CSpotlight: Mapping a future in computing

B.A. student Carson DeSotel considers himself to be both a programmer and a geographer. His interests in computer science and geography mesh together perfectly—as he says, geography provides the problems, and computer science provides the toolset. As he looks to the future, his goal is to use computing tools to solve some of the most pressing issues of the next century.

Why did you choose to study computer science at the University of Minnesota?

I always knew I wanted to study computer science in college. When I was doing research, the U of M was highly rated in many of the factors that were important to me. It really is a perfect fit—it's close to home, has a great computer science program, the campus is gorgeous, and there are plenty of awesome restaurants and venues nearby to enjoy.

What sparked your interest in computer science? How do you see geography relating to computer science?

My middle school math teacher was a former programmer and he started an after school club to teach students programming fundamentals in Java. This was my first introduction to computer science. Then, during my junior year of high school, I took an AP Computer Science class. Through these experiences, I realized that nothing else had ever clicked with me as much as computer science.

Well, except for maybe geography! I learned about the subdomain of geography called geographic information systems (GIS) during my freshman year at the University. I realized that it meshed perfectly with my interest in computing. When you think of geography, you think of maps first, and a lot of modern mapping is done on computers. There’s a huge amount of data that needs to be processed and analyzed when making those maps, and I felt that I could contribute in that area by bringing in more computer science related skills.

Tell us more about your Technology Development Program (TDP) internship at Optum.

I was an intern at Optum in the summer of 2020 for 10 weeks. I worked on an open source governance project called Barista, which is a dashboard to track and scan open source projects to ensure that they’re secure. It’s all open source on GitHub if anyone ever wants to check it out.

My team worked mainly on UI/UX design while integrating the database with the new dashboard. It taught me a lot about working on a team, managing a shared code base, the agile development strategy, and front-end development in general.

We also had the chance to participate in Optum’s “Shark Tank” program, where every two weeks we would give a presentation to a board of executives to demonstrate our project, take input, and check out some other projects by other teams. We must have done pretty well, because our project was chosen to be part of their Intern Spotlight series at the end of the summer, and we were able to showcase the project to Optum’s American and Irish intern teams.

They invited me back and I’m doing my second summer with them currently! It’s been a blast so far and I can’t wait to do my best on a whole new project. It’s been pretty exciting being seen as a veteran of the TDP program and being trusted with more independent work this year.

What made you decide to become a teaching assistant? What is your favorite part about being a teaching assistant?

At the end of my first programming course here at the U (CSCI 1113), my professor had mentioned that the department was taking applications to TA for the course the next semester. I did well enough to where I was comfortable, but I was still a bit nervous to apply. I already had a blooming interest in teaching though—I worked with a daycare program for elementary school kids the summer before my freshman year—and I was curious to see if any of my skills from that experience could be transferred to helping my peers. Plus, I would have an additional chance to engage with the course material while also having a great job during the semester.

Being a TA has been one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve been able to hold. My favorite moments are those where I’m helping a student who’s been struggling and then it suddenly clicks for them. Eyes beaming, a smile—it’s really fantastic. Being able to get that every semester or so has been a dream. Working directly with professors and my peers (both on the TA team and my students) has been awesome. I like saying that by the time I graduate, after 7 semesters as a TA, that I’ll know at least half of the computer science department! I’ve had some wonderful memories of students and I’m glad knowing that I’ve made some sort of lasting impact. I still keep in contact with a few former students and I’ve even been able to work with a handful of my students who later became TAs.

What advice do you have for incoming computer science students?

Start your homework early. Being a programmer is about being well-organized and planning things out before getting into the details. Many students, myself included, have started too many assignments a few days later than they should have, discovered a back-breaking bug, and had to submit an assignment halfway through. It’s never fun, and you’re always full of regrets.

I want to say that in other majors, the only thing stopping you from completing an assignment is yourself. In computer science, sometimes you also have your code working against you in some regard. It can be pretty hard to account for hours of debugging that can go into an assignment. Some classes I’ve had have consumed weekends away from me. It never felt like a waste though, because I always learned something, improved myself, and problem solving can be pretty rewarding in the end.

What are your plans after graduation?

They’re a bit up in the air right now. I have some idea of what I’d like to do, but the path there is a bit hazy. I’d like to continue working with Optum for some time, since they’ve been incredible to me during my internships. I’d also like to get more education.

As I’m coming into my last year, I feel like I wasn’t able to dive as deep as I wanted to in some places, so continuing my education, either with a Master’s or a Ph.D., would make me feel a bit more complete. I’ve really enjoyed being a TA and am really considering earning said Ph.D. so that I can keep teaching and working with some really talented University students. Whatever path I take, I can guarantee that expanding my knowledge will always be the goal.