Hack to the Future

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// WEEKEND

Professor Dana Angluin’s office on the fourth floor of Arthur K. Watson Hall, the home of the Computer Science Department, is covered in graphs. One, which is pinned to the outside of the doorway, lists the enrollment numbers for the major’s introductory-level lectures. The color-coded bars rocket upward as the graph approaches the present.

This surge in interest might explain why the average Yale undergraduate has received several campuswide emails mentioning “hackathons” and “HackYale.” According to the Yale College Council, today is the first day of Tech Month, an initiative meant to bring the campus’s programming scene to the fore.

It has been a long time coming, but now, the signs are clear that more and more Yalies are learning to scan lines of code in addition to lines of verse. In the spring of 2010, 28 students were enrolled in “Introduction to Programming”; three years later, 187 students squeeze into the lecture hall. This semester the number of applicants for HackYale, a student-run course that teaches practical programming basics, was around 250 for about 50 coveted spots in the capped lecture.

In response to such record interest in computer science, members and supporters of Yale’s tech community have suggested turning HackYale into an official college course. In the process, students have cited the example of similar practical lectures courses taught at Harvard, Stanford and Penn.

But there are growing pains. The computer science major has had roughly the same number of faculty members for the past three decades. Now, with increasing enrollment, professors have struggled to keep up. Classes lack sufficient numbers of teaching assistants for their size, and without the extra help, professors cannot meet the needs of every student.

Despite University interest in expanding tech-related initiatives on campus, students, faculty and administrators have pointed out that the practical instruction required for this boom seems incompatible with Yale’s liberal arts mission. In computer science courses, Yale’s faculty is known to emphasize concepts. There are no lessons on how to build the app that will make you rich. The College is, after all, more well-known for DS than it is for CS.

But most people involved in Yale’s tech community say that graduates can find success in this ever-evolving field on their own terms. The University may never churn out programmers or engineers like MIT or Stanford. But as pointed out by members of HackYale and Yale BootUp, an organization that sponsors events for campus programmers, the liberal arts pedigree isn’t always a drawback. Computers can be made to crunch the numbers behind the big questions: the political science major who builds a program to analyze AIDS rates in Africa, the art major who programs panels of LEDs, one node at a time.

Tech at Yale is here; it has been for several years. The challenge is finding a space for it to stay, and figuring out whether there’s enough room in the University’s old stone walls for both theory and practice.

The Source Code

It’s easy to fantasize that coding in college means scribbling on your dorm room window at 3 a.m. while your suitemates get drunk and Trent Reznor’s electronic score blares in the background.

As put by Stanley Eisenstat, the director of undergraduate studies for the Computer Science Department, many fledgling programmers are inspired by stories like those shown in the movie “The Social Network,” about Mark Zuckerberg and others who became billionaires by starting a company in college.

Others cite stories closer to campus. Last year, Yale bought the license to Yale BlueBook from Jared Shenson ’12 and Charlie Croom ’12, the two students who designed the now-ubiquitous course database. Croom currently works for Twitter.

“[Computer science now] is cool, which hasn’t always been the case,” said Angluin, who taught “Introduction to Computer Science” in the fall.

You know what else is cool? A billion dollars.

Throughout his time at Yale, Max Uhlenhuth ’12 developed software to help forestry companies more efficiently manage their inventories. These efforts laid the foundation for the company he co-founded, SilviaTerra. In 2012, Forbes magazine named Uhlenhuth an “All-Star Student Entrepreneur” and reports that Uhlenhuth estimates that his company will pull in more than $3 million this upcoming year.

Uhlenhuth, however, saw tech-savviness as necessary for more than just big payouts.

“One of the skills that a Renaissance person needs to have in 2013 is how to interact with this digital world,” he said.

This perspective is understandable, as coded products, from JSTOR to Snapchat, have become inseparable from college life, and Angluin echoed this sentiment.

“In a terrible economy, tech hiring is a bright spot,” she said, commenting on recent employment statistics. But, financial concerns aside, “[students] expect to know how to use the things they use in life.”

It is no wonder, then, that students in philosophy, chemistry and computer science alike have flocked to HackYale’s signature course, “Introduction to Web Development.” The semester-long lecture, taught one night a week by students in the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, introduces Yalies to some of the building blocks of the web: HTML, CSS and JavaScript. While the program is designed to teach 50 students, HackYale Director Zack Reneau-Wedeen ’14 said that their course could attract 1,000 applicants by expanding advertising alone.

Despite the intense competition, HackYale does not pander to the experienced programmer. The vast majority of its students have never coded before. Only 20 to 30 percent of the students in each of the two 25-person sections tend to be computer science majors. In addition, the proliferation of online programming guides has made the coding world more accessible, said Yale BootUp President Aayush Upadhyay ’14.

“You can just Google ‘How do I build a web app?’ and the first 10 links are all incredibly informative,” he said. “They assume you know nothing and they just take you step-by-step, and you build an entire thing that works and it looks nice.”

Upadhyay also mentioned that Yale’s recent effort to increase STEM enrollment could promote a culture of innovation that will come to feed itself, even if it’s not destined to dominate campus life.

Deputy Provost for Science and Technology Steven Girvin said that the economy has driven a large part of the rise in technical and entrepreneurial interest at Yale in recent years. After a visit to Silicon Valley earlier this week, Girvin confirmed that the tech industry shows very few scars from the recent recession.

A cultural shift may also underlie this change. Girvin pointed out that Yale’s quantitatively minded have begun to resist the siren song of the financial sector after graduation.

“I’m not sure [these finance positions] led to very fulfilling lives or to making a difference in the world,” he said. “And I think there has been a national swing back towards science, engineering and computer science for those people.”

Short-circuitry

As the demand rises for a more technical kind of education, Yale’s resources might not be ready to properly face the changing times.

“Yale’s [Computer Science] Department is undersized compared to other institutions,” Angluin said. Yale’s computer science faculty, according to Angluin, has been the same size for the last 25 years. “Now that the Admissions Office has presented us with more students, that will have to change.”

The problem? According to professor Eisenstat, who has been on the faculty for all 25 of those years and more, “we don’t control the purse strings.”

As noted by both Eisenstat and Angluin, Yale’s peer institutions — especially Harvard, Stanford and Penn — have pumped money into their computer science departments in recent years. Famously, Harvard reinvented its introductory programming lecture, CS50, in order to cater to a wider swath of the student body. In 2011, over 600 students had enrolled in the course, which employed two multimedia producers to record every lecture.

“It has a very odd design,” said Angluin of CS50, commenting that it needs “rafts and rafts” of committed and paid undergraduate teaching assistants to make it work. Yale’s computer science faculty, which is currently experiencing difficulty having professors work one-on-one with students for senior projects, just doesn’t have the manpower for that kind of course offering.

Reneau-Wedeen said that enrollment in many computer science courses has tripled in recent years. The department has also struggled to find enough qualified teaching fellows; approximately 70 students and only one teaching assistant formed part of an artificial intelligence course taught last fall.

“We have to sort of swallow a tiny bit of a bitter pill, ” Reneau-Wedeen said. “There is a little bit less attention per computer science student right now. But you have to imagine that the administration notices the increase in demand and will adjust accordingly.”

Staffing concerns, however, have proven to be a problem for members of Yale’s tech community, many of whom see Yale’s lack of a practical programming lecture as a sign of lagging administrative support.

“I don’t feel that [the administration has] detracted from anything, but I also don’t think they have contributed too much either,” said Upadhyay. “I think it’s been very student-led, whatever tech initiatives we have seen here.”

Is Hacking a Liberal Art?

Does the stereotypical Yale student code? Would he spend hours, even days, glued to a screen, out of sight of the University’s Gothic buildings? Would alumni scoff at the idea of a course that teaches students how to build a website, and not simply how to think about one?

“Yale sees itself as very much a liberal arts place,” Uhlenhuth said. “[It] doesn’t want to become a trade school.”

To that end, Yale’s Computer Science Department is designed to give students a strong background in theory. Up until a few years ago, “Introduction to Programming” taught students Scheme, a programming language that Uhlenhuth said is infamous among programmers — while it is good for teaching theory, it’s a “huge pain in the ass” to build anything with.

Because of the department’s history, the proposal outlining a for-credit version of HackYale potentially faces more fundamental trouble than a lack of funding and a dearth of TAs and student input. Girvin said that while he could imagine engineering departments embracing a course like one modeled after Harvard’s CS50, he expressed doubt that the computer science program would be as receptive.

“My impression is that [our department] views that kind of course as separate from their academic mission,” he said.

Indeed, Angluin also believes that computer science at Yale is designed to be something more “fundamental.” According to professor Eisenstat, this focus on adaptability will serve majors well in the constantly changing technological world.

This measure of well-roundedness, however, does not necessarily translate as well into the business world.

“They don’t even recruit at Yale for Twitter,” Croom said. Yale graduates like Croom do work in Silicon Valley, but the road to get there is not as well-worn as those in peer schools.

Because of this, it’s easy to see Yale’s lack of a tech pipeline as a problem, especially for high school students who see college as a stepping stone to career goals.

Rafi Khan ’15 does not think Yale is particularly known as being a tech school. Khan placed third in the App Challenge last year for Screw Me Yale, which helps students pair off their roommates for residential college dances.

But, as Khan said, that perception can change, and not in a way that threatens the University’s core appeal. Indeed, the scene of students spending time in a hackathon, tinkering with code for hours with little more training than HackYale, is perhaps quintessentially Yale. For better or for worse, the College’s focus on broad-based education has defined the tech lives of its students.

“You are just not going to compete with the hard-core MIT guys in raw computer science,” said Uhlenhuth. “But you can eat their lunch in computer science plus x.”

The fusion of technical skills with a liberal arts background, School of Engineering Deputy Dean Vincent Wilczynski said, gives Yale students a competitive advantage, especially when compared to graduates of a more technical school.

The new Center for Engineering Innovation and Design aims to provide a meeting and working space for students of all majors. It now houses the HackYale classes, fulfilling the center’s mission to host that unique blend of technical knowledge with liberal arts breadth. As of the start of this term, fewer than half of the center’s members planned on majoring in one of the STEM fields. The CEID counts among its 485 official members 59 students at the School of Management, 26 economics students and 16 architecture students.

“People in your generation are not going to have one job at General Motors for the rest of their career, they are going to do 12 different things,” Girvin said. “The purpose of your Yale education is in part just to learn how to learn and to keep moving as the world changes around us.”

Building a Framework

“We don’t want to keep starting from scratch,” explained YCC President John Gonzalez ’14, commenting on a proposal to allow HackYale to be taught for course credit.

Yalies have tried to make HackYale a for-credit course almost since its founding in the fall of 2011. Last year, the YCC helped propose a course based on the HackYale model. The proposal fell through, however, because it lacked sufficient input from students and faculty in the Computer Science Department. The faculty felt that any plan would need to propose a legitimate computer science course and not merely a vocational one, Upadhyay said.

This year, Upadhyay hopes to finalize a plan by the end of February after consulting with computer science majors and professors.

Given the demand for more computer science professors in general, Upadhyay added, Yale should bring in faculty to teach the class. Upadhyay said that President-elect Peter Salovey is “really interested” in bringing this type of course to Yale.

Salovey wrote in a Tuesday email that he is pleased that a greater number of students are enrolling in introductory computer science courses. But the ultimate decision, he said, of whether to offer a course similar to HackYale for credit, rests with the faculty.

“I hope we can provide even more opportunities of this kind,” he added.

Students hope to capitalize on Salovey’s sentiment. Gonzalez mentioned that, on the YCC’s upcoming “Salovation Report” (a list of recommendations for the President-elect), many of the proposals would involve supporting student innovation.

“I campaigned on applicable tech,” Gonzalez said.

Tech Month is the result of that campaign. The event kicks off with a 12-hour mini-hackathon this Saturday. While providing some time for programmers to come together, share expertise and delight in snacks, the hackathon also marks the official start of the YCC’s App Challenge. Past winners, including events app Roammeo, Yale BlueBook, and One Button Wenzel, have all walked away with the hefty $1,000 prize.

“The app challenge is the biggest win I’ve seen at Yale,” said Croom, the Yale BlueBook co-creator and Twitter employee. Croom is one of many returning to Yale for “tech talks” later this month and will be speaking in association with TEDxYale and Yale BootUp.

The last weekend of February will feature a full, 24-hour hackathon sponsored by numerous tech giants, including Google, Microsoft and Facebook.

Will the Bubble Pop?

From 2000 to 2001, the price of Amazon stock fell from $107 to $7 per share. Shares of Cisco fell a similarly frightening 86 percent. The effects of the dot-com bust were mirrored in Yale’s course enrollment numbers: in spring 2000, 143 students were enrolled in Yale’s intro programming class; in spring 2002, the number fell to 67.

2013 is, of course, a different time, but even with recent success stories, the tech industry has yet to prove its staying power, at Yale or otherwise.

Even HackYale Director Reneau-Wedeen said there is no way of knowing whether the booming tech culture that we live in today will fade as it did 10 years ago. But he has strong hope that the burgeoning interest in technology and entrepreneurship at Yale is here for the long haul.

“It’s not just about getting jobs,” he explained. “It’s extremely intellectually interesting, stimulating, collaborative, and it relates to all fields on study.”

Most importantly, Reneau-Wedeen said, every group involved, from HackYale to Yale BootUp to the YCC is working toward a common goal — having a positive influence on the Yale experience. And from this endeavor, each organization contributes unique strengths.

Yale BootUp brings in speakers, organizes hackathons and other social coding events. HackYale recruits student-teachers to instruct other Yalies how to code. The Student Technology Collaborative taught a course last fall on the programming language Ruby on Rails. The Computer Science Department continues to provide theoretical foundations. The YCC promotes their own technology initiatives as well as spreading the word about others.

“It’s very mutually symbiotic from everyone,” Reneau-Wedeen concluded. “I think that’s going to be necessary in order to make this something that lasts.”

This level of energy comes at a very important time for Yale. With the selection of a new president and provost, the University has been given a chance to consider on its own identity.

“Our vision of Yale is in flux,” said Gonzalez, pointing out not only that the President-elect’s administration will “decide how much money the Computer Science Department gets,” but also how much support will be given to the tech community in general.

What will this momentum lead to? According to Khan, “it’s foolish to speculate. What will happen is what the students decide.” Yale may still be more famous for producing people who campaign for office than people who code, but the coders are here, and they’re not about leave.

Professor Angluin agreed. When asked if she thinks the numbers of Yale students interested in technology will continue to grow, she merely pointed at her door.

“Well,” she smiled. “You saw the graph.”

Correction: Feb. 6

A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Rafi Khan ’15 and his app Screw Me Yale won the 2012 YCC App Challenge. In fact, Travelogue, an app by Jared Shenson ’12, Charlie Croom ’12 and Bay Gross ’13, took first place in the challenge. Khan’s entry ranked third.

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