23 November 2008 - Software Engineering is not Computer Science

When I came to college two years ago, I intended to major in Computer Science. I looked forward to learning and being around people who shared my interest in computers. As I quickly found out, (1) there weren't any people here who shared my interest or even anyone who could speak the same language, and (2) the little bit of learning I would be doing in my computer science classes wasn't interesting to me at all. By the end of my first year, after attempting to discuss my feelings (read: disappointments) about the computer science curriculum and one professor specifically with the head of the department, I realized it wasn't going to change anything. If I wanted a computer science degree, I would sit in boring classes, be treated as if I weren't competent enough to possibly know how to program, and I would have to do my assignments in Ada. After a year searching for a silver lining around the Computer Science department, I switched to Physics -- which may have been the best decision possible if I wanted to do anything interesting with computers.

Initially, I entered college as a Pre-engineering major with the intention of later going to an Engineering school for a Computer Engineering degree. I took the same Physics classes as Physics majors, the same Computer Science classes as Computer Science majors, and the same (if not harder) Math classes as Math majors.

I knew from first class sign-up day that the Computer Science faculty expected all incoming students to have no programming experience, and moreover didn't care one bit if you did have any. Normally, you find someone with common interests, in this case programming, and you will talk to them about the common interest. Here, they treated me as if I was a know-nothing outsider.

My computer generated course schedule didn't include the introductory computer science class, which is the prerequisite of all higher level computer science courses. Not taking it meant waiting a full year to take any other computer science classes. It was entitled


It sounded silly, and after reading the course description out of the catalogue, I decided it was: binary arithmetic, how a computer works, and the use of editors and linkers in programming. Yes, editors and linkers. As if they are somehow closely related.

Unfortunately, it conflicted with my schedule entirely. Adding it would require that I drop and find new times to take two other classes.

I attempted to find a way out of taking this class, so I introduced myself to the head of the Computer Science department. I told him that I knew a few programming languages already (at this point, C, PHP, and x86 assembly) and asked if there was any way I could avoid taking this class but still be able to take higher level courses. He replied that he'd give me the final exam and that if I passed, I'd get credit. "OK" I said, "that sounds great." He got a strange look on his face and paused thoughtfully for a moment. He had been trying to call a bluff that wasn't there. He quickly withdrew the offer when he realized I was serious.

I was forced to rearrange my entire schedule before I'd even set foot in class to accommodate this entirely useless class. In this two-hour class, we literally spent eight class periods on binary numbers. It was a thorough waste of my time, and the frustrating part was that wasn't even the slightest acknowledgment from the professor. To him, I was just another idiot who couldn't comprehend zeros and ones. On top of that, there were no other students who felt like I did (To everyone else, this stuff was magic). The final question on the final exam which was the hardest from the entire class was an assignment to write code to add all the even numbers from 1 to 1000. I answered in x86 assembly.

Similar episodes occurred throughout the next two years. I also began to realize that the program wasn't Computer Science but rather Software Engineering. Learning to write fault tolerant, rock solid business applications in Ada, while useful, isn't interesting to the aspiring hardware engineer.

By the end of my freshman year I decided it would be a better use of my time and my parent's money to major in Physics. After all, in the same time it would take to complete the Pre-engineering and Computer Engineering degrees, I could complete a BS in Physics and a Masters of Computer Engineering.

I've been a Physics major for a year now, while still retaining a minor in computer science. In contrast to Computer Science, the Physics professors are helpful and responsive, treat students as intelligent creatures (even if they aren't), and are understanding if there's a course scheduling conflict, which mostly are due to, you guessed it, the Computer Science department not thinking of Physics and upper level Math students.

Best of all, I recently learned that one of my Physics professors has quite an interest in DEC hardware, including Alphas. He's even nice enough to find a cabinet to house my noisy AlphaServer DS20L in the Physics lab in the Science building.

Tags: compsci rant school