What’s useful from a computer science education?

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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