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Mission, or Guiding Compass - Lara L. Schenck

Career Compass / Evolving Research Direction


Content on this page is similar to the Now page – it may be rough or “uncut”, and hopefully recent.

This page is about figuring out a “why” or a “compass” for my career. Given my career is research (which wasn’t the case officially when I started this page), that compass is my research direction and interests.


January 18, 2024

Okay, so, wow! Roller coaster of a last few weeks getting an article together for submission. Now, I’m zooming back out to start thinking again about the overarching direction of my research, specifically how I might talk about it in the presentation for my qualifying exam in a couple months time. I’m gradually carving out a space in research that already very much exists in “the real world”.

The overall theme is (zooming in):

  • How can career transition to computing be a means of socioeconomic mobility?
    • Currently, coding bootcamps and online courses are options for how to learn computing, but these formats have issues that make them inaccessible to many people. Which people? Well, given the cost and time commitment and lack of social learning issues with the above formats, I would say, people who need to work for a living who don’t have formal technical training – sure, there are a few people who do benefit from such avenues, but it is a small number.
    • Further, like CS departments, bootcamps and online courses direct people towards high-tech, elite software engineering jobs. What about all of the mid-skill computing work at local businesses and non-profits? Some of this work won’t even have a title like software engineer, but it is still computing work. I guess what I am researching is workforce development in mid-skill computing, where mid-skill means areas like web design/development, data analysis, CRM administration; computing jobs that don’t require theoretical training in CS to do well.
    • Given the problems with bootcamps and online courses, what’s an alternative model for workforce development in computing? Well, what I am exploring at least is the potential for learning at/through paid computing work that has a low barrier to entry, but enough overlap with more complex work that it can be a first step into it.
    • So, how can learning through paid, novice-friendly computing work be a viable pathway to mid-skill computing careers, especially for people without formal CS training coming from low-wage and hourly jobs? I call this population shifting-skill workers.

So far, there are two strands in this space. The first is how shifting-skill workers learn computing through mid-skill work such as data entry, data cleaning, web design, or CRM administration. The second, is how shifting-skill workers take their skills and find another job (with better pay) that leverages their new skills.

I am studying these topics through work with an organization called DataWorks at Georgia Tech, where I work directly with shifting-skill workers every week as the “Career Dev Coordinator”. So far, Career Dev has been running for 1.5 years, and I’ve gotten to know about 10 different workers. The research methods I use are ethnographic observation and qualitative analysis of recorded workplace meetings and interviews with the workers, and I aim to follow the tenets in action research where the workers are both participants and authors in research projects. In using these methods, my aim is to find out 1) how shifting-skill workers learn computing through mid-skill work, and 2) how shifting-skill workers take their skills and find another job, by building and collaborating with others to build a program that is helping workers do both of these things.

October 21, 2023

I’ve been working on writing up my research interests in more of a “thesis-y” way (according to some guidelines in Craft of Research and a class I’m taking on Learning Research Design) – here’s what I have so far for my research topic.

The format in Craft of Research is:

I am writing about/studying X because I want to find out Y in order to help my reader understand Z.

My version for a particular project:

I am researching how to characterize learning at DataWorks because I want to find out how to describe novice adults learning computing in the workplace in order to help my reader understand that novice adults learning computing in the workplace is possible, significant for the computing workforce, and a topic that needs further study.

The next step is to phrase my argument in this “Conjunction Junction” summary of the argument (my class’s professor, Jessica Roberts, came up with this catchy title):

  • Problem space
  • BUT [specific problem]
  • AND [some details/nuance but not too many]
  • SO [solution]

Coming soon. One thing I need to do is find opposing arguments – I’m working on a lot of assumptions here. The thing about research (and science generally) is that “creating new knowledge” is more like “persuading a relatively small, highly educated community with strong opinions”. So I also need to be able to talk about what those opinions are, and placing what I’m saying in contrast to them will make what I’m saying sound stronger. I guess?

September 15, 2023

I use action research methods to study out-of-school pathways to mid-skill computing jobs and the challenges adults face when searching for and securing these jobs. I work with adults who are newcomers to both tech sector and to online professional networking using tools like LinkedIn.

Some of my research questions include:

  • What are the barriers to getting a job in the tech sector?
  • What are the necessary markers you need to be attractive to potential employers?
  • What are the misconceptions for getting a job in the tech sector? 
  • What is the experience of novices looking to get into the tech sector experience using LinkedIn? 

August 27, 2023

I research out-of-school computing education for novice adult learners, with a focus on learning in the workplace. I partner with DataWorks, a data service provider at Georgia Tech, to understand how novice data workers learn computing concepts in a community of practice and how computing itself can be more inclusive of people with diverse educational backgrounds.

August 6, 2023

We know little about how to support adults who learn computing out of school, especially adults who need to work for a living and cannot pursue skills intensive training. I research how alternative, out-of-school pathways in computing education can be easier to follow. I am particularly interested in how novice adults can learn computing through “novice-friendly computational work”, that is, computational work that is often excluded from ideas about “real” computing jobs. This includes activities like data work, web design, and CRM configuration. In my research, I partner with workplaces and novice learners to understand how workplace curriculum can better support novice adults’ growth in computing careers. I use qualitative and community-based participatory research methods in long-term research engagements.

February 9, 2023

My research is at the intersection of computing education and human resource development, where I study pathways to computing careers outside of formal education. Through long-term partnerships with workplaces and training organizations, my work supports people excluded from traditional CS education in 1) obtaining stable, well-paying jobs in computing and 2) growing their careers in computing from that starting place.

October 31, 2022

Here is my current elevator pitch:

A critical issue in the field of computing is a lack of diversity in the computing workforce. There are many research efforts to broaden participation in computing, and the majority of these are oriented around K-12 and undergraduate CS education. I study pathways to computing careers outside of formal education that are accessible to adults, like the one I took before changing careers to research.

Currently, my focus is on understanding how workplace learning environments and cultural change within the workplace can facilitate growth in computing careers. My research involves long-term partnerships with organizations and communities to design and deploy training and employment programs that last beyond the research.

Additional detail –

Through these programs, I study how computational work – like building spreadsheets and email templates – can be a starting point for careers in computing. Eventually, I’m interested in studying critical consciousness in the workplace and the kind of structural and cultural change in workplaces that are conducive to critical reflection and refusal.

The general direction I am coming upon for my PhD work is how to get other organizations to implement a model like DataWorks (the project/team I currently work with), a training and employment program that recruits from historically minoritized* communities and trains/employs people in data work.

* This is an alternative term to “minority” that, instead of labeling a group as minority, it makes it a verb, indicating that the minority status was something done to the group. It’s essentially a way to acknowledge the power structures around which groups are considered minority.

August 4, 2022

I’ve now updated this page to “Evolving Research Direction”…and mine right now is this:

Save one course in college as an art major, I am a self-taught computer scientist with a fine arts degree. In my research, I aim to systematically study nontraditional pathways to computing careers, like mine. It was a difficult path, and current efforts to broaden participation in computing are not supporting it. How can broadening participation in computing efforts support nontraditional pathways to computing careers?

…something like that…

July 21, 2022

I’ve renamed this page to “Career Compass”. But maybe it’s more like “Evolving Research Direction”?

I listened to the book Essentialism recently and, while I felt a little exhausted by prescriptive content telling me how to live (which is a switch…I’ve been enjoying that lately), I got a lot out of the book. One thing in particular (essentialism in practice…one thing, you get it) is the part where it talks about big picture missions and visions and that the more specific they are, the better. So, here I’ll try out a more specific career compass and will try not to be too critical of myself (also kind of want to go back to calling this mission now…why was that a problem?).

My “career compass”: I aim to contribute research that equips organizations to hire people without college degrees for computing jobs that have a clear path to further education and career growth…and within that context, study how organizations can facilitate relationship building and solidarity across difference.

Something like that? Probably not specific enough based on the Essentialism parameters, but I will revisit this later.

March 28, 2022

I’ve been listening to Brené Brown’s books, and I had the thought, “I want to be the Brené Brown of computing education for adults,” except for a bit less public. I love the ideas in her research and how she did the research, then created a platform for continuing the research and making it super accessible to the public.

March 16, 2022

My word of the month is “care” because I have not been doing that for myself over the past two weeks. I think the statement below can be updated to:

Vocational training for career changing adults, and within this neoliberal context, discovering methods to care and heal e.g. through relationship building.

Care and healing are resistance. I’m not sure of a specific citation for this idea, but I think the Nap Ministry – Rest is Resistance – is close. This update is also informed by a session I attended at work led by Inspired Heart Healing.

February 25, 2022

I described my research interests in a way that felt good today. It was something like:

Vocational training for career changing adults, and within this neoliberal context, discovering methods of resistance e.g. through relationship building.

I will try out renaming this page to “Compass” and see how it feels.

February 21, 2022

I am confused – I don’t like what I wrote yesterday, and I am questioning the notion of a mission at all. What if my mission was not to have a mission? Who has a “mission”, anyway? Organizations have missions, and I am not an organization. Or am I?

This site used to be, and I guess still is, the home of Lara Schenck L.L.C., my dormant freelance business. What is the difference between Lara Schenck and Lara Schenck L.L.C, and when did this website become about one vs. the other? Is it even possible for this website to represent me as a person, not me as a brand?

The reason I have a “mission” page is that this website is about a brand, not a person. Perhaps this is “whiteness” and market forces in action (see yesterday’s entry for citation and more context). Maybe I’ll start referring to my online self as Lara Schenck L.L.C. to call attention to this phenomenon.

February 20, 2022

A think-aloud as I had some insights this weekend –

I still think the previous phrasing still applies – My mission is to resist and transform the systems of oppression that underlie exclusion from computingand due to my hungry weekend reading of WWPCDN by Emma Dabiri and my recent acceptance to PhD programs (!!) I feel emboldened to try out naming some of these systems and to phrase the mission more like a working description of a research direction for the next 5-7 years:

My mission is to interrogate* whiteness and/or capitalism through the study of vocational developer training for adults and/or gatekeeping in computing education and/or culture.

I think the “resist” and “transform” pieces of the previous mission statement might be an after graduate school mission…I have to understand a lot more first.

January 26, 2022

I think the previous phrasing still applies – My mission is to resist and transform the systems of oppression that underlie exclusion from computing – but I’m starting to think more about the details. I’m realizing how developer training can fit into this picture. This paper, Engagement in Practice: Teaching Introductory Computer Programming at County Jails, is an example. Restorative justice might be the way to describe it, but this is a topic I don’t fully understand yet.

December 2, 2021

My mission is to resist and transform the systems of oppression that underlie exclusion from computing.

November 15, 2021

My mission is to broaden what “counts” as computing through education, creativity, and social justice.

November 4, 2021

My mission is to broaden access to computing professions and to broaden the perception of what counts as computing.

October 7, 2021

My mission is to discover new mediums for informal learning of computing that will enable more people to discover computing the way I did, on my own terms.

My mission is to broaden the definition of programming so that more people can benefit from the joy of computing.

September 11, 2021

I’m feeling critical of the concept of a mission as I’ve been writing about it here, as my personal goal or something. I guess the idea is to figure out your personal mission, and then find other people with the same mission so you can work on it together. I’m realizing that any mission worth its salt cannot be fulfilled by a single person.

September 8, 2021

My mission is to equip people from marginalized groups with vocational programming skills so they are qualified for developer jobs.

My dream is to have a career where my skills and passions (programming, education, creativity, people) are directed toward improving programming education for the people who need it most, which will in turn, improve programming education for all of us.

July 9, 2021

My mission is to create computer science education methods and technology that are accessible to marginalized communities of adults.

My career dream is to contribute these methods to a vocational computer science curriculum through work with institutions and organizations that provide vocational training and job placement. I will continue to invent new technologies and expand the curriculum content through research.

During graduate school, my dream is to develop conceptual models for programming languages and systems (called notional machines) that can be expressed in analog forms, e.g. games, embodiment, and zines.

June 16, 2021

My mission is to identify the domain-agnostic aspects of computer science that apply across languages, and to make that knowledge accessible to people who learn programming outside of universities.

My dream is to create a computer science curriculum that is accessible to marginalized communities of adults, and delivered to them through a job placement program and support network.

April 2, 2021

I believe there’s a lot of valuable information about computer science that is inaccessible to a great many people, especially to those who arrive at programming from non-traditional paths.

My mission is to create things that inspire programmers to more deeply understand*, appreciate, and contribute to topics in computer science. Phrased another way, I create the learning materials I wish I’d found when I learned about topics I felt afraid of, or topics that I avoided because I deemed they were “not for me”.

* At the end of How to Bake Pi, Eugenia Cheng writes about the “Trinity of Truth” as knowing, believing, and understanding. We have access to so many materials in today’s world that enable us to know about topics in programming, but I believe that there are very few materials that enable us to understand programming. I believe that learning – and life, generally – becomes easier and more enjoyable with understanding. I also believe one of the most important skills in programming – and again, life, generally – is the ability to learn and adapt according to new knowledge (Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower).