computers followed Bishop as he began his career with the U.S. Navy immediately after graduating from high school in the late 1990s. “I started out training in advanced electronics,” he says. “During that time, I found that fire controlman school interested me most, so that’s where I went.” The fire controlman position is rated as “highly competitive” within the Navy and requires extensive technical skills and expertise in advanced electronics and computers. After completing two years of training, Bishop was assigned to the U.S.S. Vincennes where he served as a fire controlman. In that position, his responsibilities included working on and troubleshooting the computers and radars used for firing missiles.
After transitioning from the Navy to civilian life in 2004, Bishop knew that he wanted to continue pursuing his interest in computers. “In the Navy, I was trained on the electronics of computing — which is the hardware side — and liked it,” says Bishop, who now lives in San Diego. “But, after I got out, I decided to go back into software.” And that’s exactly what he did, continuing his journey in the field of computer science.
Why Study Computer Science? It’s A Career Path for Problem Solvers
So, what is computer science? Ask 10 different industry professionals what “computer science” means and you might very well get 10 different definitions. The term can be hard to define and having the word “computer” as part of the term doesn’t help.
Computer science isn’t simply the study of computers. Yes, computers are an inherent part of the discipline, but they aren’t the only stars of the show. Instead, they play a supporting role — serving as tools that help us create and implement solutions to many problems.
Interactive Python defines computer science as “the study of problems, problem-solving, and the solutions that come out of the problem-solving process. Given a problem, a computer scientist’s goal is to develop an algorithm, a step-by-step list of instructions for solving any instance of the problem that might arise. Algorithms are finite processes that if followed will solve the problem. Algorithms are solutions.”
In almost every definition of what is computer science, the one common thread is problem-solving. Professionals in the field — as well as those who are interested in entering it — enjoy looking at problems and attempting to solve them through computational thinking. According to the BBC, “computational thinking involves looking at a problem and working out a way a computer might be able to help you solve it. To do this, you need to understand how a computer processes information.” This understanding is gained through the study and practice of computer science.
Individuals in the field of computer science work in a variety of settings. According to the IEEE Computer Society, they work in “academia, research, industry, government, private and business organizations — analyzing problems for solutions, formulating and testing, using advanced communications or multi-media equipment, or working in teams for product development.”
The field of computer science offers many career opportunities. Examples include:
- Software developers, who create software programs.
- Database administrators, who analyze and evaluate data.
- Computer hardware engineers, who design, develop and test computer components.
- Computer systems analysts, who assess a company’s hardware and software needs.
- Computer network architects, who design, implement and maintain networking and data communication systems.
- Web developers, who focus on the user experience for websites.
- information security analysts, who work in cybersecurity.
- Computer programmers, who write the code that drives software.
- Computer and information systems managers, who evaluate the technology needs of organizations.
- Project managers, who coordinate communication between programmers and analysts.
Additionally, the expanding and exciting world of artificial intelligence is one in which computer scientists play a crucial role.
Each career path in computer science requires a different set of skills and competencies, but they all require a passion for problem-solving.
How to Study Computer Science
There are many paths that can be taken to a career in computer science. Working as a government contractor was Bishop’s first job after leaving the Navy. “I went right to work doing software quality assurance and testing software used for Navy data link systems,” he explains.
Because of the training he received in the Navy, Bishop was able to take the skills he had learned there and transfer them directly to the work he was doing as a government contractor. But he’ll be the first person to say that those skills wouldn’t have made him qualified to do every job under the computer science umbrella.
Because there are so many different career paths within the computer science field, the types of skills needed are often specific to the position. For example, a software engineer might need a very different skill set than a database manager. However, when you are thinking about how to study computer science, there are five general skills that anyone working in computer science needs to develop:
- Strong analytical skills are needed in order to be a successful problem solver. You have to be able to break a problem down into its various components so that it can be fully understood. It’s only after that happens that a solution can be developed.
- Logical and systematic thinking is required because computer science problems can often be abstract and conceptual. To be solved, they often have to be transformed into something concrete. Frequently, a step-by-step process needs to be developed to execute the solution that’s been identified.
- Creativity is paramount because solving problems in computer science often requires thinking beyond the obvious. To find the best solutions, you have to turn problems on their head and look at them from different perspectives. The optimal solution isn’t always the one that jumps out first.
- Critical thinking skills enable you to determine which methodologies will work for which problems. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution in computer science. So, having a thorough understanding of all available methodologies, as well as knowing how and when they should be applied, requires an ability to think critically.
- Resilience is a must because at all levels of programming, you’re going to fail more often than you succeed. It’s not about a lack of programming skills. It’s just part of the process. It’s about trying one thing and then trying another until you find a solution.
Why Study Computer Science? It’s All About the Skills
“The field of computer science is pretty varied,” says Bishop. “There are a lot of different things you can do. What I realized after a while was that I needed to learn more of the basic skills of computer science — or else I wasn’t going to be able to do the things I wanted to do.” And to do that, Bishop needed to get a degree in computer science.
Because Bishop joined the Navy immediately after graduating from high school, he did some research into how to study computer science. First and foremost, he knew he had to find the right place to get his bachelor’s degree. “I had known a few people who went to National (University), so that’s how I heard about it,” says Bishop. “It’s a veteran-friendly school and some of my naval experience counted for some of my electives. That helped me get my degree faster. Plus, the class schedule at National allowed me to work during the day and finish my degree at night.” National University offers its bachelor’s and master’s programs in computer science online and on campus. This makes it possible for those with even the busiest of schedules to earn their degree.
With financial resources available through the GI Bill, Bishop enrolled in the Bachelor of Science in Computer Science degree program at National University. He attended his core classes on campus. But, when traveling for work, he took some of his general education courses — such as music history and communications — online. “I enjoyed the online classes, but I prefer going to classes on campus — particularly for some of the more difficult ones,” explains Bishop. “It helps to have a professor there walking you through how to do things. And they were always available and understanding.”
Core courses in the Bachelor of Science in Computer Science degree program at National University focus on a wide variety of topics — including programming languages, object-oriented design, algorithm design, computer architecture, computer ethics, data structures and algorithms, digital logic design, and scientific problem-solving. Students also complete a senior project related to their studies.
“At first, I thought I’d learn the [programming] languages and then learn to write software,” says Bishop. “But it was more about learning basic skills about how to answer questions from the perspective of the computer. For example, if I have a question, how do I use the computer to answer that question for me? And I also learned about design patterns, which are certain ways to write software.”
Because he took one class at a time — with each class lasting four weeks — Bishop found that his course schedule at National University helped him successfully balance his work life and school life. “I went to class two weeknights and every other Saturday,” explains Bishop. “I liked the four-week classes because it felt like I was able to concentrate on my core classes better — and it allowed me to really focus on my major. I also really liked how the classes were ordered in a way so that they build upon each other.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree, Bishop continued to study computer science by enrolling in the master’s program at National University. “Cybersecurity had interested me for a while, even in the Navy, so I decided to get my master’s degree in that field,” says Bishop. Courses in Master of Science in Computer Science degree program build on knowledge gained in the bachelor’s program. They cover topics such as advanced programming, software engineering principles, modern operating systems, user interface engineering, security in computing, database design and implementation, and advanced database programming. In addition to courses, students in the master’s program complete a three-part graduate project that allows them to put the skills they’ve learned to practical use.
“The class schedule (for the master’s program) was basically the same as it had been for the bachelor’s degree, so I was able to continue working full time,” says Bishop. “I attended class on campus and completed the program in 12 months.” While there are many entry-level jobs within the computer science field that can be accessed with a bachelor’s degree, others like computer and information research scientists, will require a master’s degree.
Was Bishop glad he chose to study computer science at National University and earn both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there? In a word, yes. “There might have been other schools that people are more familiar with,” he says. “But National was so much better for my schedule. There aren’t a lot of schools that would allow me to work full time.”
Why Study Computer Science? In a Word: Opportunity
For those looking for a career in a fast-growing and well-paying industry, computer science checks all the boxes. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the computer and information technology field is expected to grow by 13 percent from 2016-2026 — faster than the average growth rate of all occupations. By 2026, another 557,100 jobs are expected to be added within the field.
Wondering what the average salary is for full-time employees within the computer and information technology industry? The U.S. Department of Labor BLS reports that the median pay in 2017 was $84,580 per year. For perspective, the annual median pay for all occupations in May 2017 was $37,690.
According to the BLS, in 2017, median annual salaries within the U.S. computer and information technology industry included the following: computer and information research scientists ($114,520), computer network architects ($104, 650), computer programmers ($82,240), computer support specialists ($52,810), computer systems analysts ($88,270), database administrators ($87,020), information security analysts ($95,510), network and computer systems administrators ($81,100), software developers ($103,560), and web developers ($67,990).
California holds significant opportunities for professionals within the computer and information technology industry. As of May 2017, the state’s annual mean wages for occupations in this field include: computer and information research scientists ($128,530), computer network architects ($128,770), computer programmers ($96,270), computer network support specialists ($76,830), computer systems analysts ($102,860), database administrators ($95,630), information security analysts ($108,090), network and computer systems administrators ($96,420), software developers/systems software ($127,230), and web developers ($84,270).
What is Computer Science? A Career Leap
Getting to where he wanted to be in the computer science field didn’t happen overnight for Bishop. In addition to earning his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree at night, he worked during the day in several positions throughout his time at National University. When beginning his bachelor’s degree, Bishop was working as a government contractor. From there, he moved on to doing QA and test automation for a company that makes software for cash registers and point-of-sale systems. After a year there, he began doing test automation for a company that works with kiosks where people can sell their old mobile phones.
It was only after earning his master’s degree from National University that Bishop was finally able to move into cybersecurity — an area that had interested him for years. He joined a start-up cybersecurity firm and started out doing QA automation. “Now, I’m doing a lot more in the area of deploying infrastructure that software runs on to make sure it works well and is robust enough to handle traffic,” says Bishop. He also provides technical support to customers and offers recommendations regarding how to fix flaws in their infrastructure. “I really like what I do,” he says. “I finally made it!”
So, what advice does Bishop have for those who might be considering earning an on-site or online degree in computer science? “If it’s something that interests them, it’s definitely worth doing,” he says. “You’re going to get out of [school] what you put into it. And you’ll come out with the skills you need to get a job in the field.”
If you’re interested in learning more about how you can earn your online degree or on-campus Master of Science in Computer Science — regardless of how busy your schedule is — explore the possibilities at National University. Our admission advisors can answer any questions you might have about the program and can guide you through the application process.