Thoughts on Systems

Emil Sit

Apr 24, 2010 - 3 minute read - Technology art computer science education

Music education versus computer science education

My mother recently forwarded me this interview of the pianist Glenn Gould:

I encourage you to watch this (and all 6 parts), even if you know nothing about classical music.

What stood out to me in viewing this series of videos was the fluidity with which Gould is able to discuss a piece of music, in its historical context, and to simply jump in to play a phrase from a different piece to call out a point for discussion. This demonstrates an incredible mastery of the subject matter, unifying history and context, theory, and practical implementation.

From my experience at the Manhattan School of Music, musical training seeks precisely to bring this unification into its students. As you study, you learn to play a variety of pieces or styles, from different time period. You are taught some history, to be able to understand the evolution of styles; you are taught the underlying theory, to be able to discuss this evolution using precise terms; and then you practice the mechanics needed to actually play the pieces.

How does this compare to computer programming? Computer “science”, as you may know, has a fair amount of artistry to it.

We are simply not trained to have these kinds of discussions. How many people do you know who, during a code or design discussion, might say, “Oh, this is very similar to System X, in contrast to how System Y did things,” and then pull up the source code (or architecture diagram) for System X and Y and compare them with the relevant pieces under discussion?

At MIT, the classes are (were?) organized around ideas and then around technical implementation (leading, hopefully, to understanding). Little emphasis is placed on how to be a programmer, such as prototyping, testing, revision control, or code-review; that is, these things rarely factor significantly into your grade. Even less emphasis is given to the ability to discuss ideas in context, even at the graduate level. Undergraduate classes at most schools seem to focus on learning best practices for a particular programming language. As graduate students, only the extremely motivated would explore beyond the papers presented in the course syllabus, or the immediate related work for a given project; tracking down the source code of other systems is almost never done (perhaps simply because it is not often available).

In the professional world, no one teaches you how to do code or design reviews at this level either. Just like in school, professional programmers are constantly subject to deadlines which override just about any extra-curricular work. Reviews are often focused on mechanics or on vague, unsubstantiated worries. Again, extreme personal motivation is required to move beyond this.

How can we improve this situation? Is there room at the undergraduate level for more capstone projects that unify the theory, the history, and the mechanics with the craft of programming? What about at the graduate level? How about in a professional environment? What has been your experience?

I’d like to find programmers that work this way, that are excited and passionate about the craft of programming. Are you one? Get in touch.