Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Things I wish I'd Known Before Getting A Computer Science Degree

 Hi, my name is Mark, and I struggled with impostor syndrome for decades.

("Hi, Mark").

In my case at least, impostor syndrome came from the discontinuity between being good at things in high school and far more mediocre in college. I came from a place where I thought I had things figured out to a far more challenging environment in a different city, with peers who knew way more than I did about a subject I thought I was passionate about. For awhile, I seriously considered changing disciplines.

These feelings don't really chase me anymore, but I've thought for some time about why they came up and what I wish I'd known—in the high-level sense, not the day-to-day sense—about the path I'd started out on.

So, dear Mark in 2001, here's some things Mark in 2021 gets to know.

Computer science is more math than engineering

You're into computers because of what they can do. That's cool. Computer science is about why they do it. And the why brushes up against the limits of what they can do. You've never thought too much about that aspect of things. You'll be thinking about it a lot these next four years. Some of this will be hard, because you have a mind that thrives on learning things you can apply right now, not on abstraction and theory. 

You'll adapt. 

It'll hurt like hell. 

One thing that helps adaptation: tie the whys to the whats. Learn the history of how we came to know these things (oftentimes, we learned them because someone was chasing a what, got stuck, and had to chase a why to understand the reasons "what" wasn't working). Computer science as a pedagogy isn't interested in its history, so it won't hand those pieces to you... But you are. Seek them out.

Software engineering isn't computer science

You're gonna be real discouraged in freshman year because a full half of your classes are deep math you haven't seen before. That's okay. It gets good junior and senior year when you start applying the theory on larger projects. But understand: that theory is computer science. Your peers that go on to grad school or to pursue a PhD, they aren't likely to be designing the next generation of developer tooling—they might, but they can also make a career out of never publishing any mainstream-known software. This discipline is about understanding the pure-math space of computation as much as the machines, "meat and bones" of how to make a computer go.

Computer science isn't software engineering

On the flip side, there are things you will absolutely need to know to be a successful writer of software people use and maintain that a computer science undergraduate degree doesn't need to teach you. I've read some brilliant code by some very smart researchers that is incredibly bad for communicating the concepts behind the code to other people—single-letter variable names, zero comments, no encapsulation, and so forth. It's not necessary to do those things to publish novel research, so those things aren't done. I'll write another article on this topic in the future.

Computer science relies on mathematics not always taught in high school

Palpatine talking to Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars. "Have you heard the tale of the Travelling Salesman? It is not a story the calculus teachers would tell you."
Professor Palpatine introducing a freshman to discrete mathematics

Computer science is the science of algorithmic solution of problems: what problems can be solved by algorithm, how hard it is, and what algorithms are the same thing in disguise. Of the mathematics an average US high school student will know, the least likely in this set is discrete mathematics. Discrete has few practical applications relative to algebra or calculus, so it often falls by the wayside. But it's fundamental to computer science, because it deals with the mathematics of processes that progress in orderly, distinct steps.

You don't really know the term "discrete math" right now. You'll be comfortable enough with it to make jokes about it soon.

If there were a way to bootstrap yourself into this before getting to college—summer class, elective in high school—I can't recommend it enough. They'll teach it to you in college, but if you get there knowing it, it'll be one fewer thing to worry about while you're trying to stuff everything else into your brain.

The industry is young, and pedagogy varies wildly

Your father made a career out of writing software on the back of an English undergraduate degree. As a disciplined field, computer science is young; pedagogy varies wildly between institutions that offer computer science degrees. You'll take an internship in Philadelphia where you'll meet several students from Drexel; they'll run circles around you in terms of prolific code authorship, because they've been using the tools the company uses since freshman year. But Carnegie Mellon intends to graduate potential grad students and PhD candidates from their undergrad program; they start computer science on fundamentals of theory and mathematics, and most code can be written in a plaintext editor. Drexel, to my observation, biases towards getting students productive earlier; they have classes intent on teaching more intricate and esoteric parts of tools like Visual Studio (whereas CMU's opinion on such things is that Visual Studio didn't exist 25 years ago and may not be in use 25 years from now). So you'll be slogging through "How to set up a project" while they're scripting the debugger. Tuck in.

The field is moving so fast, it's impossible to predict what will be relevant

When you start, you'll meet some grad students who are very excited about computer simulation of electronic circuits. The idea they're chasing is that instead of building a circuit by exhaustively laying out logic gates on a chip, you instead use a high-level language to describe what the chip has to do, and an algorithm could "grow" a chip's physical design by heuristically selecting logic gate configurations to satisfy the requested input. This process will become standard in huge swaths of hardware design for new custom circuit fabrication. You'll also watch sloppy prototypes of voice recognition and image recognition explode into bog-standard technologies that come on every smartphone as a pack-in deal.

Faced with this rapid pace, the only option is to tuck in and prepare to be learning something new continuously, your whole career, forever. As one of your mentors freshman year will say, "Programming is piano; it's not physics." This is a field where what is possible is expanding at a rate we can barely keep up with. Enjoy the ride; don't get lazy.

Set aside time to get good at the tools

Corollary to the previous: a lot of classes will focus on teaching theory and rely on the students to learn the mechanics of their tools on their own. If it can be read out of a manual, it's not something the college is focused on expositing (the manual is, after all, right there).

Set aside time to get good at using your tools of choice and exploring their nooks and crannies. The biggest favor you'll do yourself in your undergrad is taking the time one summer to learn the esoteric language used in the class you'll be taking next semester. It will still be a challenge, but you won't be struggling over syntax and theory at the same time.

Put thought into where you want to be in four years

College can give you tools to succeed but won't tell you who to be. It can be easy to get so heads-down on the tasks and classes that you wake up one day and realize you don't have a life path beyond "student." That can be your life path, but if you want that, seek out grad students and PhD candidates and talk to them. You might find what they do with their time is what you want to do; you might not! Research and deep theory isn't for everyone.

If, instead, you choose industry, you will never be freer in your life to choose which one you pursue than graduation year. You will have an incredibly valuable talent to share with the world; it's up to you who benefits from that. Make sure it's someone who deserves it.

Whatever you're interested in doing, computer science will get you closer to it

Software is eating the world. There are very few things humans do now—in industry, in recreation, in travel, in finance—that don't (or can't) involve a computer somehow. And the addition of computers opens entirely new ways of doing things that weren't even considerable previously. The skills you will acquire to understand the fundamentals underpinning all of these new approaches and technologies will be invaluable navigating the world that is evolving in front of us.

This is going to be a hell of a good time. Enjoy it.