Ricardo Olenewa: what higher skills get you

Ricardo Olenewa generously agreed to an interview about his undergrad at UWaterloo, as well as his MA–which he didn’t finish, but with good reason, and interesting outcomes. I was so excited to share the interview, but it arrived in my inbox just as a cup of coffee was propelled onto my laptop. Returning to it, I promise you, it is worth the wait, if only to find out: how did half an MA make a difference in his life and career? (Hint: Ricardo is the Manager of Engineering Education at Google!)

JLH: Upon reflection, do you think you chose UWaterloo for the right reasons? Was what you got in the end what you anticipated in the beginning?
RO: I chose Waterloo for, arguably, the wrong reasons. After finishing my first year in science at Guelph, I took a year to travel and work; in the meantime, my girlfriend was accepted to UWaterloo, so I followed.

I got much more than I anticipated from my BA. I didn’t really understand the purpose of a university degree before I started, but I had a suspicion that I would want one. The degree, as an artifact, was the least interesting thing that I earned during my time at Waterloo. I learned to think rigorously and articulate clearly. Everything that I’ve done since my BA has built on those skills.

When choosing a school for my MA I had a few constraints, but I chose Waterloo because the people with whom I wanted to work were in this department. That’s a message that we don’t hear enough: what you do matters less than who you do it with. Whether you’re choosing a spouse, a thesis supervisor, or an employer, the people that you’re with make all the difference. Great things come from places where you find great groups of people. Waterloo has a great group of people. I could go on, but I’ll stop and get back to the question.

When I came back for my MA, I was clearer about my purpose. I wanted to join the ranks of great literary critics, or in the words of Northrop Frye, I wanted to think beautiful thoughts and occasionally write them down. Again, I got much more than I expected. I never finished my MA as a result, but I accelerated my career based on what I learned here.

JLH: You did an undergrad and began an MA in English at UW: what made you decide to continue?
RO: I tried a lot of things after my undergrad, including very short stint in commercial real estate, teaching Computer Programming at George Brown College, running the IT department for a large social service agency, and founding two start-ups. I applied the analytical skills that I learned from reading literature to everything that I did, and I really loved teaching at the post-secondary level. Some changes in my life prompted me to stop “goofing off” and commit to something. Continuing with my literary studies seemed like the most obvious choice.

Things worked out differently than I intended when I started my MA, and I still carry a lot of guilt for not finishing (probably my Catholic upbringing). I feel like I let people down in some way, and I try to make up for it every day.

JLH: Can you talk a bit about your experience at UWaterloo?
RO: I didn’t take advantage of the co-op program, but during my MA I was awarded a MITACS grant to design the conversation strategy for an appliance that enabled you to control a BlackBerry by voice. I worked with Professor Randy Harris and a local start-up. I ran a qualitative study that investigated how people interacted with their email while driving. This was an amazing experience because I touched everything from designing the study and getting approval from the Office of Research Ethics, to building a driving simulator, to analyzing conversations, to reporting and making recommendations.

JLH: How was your current career shaped by your experiences?
RO: My grant project gave me experience and confidence with techniques that put me on similar footing to people with much more industry experience. I’ve adapted and used qualitative research techniques to lead others to do more, to be more creative, than they thought they could be. Also, taking responsibility for the scope and complexity of tasks that the grant demanded helped me exercise my strategic thinking skills.

JLH: Working in the field you do, how common are people with English degrees? Do you feel it makes you look at things differently than some of your colleagues?
RO: Technical Writers come from a lot of different backgrounds. A few of my colleagues are English PhDs or ABD. Others are computer scientists, engineers, physicists, or linguists. I find that the educational level of my colleagues has more of an impact on their perspective than the discipline that they came from.

My colleagues with STEM backgrounds are great analytical thinkers. The quality that makes them most endearing and most frustrating is their relentless attempt to find quantitative or algorithmic solutions to every problem. If you squint, there might be a rough correlation between the degree they’ve achieved and how much they’re willing to accept that some problems aren’t amenable to computational solutions. They’re not always sure how to solve problems without computational solutions, but they know how to ask the right questions and find a solution.

My colleagues with Humanities backgrounds are outstanding systems thinkers, but they don’t think of themselves in that way. The quality that makes them most endearing and most frustrating is that they see a problem from (sometimes too many) perspectives. Squint at this group and you might see a rough correlation between the degree that they’ve achieved and their ability to envision and execute an entire program of work around a problem.

In the long run, the best people converge on the same set of skills, but those with higher degrees seem to develop those skills sooner.

Thank you again to Ricardo for participating in Words in Place.–JLH


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