Moving On

November 20, 2011

Last year I reached one of my major goals in life, earning tenure as an associate professor of Computer Science and Software Engineering at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. I’ve been a fan of the school since receiving their classic Lego block recruiting brochure as a 17-year-old in the late 80s. The school was male-only at the time. That fact, and a girlfriend in Iowa, kept me from enrolling at Rose, but I got a second chance when I finished my Ph.D. Since joining Rose-Hulman as a faculty member in 2005, I’ve had the pleasure to teach some of the finest technically-minded students in the country. I’ve also had the privilege to teach along side some of the most dedicated, innovative engineering, math, and science educators in the world. If I had a college-bound child interested in engineering, I would hope that Rose-Hulman was at the top of her list.

One policy that demonstrates Rose-Hulman’s commitment to outstanding undergraduate engineering education is the Institute’s sabbatical program. Faculty are eligible for a full year sabbatical leave every seventh year. All eligible faculty are encouraged to apply. The interesting bit is that we’re encouraged to use our sabbatical year to work in industry. This industry experience helps the faculty keep the curriculum current. Technology marches on. The nature of the careers our graduates will undertake changes by the year. To prepare them for that, the most important thing we can give is the ability and confidence to learn on their own. However, if we can also introduce them to current problems and techniques, they’ll have a leg up when starting their careers. The numbers support our approach. Rose-Hulman’s placement rate has remained well over 90% through the recession, with 99% of the students in the class of 2011 starting jobs or graduate school within six months of graduation.

Having earned tenure in my sixth year at Rose-Hulman, I took sabbatical leave this year and joined The Omni Group, a Seattle-based company that develops productivity apps for Mac, iPhone, and iPad. Working for a company like Omni was another of my major goals in life. Although I had six years of industry experience before graduate school, I had never worked for a company that made software the right way.

Omni makes software that embodies a respect for the people who will use it. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the team at Omni and seeing how they mix user experience design and software engineering to produce quality products. The technical support “ninjas” not only provide outstanding service to the people who use the products, but within the company they represent those people to the rest of the team. These respected voices-of-the-users help us keep the reason for our work in mind.

I’m very fortunate to work with two different world-class organizations. There’s a special thrill to be part of a team that aspires to excellence. I’m thankful that I’ve had that chance at both Omni and Rose-Hulman.

Looking ahead, however, I’m faced with a choice. I love my work at Omni. There was a time when I could say the same about my work at Rose-Hulman. I’m afraid that spark is gone. After much soul searching, I’ve decided to hang up my grading pen and remain in industry.

Losing the Spark

There are many things pulling at me to stay. I still think teaching is a noble profession. I didn’t reach every student I taught, but every year there were some for whom I felt I made a real difference. Those students made a difference in my life too. I’m richer for having known them.

I still enjoy the act of teaching. I love the challenge of designing interesting, demanding, and practical courses. It’s fun to figure out term projects that let students stretch and apply their hard-won knowledge and skills. I enjoy arranging syllabi. I like writing homework assignments that are interesting and help students build toward their term projects. It’s always a thrill when a term project so engages a team that they produce better results than any of us would have hoped for at the start.

It’s also hard to leave my faculty colleagues. The sense of shared mission among my colleagues in the Computer Science and Software Engineering Department is almost overwhelming. The guiding principle in every decision is, “What is best for our students?” We didn’t always agree on the answer to that question, but because we all believed in the importance of it, we could work through disagreements in good faith. I know that most of my colleagues in other departments work from that principle as well.

Finally, and this is both arrogant and stupid, I’m a damned good teacher. It’s tremendous fun to do something that you’re good at, to prepare so thoroughly that the performance looks effortless, to know your material so well that you can find ten different ways to explain it until you find the one that clicks with that one student sitting in your office.

So, why not stick with teaching?

Every job has some parts that just aren’t fun. Just the thought of grading student work can make me feel a bit ill. It isn’t that the quality of student work is so bad. Rose students are strong and their work usually reflects that. No, the issue is the sheer pointlessness of grading. The overwhelming majority of students don’t seem to learn from grading feedback at all. And what are the grades for? Ultimately, they’re just a convenient metric for the companies who employ our graduates. The companies can filter on GPA, reducing the expense of their hiring process. And after their first job, a student’s GPA won’t matter at all.

Then there is grading’s evil twin, cheating. This wasn’t a problem when I started at Rose, but has become one over time. My general philosophy has been that a cheater only cheats themselves out of learning. I’d prefer to teach to the top of the class and then help the rest of the class rise to that level. Energy spent trying to catch the cheaters is energy taken from the students who are really trying to learn. Colleagues argue that the value of the degree is degraded if we aren’t vigilant about cheating, and I reluctantly accept that. Sadly, that means that remaining in academia means spending more time worrying about those who are actively avoiding a chance to learn.

Doing excellent work in academia requires an extraordinary time commitment. Between course development, meeting with students, advising, professional development, grading, service, and class sessions, I never worked less than 60 hours a week and often more than 80. That was done against the relentless drumbeat of deadlines: class sessions, midterms, finals, grades, conference deadlines, class registration. Nothing can slip. We talk a lot about the freedom accorded to faculty members, but I came to feel that being an academic meant the freedom to choose where I spent every waking hour working and little more.

Teaching well in Computer Science and Software Engineering has some unique challenges. The technology changes rapidly. There wasn’t a year at Rose-Hulman where I didn’t completely redo one or more courses, sometimes as many as three. These changes weren’t busy work. They were necessary to keep the courses current. Even when we’re just fine-tuning a course, as a smaller department we rarely have the luxury of spreading the prep load across even as many as three faculty members, and never across seven or ten as in some departments.

Enrollments in the Computer Science and Software Engineering Department continue to grow. The software industry hasn’t been hit with the wrecking ball that slammed through the rest of our economy, and students are recognizing that. The number of additional computer scientists and software engineers needed between 2008 and 2018 is more than 60% higher than the total of all other engineering disciplines combined. Specifically, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a need for 290,000 new software engineers, computer programmers, and computer scientists over this period. They project a need for 178,300 new engineers in all other disciplines.

This growth is set against the new economics of higher education. Society is pushing back hard on the cost of a college degree. The past strategy of continual tuition increases doesn’t mesh with the new economic reality.

In this climate, we’ve had to hold the line on staffing in the department in the face of rising enrollments. I came to believe that the only way for me personally to continue to offer the courses our students require within the resource constraints was to reduce quality. Staying in academia, I faced the prospect of teaching poorer courses, of doing less of the work I enjoy and more of the parts that aren’t fun. The stress of that caused me to become short with students and to lose the joy of teaching. That reaction also weighed on the quality of my teaching.

What’s Next

I still think teaching is a noble profession, but I don’t know how to do it well in a way that’s sustainable within the confines of higher education today. I hope that my colleagues at Rose-Hulman, who might have more flexibility and less chronic perfectionism than me, can figure out how to continue to deliver excellent results. I hope that my department’s vision for software engineering education is sufficient to the nation’s need and bold enough to attract the resources necessary to deliver.

As for me, I’m going to try my hand at developing great software that helps people develop and pursue their own visions. I’m excited to join the amazing team at The Omni Group. I’m eager to put my ideas into practice and see if I have what it takes to be a great software engineer. On to the next mountain.


Photo by Mike Deal aka ZoneDancer.