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One of my guilty pleasures is listening to mac-oriented tech podcasts. One that I listen to is the Accidental Tech Podcast, which features Marco Arment (of Tumblr and Instapaper fame), John Siracusa (Arstechnica and long mac reviews fame) and Casey Liss (…) . All three are programmers working on everything from  .Net consultancy to  iOS apps. As somebody who has spent my career as part computer science research/higher education, I find it interesting to hear what people in the software industry find useful from their education. So I sent the guys the following question:

I actually had a question related to the whole software methodology discussion. I’m a CS professor and I’m always curious what particular things that we teach turn out to be useful in the end. You had asked each other what one thing you would take from software methodology. My question is what are the one/two things from your CS education that you find the most useful when coding?

On their recent show (#56, The Woodpecker), they answered the question (starting 35:30 in). You can listen to their thoughtful answers. But I’ll try to summarize it. I heard 3 main points:

  1. Learning from the ground up. They talked about the importance of learning the entire stack from designing a chip on up. In particular, knowing operating systems, memory management (pointers!) and assembly language helps them make smarter decisions while programming. It’s not that you use these “low-level/behind the scenes” things often in practice but understanding them helps one make better choices at higher levels of abstraction.
  2. Dealing with diversity.  They pointed out how they learned to use multiple different pieces of technology during their degrees. Marco singled out what I would call a programming languages course. This is a course where you learn and program a little bit in all types of languages and learn about the concepts that underlie them (e.g. functional vs. imperative, pass-by-reference vs pass-by-value etc.). This means that learning a new language in the real world, whether its Objective-C or perl, is that much easier. In general, getting practice in picking up a new technology and applying it immediately to a problem was seen as helpful.
  3. Core concepts and principles. They noted that having learned core CS topics like data structures and algorithms and general CS principles was useful. It’s not that they are used everyday but “knowing what to look up on wikipedia” is useful. They also noted that in business there is less/no time to learn these core principles. Furthermore, it’s hard to learn them if you’re not forced to do so.

From my perspective, it’s nice to hear a response that fits with what I (and I think most CS professors) would say. We should be teaching core concepts and principles and letting students learn the whole stack of computing. The one thing I think I’ll probably take away from this for our own curriculum is maybe not to worry so much about consistency in programming languages across courses. Indeed, that may be a feature not a bug.

Anyway, if your interested in this sort of thing check out the podcast.

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This is my 100th blog post here at Think Links. I started blogging October 23, 2008 with a post about the name of the blog. That’s about 5 years of blogging averaging about 20 posts a year. So not a huge amount but consistent. This blog is what I would consider an academic blog or at least a work related one. As a forum of scholarly communication, I’ve found blogging to be a very beneficial. Here are 10 things that I like personally about the medium (yes, a listicle!):

  1. It provides a home for material that is useful but wouldn’t belong in a more formal setting. For example, comments on work practiceteaching or neat randomly related stuff.
  2. It’s quick. If I have something to note, I can just put it out there.
  3. The public nature forces me to make my own notes better. In particular, I’ve been doing trip reports, which have been really helpful in synthesizing my notes on various events. Even though most are not read the fact that they are public makes my writing more coherent.
  4. Embedding multimedia. It provides a way to aggregate a lot of different content into one place. Lately, I’ve been using the embed tweet feature to capture some of that conversation in context.
  5. Memories of the 5 paragraph essay. I had a very good history teacher in high school who drilled into us how to write 5 paragraph essays quickly. I find posts fairly easy to write because of this training. (I know there’s criticism of this style but I think the form helps to write.).
  6. It let’s me put another take on research papers that we’ve done in a more personal voice.
  7. A single searchable history. Reverse chronological order is helpful way to review what’s gone on. Furthermore, because it’s on the web you get all that fancy search stuff.
  8. Analytics are fun to look at. – altmetrics anyone?
  9. It’s part of the future of academic discourse…
  10. Links.

There’s more I’d like to do with this blog. Publishing directly from code. Personal videos. Interactive visualizations. Whether I do those things or not, having this space on the web in this format has been great for my own thinking and I hope for others as well. If you’re reading this, thanks and I hope you keep following.

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