You might not know it, but a whole generation of startups is taking root at Yale. They’re developing apps for Android, the Google smartphone operating system, and have plans to meet with venture capitalists early next semester. With any luck, one of them will develop into the Next Big Thing, and Yale will finally have the tech-genius billionaire alumnus it’s been waiting for.
But before they get any funding, these fledgling companies will all get something else: a grade.
This is all taking place within Professor Daniel Abadi’s reimagined “Introduction to Programming” class, CPSC 112. After teaching it for years using only Java, Abadi has redesigned the syllabus around a group app development project meant to simulate launching a tech startup. He’s also worked with School of Management Professor Kyle Jensen to create an entirely new course, CPSC 113: “Programming and Entrepreneurship,” to be offered in the spring as an extension of CPSC 112. And while “Introduction to Programming” will retain its focus on computer science basics, its revamped curriculum and the addition of CPSC 113 have one goal.
“The purpose of the course is to better enable our students to go off and create the next Facebook,” says Jensen.
Student interest in practical computer knowledge and startup culture has existed at Yale for years, as shown by organizations like HackYale and Y-Hack. But Yale’s Computer Science department has long been known for focusing on theory rather than application. The entrepreneurial-minded revamp of CPSC 112 and the invention of CPSC 113 are a response to that demand. The question remains, though: Can a liberal arts education teach you to get rich quick?
The narrative surrounding computer science at Yale has been of a department wary of classes focused on entrepreneurship rather than academics. The department’s consistent refusal to accept course credit for HackYale, a student organization teaching programming basics and web design, has only contributed to that.
According to Alex Reinking ’16, who has taught for HackYale in the past, “The Computer Science Department has been reluctant to expand into things that aren’t computer science explicitly.”
Abadi agrees that some faculty were skeptical of moving away from pure fundamentals, but he specifies that the new course isn’t the result of a power shift within the department. Instead, he says there was simply no one willing to teach it.
Until Abadi came along, that is. As a Ph.D. student at MIT, Abadi worked part time on tech startups VoltDB and Vertica, the latter of which Hewlett-Packard bought for $350 million in 2011. At Yale, he founded Hadapt, a database-management startup that Teradata bought this July. Abadi says he doesn’t think anyone else in Yale’s computer science department has founded startups on a similar scale.
Though he had taught more theoretically based classes including CPSC 112 for several years, this summer, he decided to bring his startup experience into the class. Having gotten tenure last spring, he felt ready to try something more adventurous. After selling Hadapt in July, he took his proposal for the new CPSC 112-113 program to department chair Joan Feigenbaum and to James Aspnes, the DUS. Both liked the idea — “there wasn’t any kind of battle or anything,” Abadi says — and the administration approved the new course design in only two days. Abadi took the quick turnaround as a sign of enthusiasm from Woodbridge Hall, as did Feigenbaum.
“In general, the administration has been very eager for shaking things up a bit in computer science,” she says. “This, they see as a very good example of shaking things up, and I do too.”
According to Feigenbaum, Yale’s Computer Science Department is in the midst of a sea change, one that’s also being felt around the Ivies and the country.
Soaring enrollment in Yale’s Computer Science courses is well documented; Feigenbaum says her department is the “biggest of the small majors,” and its enrollment numbers could begin to rival those of academic mainstays like English or Econ during her tenure as chair.
Less obvious is the change not just in the numbers but the nature of Yale’s computer science students. Feigenbaum says that while the traditional CS major had learned to program before arriving at Yale and planned to continue doing so, the department now has to grapple with widely varying skill levels, backgrounds and intentions among its students.
“We have been, traditionally, a very narrow and deep major,” but now, she says, “We may want to broaden.” One possibility would be separate tracks for career computer scientists — what Feigenbaum calls the “geekus maximus” track — and those who want to learn computer science but do something else as a career.
Abadi’s course is the first step towards a broader focus, as the department adjusts to new demographics and new sources of interest. Abadi points out that the department’s last three hires, including himself, have all been “more on the applied side of things.” He attributes this to a deliberate strategy, and Aspnes agrees, saying that the new faculty addressed Yale’s traditional weakness in applied teaching rather than fundamentals.
As novel as the recent surge in interest might appear, computer science has been here before. It happened in the 1980s, when personal computers were still a novelty, and then again in the late 1990s during the dot-com boom. Yale students’ interest in the discipline has tracked those trends: Enrollment in “Intro to Programming” fell from 143 in the spring 2000 to 67 in spring 2002, after the dot-com bubble popped .
Feigenbaum thinks that this time, the increase in interest will be more sustained: Computers are a bigger part of everyday life than ever before. But the pitch for this new course isn’t technological literacy — it’s marketability. Computer Science has always presented a clearer career path than other majors — “We are educating people who are prepared to be professional computer scientists,” Feigenbaum says — and with the job market slow but the tech industry booming, students are looking to the discipline to learn marketable skills.
But professors and students alike are adamant that the immediate applicability of computer science, and specifically of hands-on classes like CPSC 112, isn’t at odds with a traditional liberal arts education.
“There has long been at Harvard, and I presume at Yale as well, this assumption that a liberal arts education is by definition not practical,” says David Malan, who teaches Harvard’s famous CS50 course, a hands-on introduction to computer science and programming. But he doesn’t think that’s necessarily true.
Feigenbaum agrees, questioning the notion that practical knowledge and lofty theory are even distinct from each other. Knowledge with real-world implications, she says, can be intellectually engaging.
Rafi Khan ’15, HackYale’s co-director, adds that computer science fits that description because “it’s exposing you to a new way of thinking, and expanding your mind in that way.”
Malan is careful to specify that his course isn’t just about practicality, though. Because while practicality itself isn’t at odds with the liberal arts, a course prioritizing technical skills over theoretical understanding might be. So while CS50 aims to teach students concrete skills, it also aims at understanding, according to Malan.
“The reality,” he says, “is that you can use a tool without knowing how it works.”
But that’s not why you go to Yale or Harvard. And while practical computer science classes teach real-world skills, teaching students how to monetize those skills is something else entirely. Those involved with the course acknowledge the potential tension.
“The real question is not, ‘Is there something wrong with acquiring knowledge that has practical value?’” says Feigenbaum. “The real potential controversy here is that we’re deliberately describing the course in terms of startup companies and venture capital and pitching a business plan.” One could ask, she says, “Why would you say any of that in an undergraduate course?”
For one thing, Feigenbaum says, that’s what students want to hear. Tech startups features prominently on social media and in popular culture, and with CPSC 112, she hopes the department can tap into that.
Aspnes says he didn’t consider the role of money in the course when approving it, while Jensen, the professor for 113, says he doesn’t worry that the business aspect of the class will conflict with academic values.
“The ventures people work on will embody their values,” he says, adding that a liberal arts education can actually be a competitive advantage for startups facing competition from tech-first schools like MIT.
Abadi says he will make sure to say “fake money” and “fake stock” when discussing that part of the syllabus. Even so, “It may be a little stressful for some of the students; the social pressure may get intense. I don’t know what’s going to happen — obviously, it’s an experiment. If bad things happen, we can change the rules on the fly if need be.”
But entrepreneurial spirit is part of the classes’ new identities, try as Abadi might to model a benign version of the business world.
Marc Bielas ’18, for one, says he wouldn’t have taken the class if not for the new angle. The business potential of learning computer science has always intrigued him, he says. But, he continues, “I’ve never had the technical skills to create any of the applications I had thought of.”
Bielas says he likes the focus on turning ideas into profit. Undergrads will be in the workforce soon, he explains, and exposure to the business world can’t hurt. Like its designers, he sees CPSC 112 as a step towards Zuckerberg-like billionaire tech dropouts — something he thinks Yale lacks.
And despite her own reservations and others’, Feigenbaum is at peace with the focus on money and business.
“Whether there’s something inherently wrong with thinking about pitching or selling or the economic and business aspect of it, in an undergraduate course — I don’t think so,” she says, pointing out that Yale alumni in tech and other fields often go on to start businesses. But, she qualifies, “I guess the danger might be that some kids actually think there’s a good chance that they can go directly from writing one app to having a successful business. That might be a bit unrealistic.”
That thought, however, is part of what’s driving Yalies’ new enthusiasm for computer science. While the new 112 course will still focus on fundamentals despite its new structure, some students want immediate results.
Those sorts of students make up much of HackYale’s enrollment, and Khan acknowledges that HackYale’s courses “skip over” some fundamentals in order to get students’ ideas online as fast as possible. The group’s founders didn’t plan to launch students towards multi-million dollar IPOs, but some nonetheless see the program as the first step along the way.
“Oftentimes people come to us with startup ideas that they’re not able to implement themselves,” says Reinking. “That’s a really common reason.”
And according to Khan, that ordering of priorities contributed to the department’s initial hesitation to implement a more practical, HackYale-type course. Bay Gross ’13, HackYale’s founder, said in an email that while the department was receptive to the idea, he added that they were “perhaps overly cautious” in embracing what they thought might be a trend lacking in educational value and rigor. And even if the addition of a class like Abadi’s is a step towards a more practical education, Feigenbaum says the department will never teach students how to use computers without understanding how they work.
“The particular languages, they come and go,” says Abadi. “But the fundamentals, they’ve been around for 30, 40 years, and they’re not going anywhere.”
If all anyone did was think about commercializing their inventions, says Feigenbaum, no one would be able to invent anything. “I hope they understand,” she adds, “that they’re not going to get rich quick without putting in work.”