have a glance...
February 9, 2007 9:29am CST
Recently I've had several emails from computer science undergrads asking what to do in college. I might not be the best source of advice, because I was a philosophy major in college. But I took so many CS classes that most CS majors thought I was one. I was certainly a hacker, at least. Hacking What should you do in college to become a good hacker? There are two main things you can do: become very good at programming, and learn a lot about specific, cool problems. These turn out to be equivalent, because each drives you to do the other. The way to be good at programming is to work (a) a lot (b) on hard problems. And the way to make yourself work on hard problems is to work on some very engaging project. Odds are this project won't be a class assignment. My friend Robert learned a lot by writing network software when he was an undergrad. One of his projects was to connect Harvard to the Arpanet; it had been one of the original nodes, but by 1984 the connection had died.  Not only was this work not for a class, but because he spent all his time on it and neglected his studies, he was kicked out of school for a year.  It all evened out in the end, and now he's a professor at MIT. But you'll probably be happier if you don't go to that extreme; it caused him a lot of worry at the time. Another way to be good at programming is to find other people who are good at it, and learn what they know. Programmers tend to sort themselves into tribes according to the type of work they do and the tools they use, and some tribes are smarter than others. Look around you and see what the smart people seem to be working on; there's usually a reason. Some of the smartest people around you are professors. So one way to find interesting work is to volunteer as a research assistant. Professors are especially interested in people who can solve tedious system-administration type problems for them, so that is a way to get a foot in the door. What they fear are flakes and resume padders. It's all too common for an assistant to result in a net increase in work. So you have to make it clear you'll mean a net decrease. Don't be put off if they say no. Rejection is almost always less personal than the rejectee imagines. Just move on to the next. (This applies to dating too.) Beware, because although most professors are smart, not all of them work on interesting stuff. Professors have to publish novel results to advance their careers, but there is more competition in more interesting areas of research. So what less ambitious professors do is turn out a series of papers whose conclusions are novel because no one else cares about them. You're better off avoiding these. I never worked as a research assistant, so I feel a bit dishonest recommending that route. I learned to program by writing stuff of my own, particularly by trying to reverse-engineer Winograd's SHRDLU. I was as obsessed with that program as a mother with a new baby. Whatever the disadvantages of working by yourself, the advantage is that the project is all your own. You never have to compromise or ask anyone's permission, and if you have a new idea you can just sit down and start implementing it. In your own projects you don't have to worry about novelty (as professors do) or profitability (as businesses do). All that matters is how hard the project is technically, and that has no correlation to the nature of the application. "Serious" applications like databases are often trivial and dull technically (if you ever suffer from insomnia, try reading the technical literature about databases) while "frivolous" applications like games are often very sophisticated. I'm sure there are game companies out there working on products with more intellectual content than the research at the bottom nine tenths of university CS departments. If I were in college now I'd probably work on graphics: a network game, for example, or a tool for 3D animation. When I was an undergrad there weren't enough cycles around to make graphics interesting, but it's hard to imagine anything more fun to work on now. Math When I was in college, a lot of the professors believed (or at least wished) that computer science was a branch of math. This idea was strongest at Harvard, where there wasn't even a CS major till the 1980s; till then one had to major in applied math. But it was nearly as bad at Cornell. When I told the fearsome Professor Conway that I was interested in AI (a hot topic then), he told me I should major in math. I'm still not sure whether he thought AI required math, or whether he thought AI was nonsense and that majoring in something rigorous would cure me of such stupid ambitions. In fact, the amount of math you need as a hacker is a lot less than most university departments like to admit. I don't think you need much more than high school math plus a few concepts from the theory of computation. (You have to know what an n^2 algorithm is if you want to avoid writing them.) Unless you're planning to write math applications, of course. Robotics, for example, is all math. But while you don't literally need math for most kinds of hacking, in the sense of knowing 1001 tricks for differentiating formulas, math is very much worth studying for its own sake. It's a valuable source of metaphors for almost any kind of work. I wish I'd studied more math in college for that reason. Like a lot of people, I was mathematically abused as a child. I learned to think of math as a collection of formulas that were neither beautiful nor had any relation to my life (despite attempts to translate them into "word problems"), but had to be memorized in order to do well on tests. One of the most valuable things you could do in college would be to learn what math is really about. This may not be easy, because a lot of good mathematicians are bad teachers. And while there are many popular books on math, few seem good. The best I can think of are W. W. Sawyer's. And of course Euclid.  Everything Thomas Huxley said "Try to learn something about everything and everything about something." Most universities aim at this ideal. But what's everything? To me it means, all that people learn in the course of working honestly on hard problems. All such work tends to be related, in that ideas and techniques from one field can often be transplanted successfully to others. Even others that seem quite distant. For example, I write essays the same way I write software: I sit down and blow out a lame version 1 as fast as I can type, then spend several weeks rewriting it. Working on hard problems is not, by itself, enough. Medieval alchemists were working on a hard problem, but their approach was so bogus that there was little to learn from studying it, except possibly about people's ability to delude themselves. Unfortunately the sort of AI I was trying to learn in college had the same flaw: a very hard problem, blithely approached with hopelessly inadequate techniques. Bold? Closer to fraudulent. The social sciences are also fairly bogus, because they're so much influenced by intellectual fashions. If a physicist met a colleague from 100 years ago, he could teach him some new things; if a psychologist met a colleague from 100 years ago, they'd just get into an ideological argument. Yes, of course, you'll learn something by taking a psychology class. The point is, you'll learn more by taking a class in another department. The worthwhile departments, in my opinion, are math, the hard sciences, engineering, history (especially economic and social history, and the history of science), architecture, and the classics. A survey course in art history may be worthwhile. Modern literature is important, but the way to learn about it is just to read. I don't know enough about music to say. You can skip the social sciences, philosophy, and the various departments created recently in response to political pressures. Many of these fields talk about important problems, certainly. But the way they talk about them is useless. For example, philosophy talks, among other things, about our obligations to one another; but you can learn more about this from a wise grandmother or E. B. White than from an academic philosopher. I speak here from experience. I should probably have been offended when people laughed at Clinton for saying "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." I took about five classes in college on what the meaning of "is" is. Another way to figure out which fields are worth studying is to create the dropout graph. For example, I know many people who switched from math to computer science because they found math too hard, and no one who did the opposite. People don't do hard things gratuitously; no one will work on a harder problem unless it is proportionately (or at least log(n)) more rewarding. So probably math is more worth studying than computer science. By similar comparisons you can make a graph of all the departments in a university. At the bottom you'll find the subjects with least intellectual content. If you use this method, you'll get roughly the same answer I just gave. Language courses are an anomaly. I think they're better considered as extracurricular activities, like pottery classes. They'd be far more useful when combined with some time living in a country where the language is spoken. On a whim I studied Arabic as a freshman. It was a lot of work, and the only lasting benefits were a weird ability to identify semitic roots and some insights into how people recognize words. Studio art and creative writing courses are wildcards. Usually you don't get taught much: you just work (or don't work) on whatever you want, and then sit around offering "crits" of one another's creations under the vague supervision of the teacher. But writing and art are both very hard problems that (some) people work honestly at, so they're worth doing,