The Value of Computer Science

I read an article today on Read Write Web decrying the Computer Science degree as something that may no longer be necessary for a fruitful career in technology. I don't agree with this statement. Well, at least not entirely.

I admit, I learned a lot of the web development skills that come naturally to me simply by being on the internet beginning at a ridiculously young age. And with the plethora of online learning tools available now (from technical blogs to iTunes University offering free videos of classes at Stanford), you can really gain a lot of knowledge online and at little to no cost. Definitely cheaper than my degree at NYU, anyway.

Also, sure, GPA at a top school (or any school, for that matter) is not a clear indicator as to whether a given person will be successful in a particular role. I know lots of folks who flunked (read: drank) through their first year in college and ended up turning things around, graduating and becoming responsible and accomplished adults.

And then, of course, there's the value of experience. Experience, in my opinion, is the best instructor you can ever have. Banging your head in front of a computer screen for hours because you forgot one (ONE!) semicolon in your code will teach a very valuable lesson. Doing freelance work or gathering a smattering of industry jobs will definitely also help you gain experience as you go.

But…

I've been seeing a disturbing trend. I've met people who say they are proficient in JavaScript, for example, but really only understand abstracted frameworks (like jQuery and etc). I've come across people who know all the right buzz words to use but don't really understand how logic works. I've been in "bootcamp" classes where pre-requisite programming knowledge is required (CS 101, basically), and people don't know what a "variable" or an "object" is.

Look, I'm not saying that I'm the best programmer in the world. I'm also not saying that obtaining a Computer Science degree will make you better than someone who doesn't have one. However, what a Computer Science degree did for me was give me a world within which I can frame problems and solutions. I understand that most programming languages contain similar constructs so the only barrier to entry is just getting the syntax and best practices down (that's the stuff of experience). Plus, I got to spend four years immersing myself in all that. It is hard to find this long of an uninterrupted chunk of time outside of college.

I was at a conference last week Friday (GothamJS) and Tom MacWright said something that really resonated with me.

"Use abstractions for efficiency, not ignorance."

That's exactly the problem I'm seeing with new programmers. They rely on abstractions to just get the job done which unfortunately results in them not REALLY LEARNING ANYTHING. Whether it's leaning heavily on jQuery or other framework when vanilla JS would've been sufficient or (RAGE!) copying and pasting solutions directly from StackOverflow or some other tech solutions site, I see it far too often from novices.

It makes me really sad. I love to encourage people (especially ladies, if you are reading this) to get into coding. I've done career day at various middle schools in the area telling kids that coding is a way for them to gain some control in their lives — for once they can tell something what to do! — but with that great power comes great responsibility. You have to be responsible for the code you push out into the world. This was also something that was echoed at GothamJS. If you don't understand what you are creating, how can you possibly take responsibility for it? Also, if you don't understand what you are creating, how are you sure it is solving a problem? And how are you sure it is solving the RIGHT problem? And how are you sure that you aren't introducing MORE problems (especially performance-related problems)?

Now, that said, I think there's a lot of "real world" stuff for which my Computer Science degree didn't necessarily 100% prepare me. But I have a feeling that's pretty much college in general and a much larger problem to solve. I've always felt that Computer Science degree programs should offer "tracks" that can help students gain more marketable specialized skills. I was always interested in web development so I took EVERY web development class offered at the higher levels. But, if you are interested in networking, for example, your "track" should be specialized so you end up taking all the networking classes offered and etc. Seems to me akin to how you don't just major in "Engineering," but rather you might select Mechanical Engineering or Electrical Engineering. Perhaps Computer Science needs to be a smidgen less broad, at least at the undergraduate level, to better prepare students for life after college.

And, conversely, "learn to code" bootcamps may need to incorporate a little more theory into their offerings. My experience has been that "breadth" of knowledge — knowing how to discover solutions to problems that may not exist yet! — can be a great complement to "depth" of knowledge.

To leave you with a very real life example, consider Flash. Flash (and ActionScript, the language that powered it) used to be a coveted skill for a web professional to have. Since the proliferation of the iPad and emergence of client-side methods for simple animating (HTML5, CSS3, JavaScript frameworks), the demand for Flash skills has diminished. If you focused on learning Flash but not truly understanding the underlying programming concepts that made ActionScript work, for example, you might be shit out of luck right now. However, if you learned basic programming constructs as you learned ActionScript, you might be finding success applying those same concepts to JavaScript (or some other scripting language) with great success.

The moral of this story? Understanding the LOGIC behind WHY things work the way they do, by whatever means you get there, is the REAL must have skill.

On Being an Adult: Handling Conflict in Professional Settings

There's a story of some weight unfolding around some people in the tech community who were fired as a result of some offensive-leaning comments made at PyCon. I won't go into too much detail but basically a woman, Adria Richards, overheard some comments which she deemed to be offensive. She tweeted about them and included in said tweet a photo she snapped of the men who made the comments. The men's identity was eventually confirmed by the conference organizers and not only were they booted from the conference but they also lost their jobs. Richards, who tweeted about the behavior that she deemed to be offensive, has also lost her job. Reactions to the story have been mixed. Should the guys have made the comments? Should the photo have been posted on Twitter? Were the comments blown out of proportion? Should anyone have been fired? Everyone has their own opinion and, for better or for worse (I hear Richards is on the receiving end of threats of bodily harm), the right to express that opinion.

I don't want to fan any flames here so I won't go into my opinion on the matter. To be honest, the issue is not black and white so I'm sure we could discuss that for hours on end. My objective is to talk about something that never really gets discussed as much as it should: conflict resolution in professional environments. Continue reading "On Being an Adult: Handling Conflict in Professional Settings"

Watching This is Like Watching Clueless: HBO's New Series GIRLS

Over the past few weeks, my social networks have been abuzz about the new HBO series, Girls. Girls is the brainchild of Lena Dunham who is currently a media darling after her film Tiny Furniture was received with much acclaim on the festival circuit. The 26 year-old Dunham, who writes and directs Girls, also stars in the show as the character Hannah. Among my contacts, the Judd Apatow produced show has received mixed reviews but I decided to watch the pilot (currently available on YouTube) and give it a chance. This is my take and I would warn you that there may be some spoilers in the following so you may want to watch first and read the rest of this after you watch.

The pilot begins with the character Hannah having dinner with her parents at what appears to be a fancy restaurant. As she shovels food into her mouth, her parents begin to slowly reveal that they no longer wish to bankroll her New York City lifestyle. We find out Hannah has been out of college for two years now and is working an internship while trying to finish writing her memoirs. At the time of this writing, I'm just a couple of years older than Dunham as I'm going on 28 years-old in July. When I was two years out of college, I wasn't working an unpaid internship while my parents paid for all of my expenses. On the contrary, I had to work. Immediately following graduation, I found a job. Not particularly well paid compared to some of the jobs my classmates landed at financial firms, but it was a job nonetheless — it paid the bills. In Girls, the prospect of having to try and find a job horrifies Hannah and she spend most of the rest of the scene arguing with her parents and trying to convince them to continue to financially support her. I know lots of twenty-somethings, and most of them don't behave this way.

Later in the episode, we are introduced to Hannah's best friend Marnie played by the stunning Allison Williams. Williams actually feels like the most realistic character. She is portrayed as an ice queen as her boyfriend clearly likes her far more than she likes him. Marnie and Hannah even discuss the possibility of Marnie potentially breaking up with him because he is simply too nice for Marnie. This character is at least self aware as she notes "I feel like such a bitch" for wanting to dump a guy who, as far as we know, has been nothing but doting. However, I have a qualm with this scene: who hangs out in the tub naked with their girlfriends shaving their legs together? I dormed in college and, Judd Apatow, I can assure you this probably happens less often than you'd like to believe! Also, we hear that they watch Mary Tyler Moore together but, correct me if I'm wrong, Mary Tyler Moore was a WORKING GIRL. These girls don't seem to do much of anything, but we'll get to that in due time.

To follow the Sex and the City mold, Girls appears to follow four primary protagonists with Dunham playing the lead (the Carrie role, if you will). The next character introduced, Shoshanna, even makes reference to this. She points out her Sex and the City poster to her new roommate, British cousin Jessa. Shoshanna, played by Zosia Mamet, is over the top in her enthusiasm for the show and which Sex and the City character she most embodies. While I don't think it's a stretch, what should have been a nod with a smirk to a former HBO heavyweight and similarly themed series is instead a long, drawn out, drunken overt surly wink. To say it felt forced is an understatement.

When Hannah's character is at her internship, we meet our first minority — the Asian graphic designer who is apparently more valuable than Hannah because she knows Photoshop! Her scene ends swiftly as Hannah's boss interprets her "I can't afford to work for free anymore" comment as "I quit." This then leads Hannah into the arms of her actor lover with whom we can assume she's had an off again, on again history. They wax poetic about the working world and the lover, Adam, confesses that his parents don't support him — wait for it — his grandma does! Adam's grandma gives him $800 a month towards living expenses so, as he puts it, "I don't have to be anyone's slave." At this point, I'm almost ready to turn off the TV and walk away. Again, I'm not in my 30's — I'm a twenty-something with lots of twenty-something friends. My friends who aspire to be actors work their fucking asses off. Most of them work crappy jobs at Starbucks or administrative assistant gigs that give them the flexibility to go out on auditions and work on their personal projects. It's not easy for them and most of them don't have their grandma's giving them what amounts to rent every month.

The interaction between Hannah and Adam is so awkward it hurts. Hannah can stand up to her parents to try and make them give her money but she's weak and powerless when with Adam? She asks Adam to retrieve a condom before they have sex and he replies "I'll consider it." Later, she confides in him about how her rapid weight gain spurred her tattoos to which he replies, "You're not that fat anymore." All of this seems normal to Hannah; she doesn't bat an eye. And their sex scene is probably the worst of it; I know premium television seems to require them, but in this case it really didn't seem necessary at all.

Finally, toward the end of the episode, Hannah — who is now high on some sort of opium tea — decides to storm into her parent's hotel room and demand that they support her because she has a "voice of a generation." If Lena Dunham's voice is the voice of a generation then it clearly isn't mine. Her voice, which I assume is scattered over all these characters, tells of a breed of entitled bratty little girls. In keeping with the entitlement, Hannah pleads "All I'm asking for is $1100 per month every month for the next 2 years." Wow, what I would've given to have someone gift me $1100 per month! Instead, I had to earn it. And to be honest with you, I probably earned that much working while I was in college full time!

The end of the episode leaves a particularly bad taste in my mouth. Hannah's parents check out of the hotel and Hannah wakes up in their hotel room, alone. Her first inclination is to order room service! Yes, room service after her parents explained how they can't afford to, you know, pay for this make-believe lifestyle she leads. Upon finding that the room service tab is fully closed, she decides she should leave before housekeeping comes. On the hotel room desk, she finds an envelope addressed to her with some money. Her parents also left an envelope on the desk for housekeeping. Hannah steals the money left for housekeeping and pockets it before leaving. Oh, and by the way, at the end of the episode we get minority sighting #2; the homeless black man that sings at Hannah as she walks down Sixth Avenue. I thought there were more minorities in New York City, but I guess I'm just mistaken.

One of my friends, who saw this show before I did, described the girls as "vapid" and I can't say I blame her. Girls is a terrible portrayal of elite, entitled twenty-somethings living a fantasy Disney princess life in New York City on borrowed money and/or trust funds. But perhaps I'm not part of the key demographic for this show as I'm not white, I don't live outside my means and I don't have other people footing my cable bill? To be honest, this makes me rather sad. I was looking forward to Girls being an exploration of coming of age as women in a big city where you need to work hard (and sometimes get a lucky break here and there) to survive. Instead, it was a bunch of unredeemable adult characters acting like little girls. But, as the title suggests, maybe that's the point. Though, after that pilot, I won't be sticking around to find out.

What's the deal with Warby Parker?

As many of the dozens of you who read my blog know, I wear glasses pretty much daily. On a rare occasion, I might break out the contact lenses, but like I said, it is rare. I find that contact lenses put a huge strain on my eyes during the course of a normal work day where I generally sit in front of a computer screen most of the time. And I'm still very scared of laser surgery where they slice open your eye (!) so, yeah, I wear glasses.

I've been wearing the same frames for years now. I originally found them for sale on ebay and purchased them something like 5 years ago. After years of wear, they started to get old so I decided to do a search for new frames again. I looked around and didn't see much I liked. I ended up buying the same frames again but in a different color. These are the frames that I'm wearing now. I really like them, but they are starting to age and it might be that time where I decide to get new glasses (especially with insurance…score!).

My first thought this time was to try a different sort of online purchasing experience. Warby Parker (warbyparker.com) has revolutionized the purchase of glasses by taking the whole experience, with the exception of the eye exam, online. You send them your prescription, pick glasses, and BEHOLD, you have new glasses shipped to your door. Also, they are a company committed to good. For every pair of glasses you buy, they send a pair of glasses to someone in need. I'm a sucker for a good cause. Continue reading "What's the deal with Warby Parker?"

Where did all the cowgirls go?

I recently read a blog post by Clay Shirky about the difference between how women talk about their own abilities versus men. He wishes that more women would stand up and exert their influence because women are just as talented, smart and capable as their more effusive male colleagues. I wish for this, too.

In fact, many other women wish for this as well. COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg has given many a talk aimed at women. She says that women should take a seat at the table and not count themselves out by default because they want to have a family. Sheryl is living proof that it is possible to maintain a family and still be successful; and she acknowledges the challenges that come with that.

However, she also touches upon the big elephant in the room that many who talk about the disparities between men and women fail to acknowledge. A man who goes for the gold is assertive. A woman who does the same is off-putting at best, and at worst simply labeled a "bitch." Often when I say this, people roll their eyes; Sheryl present a famous Harvard Business school study that proves this is not simply "women getting easily offended" or "being emotional" (which, by the way, is another topic for another day).

It's an issue that permeates regardless of industry. In politics, Hilary Clinton was often given that label. Her wardrobe of pants suits and "attack dog" stance during her campaign gave her a harsh exterior in the public eye to both women and men. Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live commented on the whole thing and turned it into a positive with the saying "Bitches get shit done."

I love that sketch because I sympathize. I am good at my job. I get things done. If that wasn't true, I wouldn't now be earning nearly triple what I was offered upon graduation in 2006 (in a "bad economy", to boot!). However, as a result of my focus on process, keeping on schedule, and GSD (getting shit done), I am sure that there are many colleagues, past and present, who think I'm a bitch. In fact, I can name them (and there are, unfortunately, women among them).

And the truth of the matter is, I'm not a difficult person to work with. Despite going to school for Computer Science, I'm self-taught at a lot of things, lousy at some others and definitely still have quite a bit to learn. This invigorates me to learn more but also terrifies me at the same time; being in technology, I sometimes feel the need to know everything and be on the cutting edge. This isn't necessarily true, but motivates me to keep on my toes and at the very least stay relevant in a few things (and, given current trends, looks like my decision not to dive head first into Flash development wasn't so bad after all).

But the point of writing this wasn't to brag about myself. The point is that yes, women need to step up to the plate more to brag and take credit — myself included. Often times, we shy away or defer to others when we know what the right answer is. This is a problem of self-doubt and wavering self-esteem that perhaps everyone has at times but tends to be more evident among women. However, the flip side of that is let's call a spade a spade. When a woman steps up, do we encourage it? Or do we add to this doubt — do we doubt her abilities because of predisposed notions? Continue reading "Where did all the cowgirls go?"

Mentorship in the Age of Instant-ity

Quite a few years ago, I had a conversation with a colleague about mentorship.  She mentioned that she didn't mind being a mentor but found it exhausting and often not worth her time.  Then, I was younger, looking for guidance and surprised by her thoughts.  Now, I understand her meaning.  Let me explain.

I believe information should be free and that knowledge is power.  Currently, we are in the age of "instant-ity"; you can get most information you need pretty easily from the convenience of your cellphone, laptop or even television.  Thus it appears that information is, for the most part, free and that you can wield power over your own existence through the knowledge you've obtained via this information.  But this is where the problem lies, and ultimately the disconnect between generations lately. Continue reading "Mentorship in the Age of Instant-ity"

Why The Beatles on iTunes is Important

Yesterday, Apple (Apple Computer, the company behind my beloved iPhone) changed their homepage to read that on Tuesday November 16th, a big announcement was coming from iTunes.  Over the years, Apple has made lots of big announcements but usually they are pretty easy to forecast.  For example, around "back to school" season, Apple usually has a music event where they'll release new iPods and refresh iTunes software.  This big announcement, in the middle of November, was not really in keeping with Apple's usual release cycle.  My first thought: The Beatles must be coming to iTunes.

The Beatles on iTunes
Screenshot of Apple.com announcement of Beatles on iTunes

And turns out, I was correct!  The Apple.com homepage changed to reveal that The Beatles have officially come to iTunes.  The new content available for purchase on iTunes now includes the fab four's 13 studio albums as well as video content (concerts, commercials, and etc).  As a big Beatles fan, I'm really happy to see their catalog added to iTunes; but truthfully, it's far more important than just making me happy.  A lot of folks on the internet (well, in my twitter-verse at least) are making noise about being somewhat disappointed by this announcement.  It's actually a really big deal for The Beatles' members and their estates, as well as a big deal for Apple Computer.  However, it's a much bigger deal for music history. Continue reading "Why The Beatles on iTunes is Important"