Alum Interview: Salas Sanchez-Bennasar (Philosophy ’14), Software Developer at Genscape, Inc.

Growing up, GC alum Salas Sanchez-Bennasar said everyone around her had “a very strong conviction that what you studied in college determined your career, so that choice carried with it a lot of weight.”  Born in Menorca, Spain (a small island in the Mediterranean), Salas ended up studying philosophy at King’s College London.  “Since that was a decision to pursue an academic career, I thereby made the commitment to myself to get a PhD and become a professor,” Salas added.

Salas came to the GC for her PhD, working on the philosophy of mathematics.  “Towards the end I was less than convinced about my becoming an academic, so I started thinking about options,” she said. “I moved West and met a lot of people outside of academia who helped me broaden my horizons; being exposed to non-academic circles of interesting, smart and ambitious people made me become more flexible in my perception of the options that were open to me.”

Salas attended Hackbright Academy, a 12-week, intensive program covering the fundamentals of computer science, software engineering, data structures, and full stack application development.  She wrote about her transition from philosophy to coding in her excellent blog, Machines Take Me By Surprise.  We asked Salas a few more questions about her current job as a coder, and for her advice for current doctoral students.

What type of work do you do?

I am a coder, I program computers.  In my current job I build web applications in a small team of software developers at Genscape. At Genscape, we gather, organize and analyze massive amounts of information about production and prices of energy resources and commodities.  As a software developer, my job is to build the applications that mediate between the customer or the analyst and the big databases that contain all the data about energy and commodity use, production and price fluctuation that is gathered daily.

I have two broad kinds of tasks.  Firstly, my team and I decide how the application is going to accomplished its purpose, we must think about the different ways in which we can structure the final product, taking into consideration what the user may find most compelling and intuitive.  This is what is called product development and every software developer has to be able to think about these kinds of issues and come up with reasonable solutions.

And then, of course, comes the actual nitty-gritty of coding, which is what requires thinking abstractly about each little step of the building process and then break it down to its simplest steps so I can write the instructions in a language the computer will understand. This part of the job is extremely absorbing for me; time flies when I am figuring out the code that will work the most efficiently, and with the best results.

What skills/knowledge from your PhD do you regularly use in your work?

During my years in philosophy I spent a lot of time doing mathematical logic and I was always attracted to the most technical parts of philosophy. This technical background has been extremely useful for me, since many of the concepts used in programming are the same as in mathematical logic and set theory. And so I came into programming already knowing how to think abstractly, and in a formal language.

As a philosopher, technical or not, one learns to organize issues, break down and separate ideas, take a step back and recognize patterns, too. All these critical thinking skills, skills that are especially ingrained in a philosopher also make me a better programmer, someone who is not scared of a big mess of a problem.

As a PhD in the humanities, there are a couple of very important skills that I put into practice at my job now and that distinguish me from other programmers that are from an engineering background. The feat of completing a PhD showed me how to manage a project, how to decide what was important and what wasn’t, how to avoid going down eternal rabbit holes that serve no purpose towards the main goal of the project. I owe my organizational and research skills to my years as a student. And finally, I can write and put my thoughts into words, not just code; I am more precise and clear with my words than I would have been, had I not written a dissertation.

What skills/knowledge did you have to learn on the job?

When I first started this job I didn’t have a lot of experience in the specific languages and technologies that the company uses, so I have had to learn a lot to be able to do my job.  Technology companies employ a wide array of programs, software platforms, technologies for each task and it takes months to become comfortable with all of them, in fact, I am still in the process of figuring out how all the moving pieces are connected. But junior programmers are hired to learn and grow, which is part of what is great about this field; you are expected to know some, but you are also mostly expected to be able to learn. In this sense, it is a very intellectually-driven world, which makes me feel at home.

Joining a private company, and being outside of the university world, have been big changes for me. The change in culture has been something I’ve had to learn to navigate. But it is really satisfying to work in a team, to have joint ownership of a product the success of which is partly on your shoulders. This is something that you don’t get in the academic world of the humanities.

What advice do you have for current doctoral students?

My main piece of advice is don’t be scared of the change.  As a doctoral student I was insecure about my ability to do anything else, and I struggled to imagine myself outside of academia.  It was scary giving up something I had worked for so hard, and for so many years.  It was disconcerting to think of a life without doing philosophy full time. I thought maybe I was a cop out, not sticking with academia. I had so many doubts.

The important thing is to take some distance and think about the reasons why you are considering leaving, make a cost-benefit analysis, and come to a conclusion, while leaving the fear aside. If leaving is the right thing for you to do, make the moves that need to be made (which will be different depending on the field you decide you want to join) and push through the uncertainty. There is a world outside of academia–well, there are many, many worlds outside of it, with plenty of interesting, fulfilling and fun projects to pursue.