Feature Story

Tech Savvy

Graduates with non-tech majors discover exciting tech-related jobs.

by Joanie Eppinga

BYOB—We all know what that means. But BYOD?

“Bring Your Own Device” is the new phrase sweeping through American workplaces as technology becomes ever more pervasive. In the Information Age, employees are expected to be conversant with technology, and sometimes even to bring their own devices to work.

More than two decades ago, in 1990, the U.S. Labor Department wrote a prescient report called What Work Requires of Schools. Pointing to the “explosive growth of technology on the job,” the report revealed what 21st-century employers would want: people who are comfortable with technology and know how to solve problems.

Nick Cicero ’09 hadn’t realized those words would describe him. A music major and communications and media minor, Cicero thought his passion for music would keep him away from the tech side of things. His mom knew better; she says Nick’s early interest in computers led naturally to his current job.

Cicero is employed by Livefyre, a San Francisco-area company creating applications that allow website viewers to interact with content on the site. Cicero works with companies such as Sports Illustrated, Playstation, and Mashable to help them incorporate live blogs and chat. He also conducts brand campaigns using data from social media.

“Say a company receives comments on its Facebook page,” Nick explains. “We bring those comments back to its site.”

Computers and the internet were “just exploding” when Cicero was in college, he says, but he didn’t imagine his full-time job would be in the tech space. “I never thought this was what I’d be doing in five years,” Cicero admits. But at Nazareth, Cicero learned Photoshop and InDesign, which served as an introduction to the software he uses now; even more important, he says, his liberal arts education made him well-rounded.

While he was discovering how digital music was created, Cicero was also learning to cultivate good relationships with professors and peers, a skill that now serves him well in a very different context. “The business that I’m in allows me to do a lot of different things with a lot of different people,” Cicero notes. “I discovered this world at Nazareth while trying to figure out what was next, and I was able to jump on it and springboard my career.”

Cicero is not the only one to find himself in an unanticipated position. Anne Marie Hamelin ’00 found that technology put her in one—literally. “I was pregnant and on the floor, attaching a mount into a wheelchair for a communication device,” she says, laughing, “and I thought, ‘This isn’t what I was expecting.’”

Hamelin, who got her master’s in speech communications and disorders, co-founded AAC Etc (Augmentative and Alternative Communication Experienced Technology Consultants) with fellow Nazareth alum Amanda Whipple ’09. The partners research technological devices that help people with and without disabilities to communicate; then they train their clients to use them.

“It turns out I have a knack for the tech piece,” Hamelin says. Although the iPad and other sophisticated devices had not been invented when she was in school, Hamelin says Nazareth provided her with a strong basis for her current job “by teaching me to be independent in my research, to spark that interest and to stay current.”

Nazareth is now doing even more as it steps up its technological game for people in all majors. According to Deborah Dooley ’75, Ph.D., dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, the college offers an interdisciplinary minor in digital marketing and design. The minor combines English and communications and media with management and information technology; students learn to navigate online courses and a course management system (CMS).

That’s not all. The wealth of technological options available for the “hard” sciences is being matched across the board in the humanities. For the visual communication design major, sophisticated softwares are combined with complex cameras and computer editing materials. Modern foreign language students use the TellMeMore software and video/editing equipment to produce projects online. Theater majors learn to use sound and lighting boards and CAD design software, and music majors have a full complement of composition technology in the music/business laboratory.

In addition, Dooley notes, students in methods courses in all disciplines use software to explore archives and databases and to prepare materials for research design. Specialized software is available in the social sciences and psychology.

Whipple, who earned a master’s in communication sciences and disorders from Nazareth and co-founded AAC Etc, approves of the changes Nazareth is making. Whipple and Hamelin are in talks with the college about teaching a course on using communication technology.

“Nazareth knows it’s becoming a popular thing,” Whipple explains. “The people you meet ask about how these devices can aid communication.”

That’s information Whipple has learned well, to her surprise. “Until recently,” she notes, “when you went to see a client, you just took bags of materials with you, not knowing which would work.”

Then the iPad arrived on the scene as a game-changer. Whipple admits it was daunting learning all the settings and features. But her education gave her the resources she needed. “At Nazareth, we learned the foundation,” she says. “We got a good education in communication disorders and related interventions. Now we can adapt a multitude of tools as needed.”

Whipple never finds the work dull, because it’s a challenge to find the right application for an individual. The goal is to help people communicate. When she and Hamelin meet those needs, Whipple says, people find meaning in their lives.

A desire to meet people’s needs also drives Kat Evans ’92, who majored in fine arts. “At the core of Nazareth College is a focus on serving others,” Evans explains. “This ethic of making the individual being served the priority is more valuable than anything else I have learned. If you want to create something, you must keep in mind who it is you are creating it for.”

Evans focused on creating visual effects for feature films. After teaching art for two years and realizing the job wasn’t right for her, Evans became inspired when she saw Jurassic Park and Toy Story. “I saw those two movies, and I thought, ‘That is the future,’” she remembers. So instead of getting a master’s degree in education, Evans got one in graphics.

That led to a stint at Industrial Light & Magic, the visual effects company founded by George Lucas, where Evans was hired solely on the quality of her demo reel. She started out at ILM doing digital paint and rotoscoping, working on films such as Rango, Star Trek, and Transformers. Later she moved on to The Paint Collective, where she contributed to After Earth and Silver Linings Playbook, among other films. One of her jobs was match moving, a technologically complex task that involves taking the movement and position of a real-world camera and using it to create a virtual camera that moves in exactly the same way. Match moving requires a number of varied skills, and Evans was ready.

“The experience of being in a studio environment with other people in college helped prepare me,” she says. “What I got from Nazareth was a foundation in art—skills, color, composition—and that served me well when I decided to move into a more technical field.”

Though she excelled in her trade, Evans could no longer keep up with the 70-hour work weeks demanded by a major studio after she and her husband had a baby. She started freelancing, and since she has the technological flexibility, she may move into video games and Web design.

Asked what advice she would give to others entering a highly technological field, Evans replies, “Know what your skills are and what you enjoy.” She adds that a good education is important. Although tech was just emerging when she was at Nazareth, the school was a significant stepping-stone to where she is now. She says, “I learned there how to say to myself, ‘I’m going to see this thing through.’ Regardless of what you study, you have to know how to work.”

Another important quality in the technological workplace, according to Anna Hadnagy ’11, is sheer guts. Hadnagy, who was nominated this year for Rochester’s Technology Woman of the Year award, graduated with a degree in communications and media—not a degree usually associated with high-tech projects. But, like Hamelin and Whipple, Hadnagy co-founded a tech-oriented company. GradFly is a web startup that showcases the work of high schoolers interested in the world of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Students put their portfolios on the site, allowing colleges and potential employers to see what they can do.

“If anyone tells you technology is too hard or only for nerds,” Hadnagy asserts, “it’s just a big lie.” She believes everyone should learn how to code, because “everything is so techy. It gives you an edge.”

Hadnagy herself offers a stellar example of the kind of crossover reasoning she says is important. She may be especially used to thinking that way, having lived first in Budapest and then in Rochester, speaking first Hungarian and then English, studying first math and then communications. She is what the Department of Labor report would classify as a prime worker, given its call for “educated and skilled workers who are technologically savvy and able to work across different cultures.”

That blend of skills may not come naturally to everyone, and Hadnagy acknowledges that her work in communications was very different from what she’s doing now. For her, though, it’s great to be able to use communication as a basis for her work in technology. “Everyone should know how to communicate properly,” she says, “but we also need people who are tech savvy.”

She particularly encourages women to immerse themselves in technology. “People are discouraged from being on the tech side,” Hadnagy says. “They think it’s going to be so hard. You just have to make your hands dirty. Anyone who thinks they are not technologically inclined, they just have to go for it a little bit.”

Or they can go for it a lot. When graduates successfully bridge the humanities and technology, they can become what the Department of Labor report describes as “workers who can collaborate across multiple disciplines.” Then they’ll be able to experience the best of both worlds. These five Nazareth alumni are there to show them how.

Joanie Eppinga is a freelance writer and editor in Spokane, Washington.

Nick Cicero

Nick Cicero ’09 works for Livefyre, a San Francisco-area company creating applications that allow website viewers to interact with content on the site.

Kat Evans's Demo Reel