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: Douglas Sperber, 1991

Douglas Sperber

Douglas Sperber has over 16 years of experience in the Information Technology (IT) industry and has provided senior IT consulting services for Fortune 500 companies. He started InSynergy, LLC. and has grown the firm to include over 50 consultants. Through his vision and management, InSynergy, LLC. continues to provide value, integrity, and professionalism in delivering the finest technical services.

An Interview with Douglas Sperber

by Tristan Davenport

Tell us a bit about your company, InSynergy Consulting.

    InSynergy provides managed IT services for small and medium-sized businesses. We also offer web development and hosting. And the most exciting for me is the consulting services. My background is in the enterprise consulting area, and we love startup companies. Our depth of knowledge really helps even a small company have great IT infrastructure. We tend to market towards 25-75 person companies. Smaller companies have smaller budgets, which is ok. We treat every company equally and strive to have great services.

What would you say is the most challenging part of your job at InSynergy?

    For me, its marketing. I'm more of a left-brain engineering type. I think we would be a lot bigger if I had put more energy into marketing at the beginning.

And when you were in the Cognitive Science department here at UCSD, did you graduate in the computational area?

    Actually, I love neurobiology and neuroscience. But I did not see myself going on to graduate school in those areas. As I like to say, computers don't bleed. And I understood the practicality of the job market. So, yes, I tended to focus on the computer science areas.

Did you consider academia in computer science or computational modeling?

    Not really. I love academia, but our professors at UCSD are top-notch. They literally write the books on their subjects. I never felt I would absolutely succeed as a professor.

Do you feel today that your education in cognitive science flowed naturally into your current career?

    Maybe the other way around. My career was partially shaped by cognitive science. I feel that I succeeded not because cognitive science brought me into a specific career. Rather, because I had a well-rounded approach with writing and soft skills (as opposed to being a pocket-protector engineer with no people skills), I very much succeeded as a consultant.

So, as a twenty-something college graduate with a Cognitive Science degree, how did you go about making your way in the job market?

    These days, there is a better understanding of Cog-Sci. It would be hard for a Cog-Sci person to go for a job as a programmer and say you are as experienced as someone with a Computer Science degree.  My approach, and the way I hire people, is to hire the right person, not the right skill (though obviously, some skill is needed). Sell your ability to think out of the box, your soft skills, your ability to bring that something extra to the company.

Shifting gears a little: Do you have any memories of particularly excellent or useful experiences in the Cog Sci department?

    I remember Ed Hutchins kicking it in class, happy about how good the waves were. I remember stories of Don Norman reading aloud accident reports from the National Transportation Safety Board - on flights - and scaring the bejeezus out of the other passengers. Taking advantage of free coffee when I worked in a lab (oh... I drank probably an undergraduate tuition's worth). I especially remember the people and camaraderie - we were new and small and all of us loved our department!

So, apart from your point about selling yourself as a whole person rather than a skill, do you have any advice for Cog-Sci majors about what to do on the job market?

    Well, it's a tough market right now. Make sure you present well. First impressions count! I will toss a resume out if it looks like someone did it in Windows Notepad (and a lot of them do!). As an employer, I don't have time for people who can't show me a good resume or decent cover letter. If you can't do that, how are you going to be at your job - do everything half-assed? Figure out what you want to do. Get good at it and show relevant experience. Get an internship, take a class, show your capabilities. Even though I hire the person, you still have to do your job. So I'd rather have someone with one year experience and other useful qualities than someone with ten years of experience and very narrow skills... Still, it's important to start early. Get an internship - even unpaid. That experience could be priceless later on. Go to networking events, get to know the business community. You'd be surprised how many people want to help you if they can.

How do you negotiate the work/life balance as an executive?

    You are talking to the wrong person! I've lived in Europe before, where they are much better at that than us Americans. Right now, I'm working 80-90 hours per week.  Really, though, it comes from a simple place. What is truly important in life? When you look back at life, it isn't that money you worked so hard to get. It's the smiles, friends, and family... just keep it all in perspective!

To Nominate Someone

To nominate someone as an alumna/alumnus of the month, or if you would be interested in being featured yourself, please contact us at alumnusofthemonth@cogsci.ucsd.edu.