Cognitive Science Alumni

Our Department isn't defined by the physical space we occupy on the campus of UCSD - it is defined, rather, by the remarkable individuals who make up our community. The lifeblood of any community is its people, and this is especially true of a community that relies on ideas and innovations. In recognition of this, the Department of Cognitive Science at UCSD presents our new "Alumnus/Alumna of the Month" feature.

The goal of the Alumnus of the Month program is to celebrate some of our outstanding Alumni, while giving all students - past, present, and future - an opportunity to meet some of our graduates, and to see some of the amazing things that people from our community have accomplished - in the field of Cognitive Science and beyond.

The hope is that it will both put a more 'human' face on Cognitive Science, as well as be a testimony to the wide range of interesting things that one can do with a Cognitive Science background. In addition, of course, it's a means for CogSci alumni to see what other alumni are up to.

Alumnus of the Month: Salim Odero, 2003

Salim Odero

Salim is an Applications Technologist for Oracle, working as an "application technologist"--meeting with potential customers to understand their current business practices and show how they can leverage technology to improve their productivity and profitability. When he's not traveling across the Western United States to meet with customers or spending time with his wife, you're most likely to find Salim studying martial arts at a local dojang or on-campus at the RIMAC.

An Interview with Salim Odero

by Ben Cipollini

What was your path to UCSD CogSci, and how did that shape your experience here?

I started as a computer science major at CalTech. My primary interest was in programming, but when I started doing programming classes, I realized that programming wasn't as fun as I thought it would be. I still enjoyed it, but I found that I wasn't getting a lot of fulfillment out of it. So after a couple of years, I decided that I wanted to look into other places.

CalTech had a computational neuroscience discipline, but it really was just computer science and some other classes that they put on top of it. I came across UCSD and the cognitive science program, and it seemed very interesting to me. The integration of the psychological and physiological disciplines in the context of computer science and modeling was really appealing. I'm from San Diego, so the chance to go back home, be close to my parents--all of those factors came into play, and I decided to make the change. I transferred over here for my last 2 years.

I really enjoyed my time at UCSD. It felt like it was too short. Obviously, I was only here for two years, but there were still so many areas and classes that I wanted to do. If I had found an excuse to stick around for another quarter, I gladly would have taken it just to take some more classes. It speaks to the great people around the department, especially the professors. There were classes that were challenging, but I enjoyed them all.

What aspects of your experience in the department did you most enjoy?

I always had a strong technical background, but what I appreciated about cognitive science was that it gave me a greater understanding of other applications and other areas that computer science didn't give me. A couple of my favorite classes were Natural Language Processing [NLP], Cognitive Linguistics, and all the neural networks courses.

In my second year, I got an opportunity to TA for a statistics class in the department. I really enjoyed the experience. It offered me a glimpse into the aspect of management. In the academic world, managing a group of students, as well as curriculum preparation, I really enjoyed that aspect. And getting inside, getting the instructor or professor's objectives and perspective on how they want to teach. Those things I've been able to apply in the work world.

I also enjoyed the interactions with people in the department. I made some great friends, people I still keep in touch with. One of the students I was a TA to wound up working at Oracle in the same capacity that I had; we still keep in touch too. And I just enjoyed every one of my professors.

How did you get to your current job from cogsci?

In my final year here at UCSD, I was looking at graduate programs with strong NLP professors that I could do research with and study under. At the same time, I was circulating my resume on a lot of job forums, and I happened to get a call from Oracle. They had looked at my background and noticed I'd done some database stuff, and asked if I would be interested in doing a consulting job with them. Things worked out; they offered me a job.

Initially, I always had a sense that I would try Oracle out for a couple of years, then go back to graduate school. After working there for a couple of years--I first worked as a technician, doing PC support, server support, and that kind of thing--I wanted to do something different, something more. Eventually there was an opening for what we call a sales consultant, and so I jumped at that.

I deal primarily with a market called "Commercial Applications", which is pretty much everything that doesn't fall into a big industry such as automotive or government agencies. So I deal primarily with high-growth upstarts and have to be flexible; from one customer to the next, the business can be completely different. A customer we met with recently in Fresno is a food processing company. They process cheese, other dairy products, citrus products; a company like Minute Maid would buy their orange juice. A couple of weeks before that, I was at Jenny Craig International, which is based locally out of San Diego. So, there's a great variety, and that's what i enjoy about this job and market: it never gets boring.

Is cognitive science used in your job?

We build a lot of prototypes for customer scenarios; it's one of the things I need to do when we're engaging in a customer opportunity. They have this particular type of business problem, or they have this older system that's out of date or out of support, and they want to modernize their system. We need to build an interface or application that fits their business model and what their users do. So, a lot of what I do deals with understanding their current processes and trying to modify or build our interfaces to fit their business needs.

There's a lot of cognitive engineering that goes on with that. We go to the customer and do a "survey". We sit down with their project team, and map out their current solution, how it's used. We visit a lot of warehouses, see how they currently operate things. We spend a lot of time with users, understanding how they navigate the screens, what about their existing interface is efficient for them, and what the inefficiencies are.

We huddle internally and try to map that to the prototype that we build. We discuss what we need to build, what we need to change in our software, go into the process of making those changes, and then come back with a prototype or proposal to the customer.

Looking back, what experiences did you find to be the most helpful in your current job?

I didn't take any classes on HCI, and in retrospect I wish I had. But there are still quite a few ways that my experience in the cognitive science department has been really helpful for my job.

One of the greatest benefits I got from switching to cognitive science is the fact that it opened my mind up to other disciplines that were loosely coupled to computer science, and gave me confidence, in the sense that, I can do these other things, I don't need to pigeonhole myself into a purely computer science-type of job.

My experience as a TA was also one that I've been able to apply in other areas, especially in the work world, and outside in terms of my hobbies. I do martial arts, and now I teach as well. One of the things I do in advance is to try and prepare a 5 or 6 week plan, to figure out how I want to progress students towards learning a particular set of things.

How do you keep a balance between work-life and life-life?

Given the convenience of mobile devices, interfaces like Twitter, you could easily make yourself available 24/7, and people will take advantage of that. You'll drive yourself batty if you allow that to happen; that's the nature of the beast.

For me, I typically turn my cell phone off at 7 or 8pm, and turn it on at 6am. It's hard to do sometimes, but it's important to do, to have some sense of separation.

Wow, that doesn't seem like much time off...

(Laughing) I also force myself to do hobbies or other activities outside of work. If I say I'm going on vacation on a certain day, I absolutely enforce that, and avoid the temptation to respond to somebody's email.

Before I came to UCSD, I had started in a couple of martial arts; one is Korean called Tang Soo Do, and a Brazilian one called Capoeira. I started Tang Soo Do at CalTech, and I continued on after I transferred here. I still train under the same instructor (called "Sa Bum Nima") at the same workout area in RIMAC (called "dojanga"in Korean). On Saturdays I teach classes. It's been a good experience; I consider it to be my home dojang. The Capoeira I also started while living in Los Angeles but continue to do here at UCSD once or twice a week.

Plus, being married... (laughs). That's something that strongly encourages you find a balance with work.

In the next 5-10 years, where do you see cognitive science making the most impact in your field?

There's a group of knowledge workers who look at how the business is running over time, and they analyze various areas to see where they can improve processes based on historical data. So for example, take a company that sells product "X". Over the year, there might be a big trend that dictates more or less sales. They want to make sure they make enough of this product to satisfy the particular demand over the parts of the year. This is a common problem for companies, because if you make too much of a product, and you have it sitting in a warehouse, you're paying for that. The common problem is to make sure that you make just enough of what you're selling, so that you're not paying the cost for holding it.

That's where the idea of business intelligence and concepts like neural networks or statistical modeling come into play. That's where companies try and use algorithms to predict how much of product "X" they need to produce over the course of the year. There are a lot of inputs that go into that--seasonal effects, fluctuations in raw material costs, market conditions, past history. Companies want to find ways to leverage those factors more effectively, to come up with better models. That's an area where cognitive science can continue to make an impact--to continue to develop better, more predictive models.

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