Anne Condon, the head of the CS department at the University of British Columbia, talked to TechRepublic about her career in academia and the power of teaching computer programming.
Anne Condon had to choose her college major while she was in high school. She'd never seen a computer, so she picked computer science. It sounded like a promising field.
Luckily, she loved it the moment she began programming. When she started college, the percentage of women in computer science majors was relatively high compared to now. And no one in the class had ever seen a computer, which was a great equalizer.
It felt like a field in which women were very strong, she said. Of course, that's changed since then, but Condon has devoted her life to developing better undergraduate computer science programs, particularly for young women.
Condon is the head of the department of computer science at the University of British Columbia, researching theoretical computer science, as well as working on several other programming and mathematical projects.
"I've been in academia all my life. I like the work, I like the research, I like to think. I can't imagine a better job," Condon said. "You have a lot of freedom and get to work with great people, students — constantly thinking about new ideas. It can be stressful of course, but it's fun."
Born and raised in Ireland, Condon went to University College Cork. She came to the US for graduate school with several friends and earned her PhD at the University of Washington. Soon after, she joined the University of Wisconsin as a professor and researcher, where she stayed for 12 years.
In her 15 years at University of British Columbia, Condon has worked on theoretical projects and interdisciplinary ones with other departments. She said she hopes to do this more in the years to come, as she will be taking a sabbatical after her term as department head ends next year.
"I am hoping to travel and slow down a little bit to visit family and friends and work with colleagues at places like CalTech in my research area, and get moving to interesting new directions. That will be the next big step," she said.
But Condon's primary passion is her work in theoretical computer science. When she started out, the subject matter seemed obscure. Condon didn't think she would make much of a difference in the field, or that it would be relevant to many people. To her surprise, it turned out to be an innovative field, but also very practical for helping to solve real world problems.
"It forces you to think deeply and it's elegant, it's beautiful. I love that kind of work," she said.
In 1994, Condon was asked to be on the Computing Research Association's Committee on the Status of Women. Her term ended in 2007, but for three years, she headed a project to get more undergraduate women involved in computer science by matching them with research mentors.
"Ever since then I've been eager to find ways to convince women to pursue research careers," she said.
Condon has worked on many projects in recent years to raise awareness about the importance of getting young women interested in computer science research. This year, she won the Grace Hopper Celebration Technical Leadership ABIE Award. She is continually researching curricula to make computer science more accessible and attractive for female students.
There are a few things very important to Condon, and creating a supportive campus environment is one of them.
"I'm a good listener and I encourage people who have ideas to run with them," she said. "Give people a little scope and they can do great things, and I certainly enjoy watching people go well beyond where I could take them."
In her own words...
Do you have any favorite tech tools?
"I rarely use a cell phone. I'm trying to use a Garmin now that I'm doing triathlons. I wouldn't say it's my favorite yet, actually. There's a lot of aspects that could be better designed. I think the data analysis could be a lot better. That's alright, I'll figure it out."
What are some of your hobbies?
"I do like to travel, do that quite a bit as part of work. Since my kids left home, I decided I wanted to do triathlons. Running, biking, and trying to swim, which is challenging for me but i'm having a lot of fun with that. I did some last year and some this year. My first open water one in September. One at UBC in the summer that's really very nice to do. Runs and some bike rides while I'm waiting for my swimming to get better. I love to go back to Ireland, that's one of the things I'll enjoy doing again during my sabbatical."
What do you like to read?
"One was one my son recommended, a book of essays by David Foster Wallace. He's amazing, so I read Consider the Lobster, which is a classic. Going to move on to Infinite Jest next when I have more time. I love his humor and insights on people and culture, and great humility as well."
What is the most interesting project you've ever worked on?
"At some point I got interested in computing with molecules. I worked with chemists at the University of Wisconsin and it was a very different, interdisciplinary kind of project, different from the more theoretical work I did. I had something to contribute but the project was much broader."