March 15, 2017

Sessions: CSU Computer Science Growing With Local Tech Industry

Ashley Fletcher Frampton  /  Charleston Digital News
Valerie Sessions, CSU Computer Science Dept. ChairValerie Sessions, CSU Computer Science Dept. Chair
Valerie Sessions, CSU Computer Science Dept. ChairValerie Sessions, CSU Computer Science Dept. Chair
Valerie Sessions, CSU Computer Science Dept. ChairValerie Sessions, CSU Computer Science Dept. Chair
Valerie Sessions, CSU Computer Science Dept. ChairValerie Sessions, CSU Computer Science Dept. Chair

The Charleston Digital Corridor's Leadership Profile Series is focused on the individuals who are driving the Charleston tech scene forward. This series is brought to you with support from Charleston Southern University.

Valerie Sessions is chair of the Computer Science Department at Charleston Southern University. Sessions is also a computer scientist at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR).

Where did you grow up? What was life like?

I grew up in Aiken, S.C. My father was an electrical engineer at the Savannah River National Lab and my mom was an elementary school librarian/media specialist. Aiken was a great place to grow up. It's a beautiful little town. It's just very quaint, especially at that time.

I had an amazing upbringing. My parents were fantastic and I always felt that I had the support of my family and my church while I was growing up.

How did you come to be in Charleston?

I came to attend the College of Charleston, and my brother joined me in Charleston at the Citadel a few years later. The beaches, the food, the history – both of us are too smart to have left.

In college, I worked as an intern at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center (SPAWAR), one of the larger places to work at the time, and fell in love with the work and the area. SPAWAR was very supportive of my desire to attend graduate school, and therefore I stayed at SPAWAR while working on my master's and Ph.D. They even allowed me to commute to the University of South Carolina a few days a week while still working on very interesting projects.

After my Ph.D. work was complete, I joined the faculty at Charleston Southern University and still work part time with SPAWAR.

You are chair of the Computer Science Department at CSU and a computer scientist at SPAWAR. Can you describe your roles in both places?

As chair of the computer science department, I help our faculty expand our offerings and develop and assess the curriculum. I meet with prospective and current students and serve on various committees. I also engage with the tech community to make sure that our graduates have the skills they need to succeed in the industry.

At SPAWAR, I serve the Navy as a computer scientist. I work with a team of engineers and scientists mainly on physical security and video management systems for federal partners.

What was your first job, or most memorable early job? What did you learn from it?

My dad signed me up for an internship at the Savannah River Plant as a 16-year-old. I worked with a group of Ph.Ds. on a research project in a secure lab. I got to do most of the testing – run the experiments, set them up, take all the notes, get all that back to the researchers. They were very gracious and would allow me to sit in on all the meetings they had about the results, so I got to see the whole process of here's what we're trying to study, here's the actual experimentation process and here are the results. I learned a great deal about the research process, about making mistakes but trying anyway, and about always looking for more great questions to answer.

It was a secure lab, so basically my dad would drive me in every day. I would be dropped off at this little secure location. I couldn't leave for anything until he came and picked me up. He loved it, but I didn't like it at all. I definitely found my own jobs after that.

What role does CSU's Computer Science Department play in the local technology industry?

The CS Department at CSU has been in existence since 1982, and we have been preparing students for the workforce since that time. We have grown tremendously over the last five years – by about 20% – and now have around 150 majors in our three undergraduate degree programs.

We have a master's program as well that we started last fall, so it's in its first year. It's done very well. We have been able to recruit from the local state schools into our program, and then we also are looking now to recruit more international students. There are about 10 students in that program now. We have been very pleased with the quality of the students coming in, and we also have been very pleased with the number of students coming in.

Due to demand and with advice from our Industry Advisory Board, we have also developed a new bachelor of science in cybersecurity and will admit students in the fall of 2017.

I have found that sometimes people count CSU out because we are a small private school. I have only found that to be an advantage. Our new cybersecurity degree program, for example, was a program that our IAB and the tech community as a whole were encouraging us to start. Because we have less bureaucracy and red tape to cut through, it was a much easier process to meet this need and develop the program than it would have been for a public university. CSU has excellent degree programs and our students go on to become great leaders in the community.

Can you tell me more about the demand for cybersecurity expertise? What type of companies are hiring?

Every type of company is hiring. It doesn't have to be one that is focused on cybersecurity because private and public industries need cybersecurity professionals. You see things in the paper every day about a company that has had an attack or has had some data stolen. That's just the ones that are willing to report on it. We are seeing demand from everywhere for that program. Health care is going to need it. Private industry, public industry and, obviously, the government. We worked with our Industry Advisory Board to create a program that would work for all those stakeholders.

It's something that the students want to do, too. The students are really interested in the program. They think they are going to sit in the dark and be hackers all day long, so they like it.

We are one of the first programs in the Southeast with an actual complete undergraduate program in cybersecurity. There are a lot of certificates in cybersecurity, for which people normally just take a certain track of classes in their computer science program.

What changes have you seen in Charleston's tech sector over the last decade?

When I was graduating from CofC, there were about three places people went to work if they stayed in Charleston. Benefitfocus at that time was "the" start-up in town, and Automated Trading Desk was a little gem out in Mount Pleasant. Now our graduates can choose from established businesses like Boeing, Google and Blackbaud, or work in a variety of interesting startups or for the federal government.

There are more graduate offerings than ever in the Charleston area now, too. While I had to drive two hours to complete my graduate work at USC, one could now work here in Charleston and get a Ph.D. from Clemson. It's changed tremendously, and all for the better. I thank visionaries at the Charleston Digital Corridor, Charleston Regional Development Alliance and the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce for this success.

Has CSU's Computer Science Department changed as tech and advanced manufacturing have become a larger part of the local economy?

As I already said, our enrollment has increased, and that's probably because of the variety of industries coming to town. Our Computer Science Department has been here for a while, since the 1980s, and we've continued to grow as Charleston has grown. As the bigger companies have come in, we have certainly incorporated them into our Industry Advisory Board and gotten some information from them about what they need from graduates. And we try to incorporate that where we can in our curriculum.

I think the great thing is that the fundamentals that students need have remained the same. They really need to be able to think critically about a problem. They need to be able to break that problem down into small parts, and then solve it with whatever the tool of the day is. So while the programming languages have changed over time, the basic process to write a program or to create an application, whether it is a mobile app or a more traditional standalone app, those have remained the same.

So we have kept our fundamentals very strong, especially in math and computer science. And then we have allowed the Industry Advisory Board, as they tell us the latest programming language or the latest networking idea that we need to incorporate, we have incorporated those into the curriculum as well.

How has the talent landscape in Charleston evolved, as it relates to technology jobs?

The Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce puts out a talent demand study yearly, and technology jobs have been in the largest growth sector for years now. We need a variety of talent in software engineering, IT/networking, cybersecurity and related fields. It is projected that hundreds of these jobs will go unfilled because there simply are not enough applicants for the jobs.

How many of your computer science graduates work locally?

I would say the majority of our students stay in state and a good many of them stay local to Charleston. That makes sense because so many of them are from here to begin with.

How do you measure or define success for your program?

The success of the student is where we measure everything. It's such a joy to watch our students graduate, to go off into the community, to be successful obviously in their jobs but also to have that component where they are really giving back, where they are really trying to expand and grow the community as well. We define success based on what our students are out in the community doing, and they have been very successful.

What kind of interaction or partnerships does your department have with the industry?

We partner with the industry in many ways. We have an Industry Advisory Board made up of companies from around the state. They advise us on curricular matters as well as help with mock interviews and Association for Computing Machinery club meetings for our students. The Palmetto Roost Chapter of the Association of Old Crows, an international cyber warfare group, has been a sponsor of our cybersecurity club for many years now, and we take part in competitions sponsored by local organizations like the Charleston Defense Contractors Association and Charleston Women in Tech mentorship programs. The Charleston Digital Corridor is also a great partner in helping students find internships and jobs through CharlestonWorksä.

Do you see additional changes on the horizon for the department and the local tech industry?

I see us continuing to grow and adapt. We are hiring new faculty members to help with our programs, and I see more partnerships on the horizon between our students and industry.

My hope for the tech industry is continued growth in Charleston and hiring more and more local talent instead of needing to import that talent from outside of the state. CSU and all the local colleges will be a big part of training those future employees.

What is your management style? Why is that your approach? Has it changed over time?

I have evolved over time into my own style; I would call it "motherly management." I care very deeply for all of our faculty, staff and students, and I hope they know I have their back at all times. But I can also get in your face and ask you to change what you are doing for your own good. I am the first to tell students to go get a tie on, to change their resumes, to work harder or become a better team player and give back to our community.

I think especially in leadership roles, it's also very important to listen. That sounds so easy, but is very hard to put into practice. But once you stop listening to what people need and instead think you have it all figured out – I think that's when you become prone to making mistakes.

What lessons have you learned from good bosses? Bad bosses?

I had one boss (not at CSU) we used to call "the anti-GPS" because you never knew where you stood with him. People need to hear from you that they are doing a good job or a bad job. They don't just know that instinctively.

From what I have seen, good bosses aren't scared of having great people around them. They don't want to be the smartest person on the team. They realize they are expendable and that the good of the organization is more important.

I also admire the bosses who lead by example. They are the first to pitch in and won't ask you to do something that they aren't willing to do.

Do you have a routine that's important to your day? A morning ritual, meditation, etc.?

As a Christian, my prayer and scripture time is essential for anything I will accomplish in my day. Also, the time at home before we take the kids to school means a lot to me. My children are younger, they are 10 and 12, and they are almost at the age where they don't want us anymore. But for now, you can still get your morning hugs before school, and "have a good day" – all that means a lot to me. I really enjoy being at home for those moments in the morning.

What is your biggest pet peeve in business or amongst colleagues?

People who only look out for themselves and their own bottom line. I don't work with anyone like that at CSU, but I have in the past. It's so disheartening to see such a small worldview. There are so many challenges to overcome and people in need. I once heard that your life is defined by the problem you are trying to solve. If that problem is only, "How do I get rich?", you miss out on the chance to help your neighbors and grow your community.

What advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?

Be prepared to work very long hours and to have a great deal of rejection. If it was easy, everyone would do it. But the rewards can be great if you give it your all.

What advice would you give new graduates seeking to work in the tech industry?

Volunteer while you are not working and always say yes to every new opportunity. You won't really know what you like until you try it, and even if you hate it, you have learned something and gained experience. And you never know what person you are going to meet at that job that you didn't think was perfect for you who might be the gateway to the next thing in your life.

What one person has been the biggest influence on your business life? And why?

My husband, Kip Hooker. He is a highly successful businessman and is always giving back to the Charleston community. He is a sincere advocate for women in the workplace, and he proves that not only in his business but also at home – picking up kids, picking up the slack and always motivating me to go make us some money!

Are you a Mac or a PC? iPhone or Android?

Platform neutral. I run a Mac with two virtual machines – one Windows and one Debian Linux. But I do love my iPhone.

What is your usual Starbucks order?

Hot peach tea.

Outside of work what keeps you busy?

My husband, our two kids and our church, First Baptist. They are our Charleston family.