There’s a lot of criticism around universities and their relative ineffectiveness at preparing IT students for the real world. As someone who has completed a five year degree majoring in computer science (BSc) and information systems (BCOM) I want to state my experience.
I went to a well off, modern high school located in central Auckland. I was flunking. I was force-fed subjects such as science, English and accounting and these demotivated me beyond belief. I had no idea what success felt like and as others in these classes accelerated ahead of me. I was left hopelessly behind.
My teachers noticed. I received diplomatic report comments like “Sam is not achieving his potential”. I had teachers sit me down and say things like “Sam, it takes a special student to succeed in this world”. Finally my reference letter from the school spent more the time talking about how my greatest skill was fixing computer issues for teachers than discussion of how I performed academically. It did not look good. My parents were worried, I was worried.
In last one effort to find my passion I enrolled in computer science 101 at the University of Auckland. Achieving an A+ I felt, for the first time, what success really felt like.
I locked myself out socially and pushed myself incredibly hard for five years and I succeeded.
University exposes its students to what’s possible and provides a solid base for students to build on. This base is invaluable. The computer science curriculum is outdated in a number of places particularly regarding frameworks and languages taught. However fundamentals like operating system architectures, algorithms and logic don’t suffer the same fate.
Frequently the way computer science was assessed was regimented and lazy. Final examinations testing a student’s ability to remember APIs is, quite frankly, a demotivating and poor excuse for evaluation. These sorts of questions occurred far too often. To make matters worse, the majority of these examinations, worth up to 70% of your total grade, were full multiple choice. Many of these questions were recycled from previous exams and tests. It was entirely possible to get an A grade simply by memorizing past multiple choice answers.
I was a lab demonstrator for two years. This included assisting students with assignments and ultimately marking them. Assignments were a “fill the gaps and get it done” exercise. Using resources like Stack Overflow and Google students never had to think or read broadly around a subject. The results of these searches were specific and few students ever took the time to understand what they were actually doing, myself included. To make matters worse plagiarism was rampant.
Students aren’t solving problems, they’re painting by numbers.
Computer science was, as a whole, disconnected from the outside world. There was no effort to effectively expose students to local industry. There was never a assessed challenge laid down to make students think beyond the tight scope of an assignment. Students don’t understand what’s possible nor their potential. Computer science is an island and worst of all it’s stagnating.
Here’s the catch, my degree in information systems was entirely different.
I was hesitant about electing to major in information systems. It, on the surface, appeared too similar to computer science but I was wrong.
Information systems countered computer science’s ineffectiveness almost entirely. There was industry exposure, comprehensive assessment, an up-to-date syllabus and assignments that forced students to think. It wasn’t perfect but it was a vast improvement.
Networking courses I took were challenging and culminated in a CCNA assessment. The content was absolutely up to scratch covering off even the most modern of specifications. The course material changed to account for fresh and relevant industry topics. It was inspiring but more importantly this proves it’s actually possible.
Information Systems hit its peak for me with a year long course worth the equivalent of 3 papers in points. The goal was simply to deliver a project for a real company. However, the mechanism was a thing of beauty. Teams were created at an outdoors camp, companies pitched their ideas for us to bid on, we were pushed to produce core deliverables and we presented them accordingly in sessions that were fiercely competitive and fairly assessed. Ultimately we delivered something great. This was one heck of an effective learning mechanism.
In my mind it’s a shame information systems sits under the radar when the quality of what they’re presenting is miles more relevant and engaging. Put simply computer science is bad at creating passionate and inquisitive students. But fundamentally it’s not delivering students for industry.
I am speaking entirely from my perspective and would love to start discussion around what other courses are out there beyond computer science that are targeted more at delivering industry-ready students.
Creativity and Community
How did I counter the stagnation while in computer science? I built something and I talked to people.
More specifically I built an app for a new and exciting device that interested me, the iPhone. This pet project forced me to think, to solve problems, to understand something fundamentally and it rewarded me with downloads, cash and users. This project made me inquisitive and filled that massive gap computer science didn’t touch. I had to read and understand something broadly to create this product and in doing so I discovered the power and wonder of the skills I was developing.
But is this really a university’s role to provide mechanisms to reward these sorts of discoveries? I think so to some extent. We need to create skilled workers that see their potential and are passionate about what they do. We need to do this to fuel our growing and starving tech industry. Something needs to change.
The next thing I did was get involved in the community. Something which I had no idea existed. There’s this perception that students are not elite enough to attend meetups (meetup.com) or conferences (Gather , Webstock, Codemania) but the truth is the community embraces those who are passionate and inquisitive.
It’s never too late to start networking or to build something.
I don’t know what computer science is like right now but word on the street is that not much has changed. Computer science kicked off the reaction that helped me find my passion but it quickly petered out and I was picked up by other influences.
This is a shame, especially seeing how in demand and valuable students with these qualifications are. There’s a massive gap from where IT academia ends and where the industry starts. It’s solvable but requires change.
It is possible to encourage students to be inquisitive and to reward them for this. It is possible to provide stronger assessment mechanisms that reward understanding and not raw factual recall. It is possible to make a student see the potential of their skills and excite them about the industry they are moving into. Information systems proved this for me.
We also need to keep in check what computer science actually is. My criticism is from the perspective of someone who works in industry and not of an academic. Only a handful of students I encountered wanted to pursue computer science academically, the vast majority wanted to enter the corporate world. Is this a flaw in how computer science is sold and described to students? Perhaps expectation is something that needs to be addressed.
I believe a lot of this can be addressed in high school so we can pull out lost students like myself and put them on a track to success. Most importantly we need to put them into the right degree that will fuel our economy.
But for me it is most frustrating thinking about my experiences as a lab demonstrator, seeing kids struggle and loathe something so incredible. It’s like presenting these kids with a treasure chest without a key.
We need to change this, somehow, to feed our emerging and hungry tech industry with limitless exciting opportunities that’s just waiting.
But me, I’m glad I took that 101 paper six years ago.
Omaha to Matakana
I’m trying out some timelapses on my new GoPro. This is the sun rising from my bedroom at Omaha
Me bush coding to ease the pain (slightly graphic)
In December 2011 I completed Outward Bound with a tremendous group of people. A full blog post is coming as I spend the next few weeks mulling over it.
One of the key values Outward Bound has is to encourage its students to engage in community service. For me the idea of performing community service was a challenging concept, what could I do more of to help the world around me? Other people in my group spoke of helping out families in need, disabled children and animals. Wonderful causes, one of the many reasons why I have such respect for the people I spent those 21 days with.
The others in my group seemed to get such satisfaction from these activities. I was jealous, my dilemma was what can I do?
Today I experienced what that satisfaction feels like.
Unlike other caches I’m requesting that you bring a bag along and pick up some rubbish if you see it. This beautiful area is very tidal so rubbish is sometimes found on parts of the walk. Let’s help keep it clean for all its marine inhabitants!
Cache in trash out is the idea that we install a geocache in a location and those who find it it take a bag and clean up the environment immediately around it. I think this is a terrific concept.
For me, since I started Geocaching in 2008, finding the cache is only part of the experience.
Back to today’s experience. I received an alert from one of the finders of the cache that an ant’s nest had been constructed in my nearly two year old cache. My sister and I set out to perform maintenance, a hefty walk.
When we reached the cache I cleaned it out, put in a new log book then walked back. I came across a tangled mess of popped balloons and ribbon clearly a bunch of helium balloons that had popped out at sea.
I had to pick it up.
I then saw some weathered and broken jandals.
I had to pick these up too.
Stupidly I hadn’t brought a bag and picked up every piece of rubbish I laid eyes on. I walked on filling my arms with trash like a velociraptor with bone degeneration.
Once we reached the nearest rubbish bin we laid down all the trash we had discovered.
The satisfaction I got from this deed was immense. My sister and I had cleaned up everything we could see along a few kilometers of beautiful coastline and, believe it or not, had fun doing it.
I propose that my service is a bit different. I want to do everything I can to keep these beaches as clean as possible. We’re blessed in this country with such stunning coastline and if we can do something as simple as pick up bits of rubbish it can make a lasting impact. I propose the following:
If anyone is interested in finding out more or helping me please get in touch.
Lets explore and keep our coastlines clean!
On South Georgia at a penguin colony. 11 pm at night. 100,000 breeding pairs.
My hero Steve Jobs.
Two months ago I stopped eating meat.
I stopped because I had a chicken burrito and it was gross.
I didn’t do this for the animals, I didn’t do this to for dietary reasons, I did this for me.
I’m a selfish vegetarian.
Over the years Mother has tried every diet in existence, even some that don’t exist-
Rinse and repeat with slight variation.
This year, much to my father’s and my dismay, Mother went vegan. However this time, after a month or so, I decided to embrace the change and give it a shot as a vegetarian.
So what did I find?
Sleep - I get full nights of undisturbed, deep sleep since this dietary shift. This was a rare occurrence prior to the change.
Sickness - No more tummy aches, no more greasy skin, less acne.
Self confidence – I’m proud of my vegetarianism. My meals are full of health, you really become what you eat.
Weight – As a developer and uni student my time for exercise is small. However since cutting meat out of my diet I’ve lost five kilograms. Not bad for not trying.
Eat better - The temptation of a fatty burger or a sausage has been eliminated. I’m cooking for myself and others again. I love nothing more than going to the Matakana markets on a Saturday morning to get fresh vegetables and other produce to cook dinner with.
Try new things - The limitation of what you can eat at a restaurant is a double-edged sword. On the one hand I have a smaller selection, on the other I try new things because I’m forced to.
Burden - The worst thing for me is the feeling that others think I want to inflict this choice on them and guilt trip them. I don’t.
Prearranging meals – How do you tell people to prepare you a vegetarian meal without seeming demanding? Mother did this and the person kindly prepared her fish. Contrary to what you might believe fish is still a meat.
Another limitation - I don’t like most cheeses, this coupled with vegetarianism results in a minute subset of meal options. This always complicates my meal orders.
This has been a great lifestyle change for me with the benefits outweighing the disadvantages. The most surprising part of it for me is how easy it was to do.
One night three years ago whilst overlooking La Jolla, San Diego, I said to my friend (who I had, earlier that month, flown halfway around the world to see) “wanna know something silly?” - “What’s that?” she said - “I think I love you” I responded.
Over the last 21 years, I’ve acclimatised and adjusted to rapid evolutions in information access, entertainment, diet and education - but no evolution has been as drastic as that of how we communicate with each other.
I recall coordinating friends to come over for a slumber party through a phone call to their house, the novelty of sending my first fax, the moment my first website loaded, the first email I sent, the first text I sent, the first instant message I sent, the first YouTube video I watched, and the first social network I signed up to. Things have changed. I think the fundamental difference between then (when I would make phone calls to organise sleep overs) and now (when I open Facebook) is how much we all know about each other.
It scares me.
In high school english, the concept of 'show not tell' was driven into us - displayed in Keat’s odes or Shakespeare’s sonnets. Put simply, the expression states that portraying an idea or concept indirectly rather than directly creates more interest and, therefore, has greater impact. I believe no statement summarises my thoughts on Facebook more aptly than this.
The mystery of meeting someone - finding out about their life, getting to know them - is lost. This human interaction, I fear, will be a thing of the past. Facebook’s nature of unleashing unparalleled intimacy between complete strangers is unnatural. The mystique of finding out about someone has been lost. You can evaluate the core areas of a person’s life, what they enjoy, who they know, their opinions, their social lives. Unfortunately we can become overly judgmental of others - purely because of this exposure.
I was in a long-term, long-distance relationship until the end of last year. For the first two years, the partner in question had a notable absence on Facebook - as a result of her parents. I found this fascinating - the picture I painted of this girl was angelic, I never paid attention to the negatives because the positives carried far too much weight. The relationship that developed between us was one of extremes. Extreme separation, extreme care for each other. Then she got a Facebook account. Things changed. Gradually this picture I painted of her decomposed - causing rifts in our relationship. I was exposed to aspects of her which I did not anticipate, most of which were likely misconstrued by yours truly. What she was placing in this very public environment started conflicting with who I believed she was as a person. The destruction of that relationship, I’m sure, was at least partly the fault of this aforementioned ‘exposure’.
Typically we build our networks in a variety of ways. We find people we know. We add them. We find people we know of. We add them. And in some cases, we find people we don’t know. We add them. I am guilty of all three of these scenarios. The odd thing is the term ‘friend’ is applied to all these people we add. The vast majority of these people are not friends. More concerning to me is the idea of ‘un-friending’. I’m certainly guilty of watching my friend count, aware of declines. Such an act carries weight, and makes a statement. The idea is primitive, black and white, odd and (most likely) irreversible. The introduction of these new social conventions add complexity to our interactions. But is any of this positive or natural? If you walk past an ‘ex-friend’ in the street, do you still acknowledge them?
Facebook played a key role in the demise of a relationship and also, more importantly to me, a friendship. We have not been in contact since the night that relationship ended. And I was unfriended fifteen days later.
But this is just Facebook. What about Twitter?
My passion for Twitter starts where my disdain for Facebook begins. Twitter is unique. If Facebook is the ‘tell’ then Twitter is the ‘show’. We gain a picture of each other from what we discuss and how we discuss it. This to me is far more natural - we inject the imagination, we create intrigue, we find out about each other. One of the most important people in my life was the result of a candid discussion about Adobe branded toys.
To me, the magic of Twitter is the fact that, in most cases, I have never met the people I communicate with. Yet, somehow, I care implicitly about what they say. I care about what they say far more than the drivel on Facebook.
The kicker of the situation is meeting these people in the flesh. In Facebook’s scenario, the sheer quantity of information results in a plethora of conversation enders. But Twitter’s strength is its ability to create conversation starters. These 140 character messages provide snapshots into people’s lives - allowing one to draw on Tweets to create conversation.
I’ll use this example to illustrate my point of Facebook not being effective as a conversation starter. Last year I went on a date - four weeks after my long-distance relationship ended. I thought it would be clever to do some ‘research’ investigating mutual friends and such - in an effort to perform some apparently not-so-subtle name drops. As it turns out, this plan backfired - the friends in question were loosely acquired and my lack of subtlety made me look like a stalker. Had I not ‘researched’ (or lost the car in a cavernous car park) the evening might have gone a little better.
The way in which we communicate with each other has changed - for the better and for the worse. These are my observations, my experiences and my opinions. It seems that others share similar views, and the approach of Google+ reinforces this. The move away from classifying people, uniformly, as “friends” creates a delicious concoction of freedom - the ability to create these fundamental constructs based on what people mean to you is empowering, and feels more natural. I look forward to seeing the conventions that will arise out of Google+, and the impact these will have on the social networking landscape.
In my experience, a little privacy (and a little mystery) go a long way - in order to discover who a person is, fundamentally, as opposed to just reading about them. Because at the end of the day, people are so much more than just a profile.
People sometimes mix up my stance on Apple with fanboyism. Upon Steve’s announcement of his leaving his position as CEO I have never once been concerned about the company. Just the fact my hero since I was a little lad can no longer continue holding this position.
This man has been my greatest influence outside of family.