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November 11, 2008

College Tours and the Virtualization of the Computer Science Dept

Last weekend I endured enjoyed two college tours with a visit to the Computer Science departments. The thing that struck me as different (which reminded me that I'm a dinosaur) was the absence of the Holy Trophy System.

Used to be there was a Computer System, often in its own building, certainly had its own space, and it was a measure of the department's stature. Maybe they had an System 360, or a PDP-8.

The Holy trophy System was the lodestone of the program. The students couldn't touch it or interact with it directly, you'd drop off bundles of punchcards like offerings at a temple, the info-priests would introduce your offering to the Computer during clearly defined timeframes, and later you'd get your cards back, wrapped in green/white pages of line printer output, and you'd learn if you had succeeded or failed. Ah, the agony of batch processing. Used to be, a college tour to a computer science department included a respectful look at The Computer System.

Now computers are everywhere, and my cellphone has more processing power than a PDP-8. My palm pilot has more memory than the computers that took us to the Moon. In a world of embedded computing and the ubiquitious web, what's a computer science department got to show? Where's the there?

At both schools we saw a room full of networked monitors, and a box of Mindstorm bricks that show they've been used, and some screen shots. But there's no real "hardware" differentiation between the programs anymore. And I think that's a great thing, because in the "used to be", schools with the grants got the great machines, and the B-scalers got the timeshare with the local high school.

One impressive thing I saw was that the students were writing programs for a Zune MP3 player (and they were very excited about it). The key box is for sale at WalMart or Ebay. Things have changed.

The differentiation now is the people - the passion of the faculty, the interaction with business projects, the ability of upperclass students to describe their projects with confidence. In the now world, it seems like the point of the tour is to meet the people and hear their vision and command of the field, and if the department heads and seniors blow off the tour, then it's a moment of truth - because their box of Legos isn't any different. The demise of the Holy Trophy System isn't a bad thing, it's a very good thing - as always, excellence is about people, not boxes.

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