Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Interview with Stroustrup

Datamation has an interview with Bjarne Stroustrup. Stroustrup, the inventor of C++, retired from Bell Labs and moved to academia. He has some choice comments on the state of computer science education today. Some excerpts:
The US industry could absorb more good developers than there are currently students enrolled in IT-related programs – but not all of those programs and all of those students would qualify as “good” in this context.

Take a simple example: A friend of mine looked at the final projects of a class of third-year CS students from a famous university. Essentially all had their code littered with “magic constants.” They had never been taught that was bad style – in fact they had never been taught about programming style because the department “taught computer science; not programming.” That is, programming was seen as a lowly skill that students either did not need or could easily pick up on their own.

I have seen the result of that attitude in new graduate students: It is rare that anyone thinks about the structure of their code or the implications for scaling and maintenance – those are not academic subjects. Students are taught good practical and essential topics, such as algorithms, data structures, machine architecture, programming languages, and “systems,” but only rarely do they “connect the dots” to see how it all fits together in a maintainable program.

Stroustrup on kids entering university these days:
What should high schools do to prepare students for university-level software development? When I entered a Math course as a 1st year student, the department head said something like this in his welcoming lecture: “I don’t care if you know math – we’ll teach you that from scratch – but I hope you know how to work hard and to read & write English, because you’ll need that to keep up.” I think he had an important point: current freshmen appear to have been spoon fed and many find it hard to adjust to independent work and to shake the impression that you work only to improve your grades.

High schools could teach students to work hard at something (just about anything), to search out information as needed, and learn to express their ideas in writing and orally. Project-based work is good for that. Exactly which programming language is used for software is less important, but the aim should not be to make tasks as simple as possible but to challenge students.

On education:
Education should prepare people to face new challenges; that’s what makes education different from training. In computing, that means knowing your basic algorithms, data structures, system issues, etc., and the languages needed to apply that knowledge. It also means having the high-level skills to analyze a system and to experiment with alternative solutions to problems. Going beyond the simple library-user level of programming is especially important when we consider the need to build new industries, rather than just improving older ones.

Advice to CS students:
Learn another programming language; choose any language that’s quite different from what you are best acquainted with. You can’t be a professional in the IT world knowing only one language. No one language is the best for everyone and for everything.

Don’t just do programming. Computing is always computing something. Become acquainted with something that requires your software development skills: Mediaeval history, car engine design, rocket science, medical blood analysis, image processing, computational geometry, biological modeling, whatever seems interesting. Yes, all of these examples are real, from my personal experience.