Distance

I’ve had the good fortune to visit the Stanford CS department twice this week — on Monday I visited with some of the current section leaders to talk about Mozilla some, and last night I was on a CS careers panel with my very good friends Schrep & Mauria and got to see Mehran & Jay as an added bonus.

It’s been interesting to be back — both incredibly familiar and pretty foreign to me. [As an aside, I have different feelings when I engage with the d.school — I think maybe it’s because I’ve gotten more involved with Diego & Bob & George and design later in my life, and am increasingly interested in those sorts of problems — so I associate undergraduate CS education at Stanford with some exceptionally strong (and fond) emotions that come along with growing up in college.]

On the incredibly familiar side, I understood all the language; I recognized section leaders pulling a huge stack of papers out of their bags; using the time before the class to grade those programs; talking about whether something deserved a “check” or a “check plus.” I recognized the tiredness that comes from going all the time, but also the common fun & shared interest of the section leaders. And while I guess my time at Stanford pre-dated Joss Whedon, I even recognized the feeling when they all started talking about how much they love Dr. Horrible. And of course, of course, I remember looking forward and wondering what life in the world was going to look like, how I was gonna convince someone to give me a job I probably wasn’t really qualified for, and, really, what the hell people at work did with all their time.

On the unfamiliar side, holy cow these students know so much today, about so many things that are important. In 1995 when Bryan and I were both getting ready to start at Trilogy, I think we had a pretty good idea of what companies like Apple and Intel and HP did, but beyond that, not so much. But the students I talked with yesterday & Monday are incredibly informed. They understand the differences between Firefox & Chrome & Safari & IE, and even the implications of those differences. They understand how the Facebook platform works — many have written Facebook apps or web apps that are already in the world. And they understand more than I would have imagined about open source, which makes me hugely optimistic.

They asked lots of great questions. Some were super-specific, about things like what we’re going to do with Ubiquity over the next year, how we think about competition with Chrome, what it is, exactly that product managers do. (That last question I told them they’ll be asking for a pretty long time.)

But also things like how to decide what job to take? How to measure success? How much risk should I take right now? Does it matter if I do systems or AI or HCI?

And, of course, all of us older folks on the panel found ourselves saying things like “well, you won’t really get this now, but…” or “it took me 3 jobs to really figure out anything about that”. But the coolest thing, really, was that everyone on the panel agreed that the single most important thing was to not over-think it, to do what makes you engaged and interested — to do, in Tom Kosnik’s words, “things that make your soul sing.” And more importantly, to do things that matter to people, that change the world, that make things better. And even with all the economic doom around (more on that in my next post), that message of small groups of people getting together to change the world really resonated and made sense.

So with distance now, some things are clearer, some things not so much — that’s a characteristic of being human, I suppose. But I’m excited about this next group of people who are ready to change the world.

2 Replies to “Distance”

  1. Hey John,not sure if I'm understanding what you mean here, but what I get after reading your prose is that Open Source enable young people to get engaged in cool projects before they get a job.I just have been reading in another tab of my Firefox the following article: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/nov/15/mal… , which basically says that smart people who can practice a subject for 10,000 hours before the age of 20 have more chances to become geniuses. (Of course it's much more complex than this, but you get the gist).So maybe Open-Source is currently producing the next generation of geniuses without us noticing it yet! 🙂

  2. Oh, and this Guardian article reminds me of something you and I discussed in Barcelona, while visiting the Citilab, where equipment is freely accessible to the general public (particularly young kids) for a handful of Euros per year. A similar experiment was done 20 years ago or so in France. It was called the Centre Mondial de l'Informatique et des Ressources Humaines aka CMI. See http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centre_mondial_inf… (in French). Many people that are now leading the IT and Open Source industries in France have spent countless hours at the CMI and another similar institution (Palais de la Découverte, a kind of a science museum). With computers being in most homes (at least in the Western World), and Open Source enabling kids to participate to real-world projects is changing a lot of things, hopefully for the better. They don't have to wait to be 25 to participate to things that matter, and being the first generation of digital natives, they're going to challenge their elders with their new approach and new expectations.

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