May 16, 2016

CofC’s van Delden Working To Connect Students, Local Tech Firms

Ashley Fletcher Frampton  /  Charleston Digital News

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

Sebastian van Delden joined the College of Charleston last summer as professor and chairman of the Computer Science Department, which is seeing significant growth in enrollment and graduates. Van Delden aims to increase partnerships between the department and Charleston's technology industry. 

Where did you grow up? What was life like?

I grew up on a small island in the Caribbean called Saba. It's a small Dutch island. When I was growing up there, only 1,200 people or so lived on the island. It's a volcanic island, so it's world renowned for deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, things like that. My brother had a little Boston Whaler fishing boat, and we'd always be out doing something on the water.

I had an opportunity to come to Florida to go to school. I went to the University of Central Florida in Orlando. At UCF, I had classes with 1,200 students in them. So to come from an island with 1,200 inhabitants, it was quite a culture shock.

How did you come to be in Charleston?

Out of school, I got a job first at USC Upstate in Spartanburg, and I was there for about eight or 10 years. I was a professor of computer science and I wanted to go more into administration, so I got a job as department chair at Southeastern Louisiana University, and moved out there for three years. Then, for several different reasons, I wanted to move back to Charleston, closer to family in Florida, too, and saw the position open here and applied.

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

When I was in college, I would go down to the Caribbean every summer, and my brother and I would take summer jobs just to save up some money to come back up to college. Every summer I worked construction. One summer, almost the whole summer, my primary task was busting rocks with a sledge hammer in the hundred-degree weather in the Caribbean. It's hard work, hard physical work. That was one of the best motivations to do well in school.

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

There's two kinds of managers. Some bosses use more of the intimidation, "it's better to be feared than loved" approach. I've seen some bosses be intimidating, sarcastic to get you to do what they want. Then I've had other bosses that are more supportive and nurturing. With both approaches, I think you get more or less the same result in the end. But in the latter approach, where you don't sweat the small stuff and you're more nurturing and build some humor into your mission, everybody just stays healthier for longer. You get the same results in the end, but everybody is just happier.

What role does the College of Charleston's Computer Science Department play in the local technology industry?

I think we're definitely becoming a very good feeder school to support the region. Our enrollment is approaching 500 students. We will graduate about 70 or 80 students this year. We graduated 49 last year, and the running average before that was about 30 students. Within two years from now, we are going to graduate over 100 students moving forward.

When you look at those numbers and compare them to other universities in town and other universities looking to move to town, it's pretty clear that the university in the Lowcountry that can be the true feeder school to support the high-tech corridor down here is our department.

How many of your graduates work locally?

Of the 60 or so graduates who are graduating this May – we already graduated almost 20 in December – about half of those already have jobs. About 70 percent are staying in town, and about 30 percent are moving out of state.

Of the 70 percent who are staying in town, the average starting salary is about $61,000. Out of state, the average starting salary is about $82,000.

What has driven the recent growth in the program?

Nationwide, there is a growth in computer science programs because of an uptick in need for computer scientists. But there are two other factors also driving our growth here because our growth has been healthy, probably exceeding national averages.

One, we get very good state support. The state of South Carolina has been giving the Computer Science Department extra money, which we have primarily been using to provide scholarships to students. We award different kinds of scholarships to in-state students and some out-of-state students as well. That helps us be competitive with most other universities. Also, we've been able to hire extra faculty using the state money. Because to get all these students is wonderful, but if you have a big old pile of bricks and if you don't have a brick layer, you can't build a house. So we need to have faculty to teach the students.

Another factor is the really good diversity of programs in our department. We have computer science; everybody has computer science. We have computer information systems, that's the business and computing degree. A lot of schools also have that one. Then we have a computing in the arts degree, which is a combination of computing and then something on the creative side of the spectrum – art, music, theater. That one's a very unique program. We have 90 students in it, 51 percent girls, so it's very diverse, which is very unusual for a computing degree. It draws different kinds of students to the college. And then the final degree we offer is data science. It's one of the first data science programs in the country on an undergraduate level. We have students coming here from California, Georgia, all over America, specifically for the data science degree program.

We have very nice facilities, and we really do have world-class faculty here. Recently, we have also done a good job of marketing.

What's the idea behind the industry projects course you started this semester?

It's very exciting times in Charleston because we have all these high-tech companies in the region. One of the challenges I had was to figure out more ways to partner with these companies in a very sustainable way. They got invited to participate in this industry projects course, where the companies come in on the first days of class, they pitch these project ideas – typically a pet project that a company just doesn't have the time and resources to work on.

We form student groups of three or four students, and then we spend the semester trying to develop a project for the company. The big learning objective of the course is how the students work together to develop software in what's called an Agile development process, and in particular we use Scrum to develop the software.

The main benefit from the company's point of view is to interact with our students, to vet them at no cost. The companies just have to invest a total of four hours for the entire semester. One person from the company comes in to pitch the project idea, comes to the midterm presentation, and then comes to the final presentation. There is some communications in between, but that's it. In the process, the companies get to vet the students, figure out who's going to be a good fit at their company. We've had now a couple people already get jobs from these companies. They've been able to secure jobs and internships directly because of this interaction.

How else is the department partnering with the local tech industry?

We had the Industry Advisory Board before I arrived. It was a small board that had I think half a dozen CEO-type folks on it. Which is great, you always like to have CEOs and presidents. But I wanted more of a working advisory board. My ideal advisory board member is somebody who is about five to 10 years into the industry, project leads or project managers, somebody who is more in the weeds, and somebody who can actually get to show up to a meeting now and then because CEOs are hard to nail down. We expanded the advisory board to about 30 or 40 people, and these are more of your middle-management, project-lead folks.

The industry projects course, the advisory board, internships and we do a lot of one-off kinds of things – all these things help create a well-balanced department. There are always two ways a department can lean. Heavy on the theory side, where you're learning formal principles of computer science. On the opposite side of that, you could teach more software engineering principles. So, how to use the latest hammers and nails and saws that the current people are using to build software. If you only teach those tools, that's fine and all, but if you only know how to use the tool and the tool doesn't do what you want it to do, that's it, you're done. If you understand the theory, then you understand how to build your own tool if that tool fails. Our goal is to have theory and bleeding edge, and the industry brings the bleeding edge to it.

Clemson University is building a local graduate center for engineering with advanced degrees in computer science. What will this mean for Charleston?

Their engineering programs are good to support the high-tech manufacturing coming to town, like Boeing. And when Volvo moves to town, they're going to have to hire a bunch of computer science people, too, so we all benefit from that.

They're going to also offer their digital production arts program, the DPA, which is a masters degree program. That's the part we're most excited about, because Clemson has a very good DPA program. We're very interested in that being an opportunity for our computing in the arts majors to matriculate to when they graduate. Our professors here are already working with their professors to figure out how that is going to happen.

How do you measure or define success for your program?

I look at whether our students get jobs, what kind of quality jobs they get, the amount of money they make. If our students don't get jobs or aren't able to get into graduate school afterward, then we're not serving our students and we're not serving the area.

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

On a perfect day, I walk the kids to school, I come into work, and then I love taking a little walk through Charleston first. I go to the Faculty House, which is on campus. I get a cup of coffee, and I take my walk. It clears my head. I think about all I have to do for the day.

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

When the people you are working with are doing something to undercut one of their colleagues. They're doing something malicious to bring harm, professional harm. I've seen that happen before, and it's pretty sad.

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

The advice I always give my fresh graduates: I tell them that you've invested a lot of money, time, sweat and tears into your college education so far, and now you've graduated. Like any investment, the value of that investment can go up or down. When you go to apply for your next job or promotion, when somebody looks at your resume, they're going to see the College of Charleston. They're going to determine the quality of your education based upon how much that degree is worth at that time. Not how much it's worth now.

So I tell them, try to protect your investment. You can help protect your investment by giving back to the university by participating on our advisory board, coming back to talk to our students, leading an industry projects course. Not financially – some of our students who make a lot of money can invest financially, too, and we will be happy to help them with that. But it's more investing their real-world expertise by coming back to talk to the future generation of students, and hiring College of Charleston graduates when you can.

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

PC and Android. I guess I'm cheap. I don't like paying for name brands. I also buy Sam's Choice cola at Wal-Mart. And also for computer science, historically anyway, when you're doing software programs, Windows and Android typically are a little bit more of an open platform.

What is your usual Starbucks order?

My favorite all-time Starbucks order is a S'mores Frappuccino. It's a slice of heaven. It's the best thing I've ever tasted. But then I have two regular orders: a venti nonfat mocha or a Java Chip Frappuccino.

Outside of work what keeps you busy?

I used to play a lot of golf, enjoyed that very much. Can't find time anymore. I like to do yardwork. We like to go with the family to the beach, just walk around and pick up shells. I like to fish and do anything that doesn't involve a computer.