Considering a Computer Science major? Read this first

What school should I choose?

Look for a school that’s either big, or has a strong focus on providing a good CS education. Big schools offer more choice, so that you can skip or maneuver around poor teachers or take classes that might not be available in smaller schools. Undergrad-focused schools may have better quality education, although they’re typically smaller and more expensive (Harvey Mudd, Rose-Hulman, etc.).

What do I need to be good at in order to start?

  • Decent typing skills—not being a touch typist will make everything a bit more difficult.
  • Basic computer usage—know how to download and install programs, navigate and organize directories, find keyboard shortcuts, manage files.
  • Decent reading skills—specifically, in English (e.g. improve your English, if that is not your native language). Misunderstanding or glossing over a few words might mean missing an important step here or there.
  • High-school algebra or geometry—a lot of the thinking in CS is similar to the kind you’d use in algebra (moving variables and symbols around without screwing up) or geometry (being able to figure out a proof for why a line is perpendicular to this other line).
  • Google skills—knowing that you can figure things out with just you and your buddy Google is super useful.

Sometimes people ask about calculus. I personally think you can get by with zero calculus. Even if it’s needed, the probability that everyone else in the class is good at calculus is basically nil, so everyone can suffer together.

Do I need a specific/powerful computer?

It doesn’t hurt to have a more powerful computer, but often, you’ll be using a regular text editor and a web browser. Lately I’ve split most of my work between a 2009 netbook and a 2006 Tablet PC.

A regular mid-range laptop will be fine. A MacBook or MacBook Air has the bonus that OS X comes with many Unix tools built in, and Macs are a popular choice amongst CS majors. You may end up doing a lot of work by connecting remotely into a school server anyways. Pick a portable computer that doesn’t hurt to carry around.

What type of stuff gets covered in a 4-year CS undergrad program anyways?

An undergrad CS education is roughly split into two parts: the craft, and the theory. The craft includes all the little things around the act of writing code and making things. The theory includes the math and logic that informs your decisions and designs as you create things. Time for a bad analogy: it’s like becoming a painter—artists spend a lot of time practicing how to mix paints and move a brush back and forth on a canvas, but they also take art-history and theory courses to cover important ideas, color theory, historical movements, etc.

The first couple courses are usually just introducing the very basics of how to write things that a computer can understand. These classes are designed for people with no experience, so some students skip the first class if they already have experience. At the same time, the intro classes start to introduce some theoretical concepts to prepare for later courses.

Are there classes on iPhone apps/Ruby on Rails/video games/[currently trendy thing]?

Don’t count on it. These trendy things come and go every few years, and the average CS major is capable of self-learning these things by their sophomore year. There are a million different niches to focus on, but the school’s curriculum is there to teach the core concepts and give some exposure to different fields. Be confident that you can explore these things on your own after 2-3 semesters of CS courses. See “Do side projects” below.

There may be small topics classes or student-taught classes about some of these things. Also, clubs and student organizations may form around topics like game development or web startups.

I already have N years of experience programming. Can I just skip some classes?

Divide the number of years of experience you have by 2, and skip that many semesters of intro classes if you can. But be aware that some classes and topics (PLT, comp. architecture, etc.) are likely to be missed by self-taught programmers. Ask around and see what those classes actually cover before you skip them.

I have a year/summer/month of free time before I start. What should I do to prepare?

If you have no experience, then get started with a basic programming tutorial in any language. I recommend doing as much as you can of Learn Python the Hard Way. Going into anything with a tiny bit of experience always beats having no experience.

How can I keep up / succeed?

  • Get to know other students.

    If there’s a specific lab that CS majors tend to hang out in, then try to spend more time in there, and don’t be shy about asking about what other people are doing. If there’s one thing about nerd stereotypes that’s true, it’s that they love to tell anybody about what they’re working on. These are the people that will help you down the road with debugging your homework, explaining tough concepts, bringing you job offers, etc.

  • Ask upperclassmen about what classes to take.

    This is so important that it’s frustrating how many students don’t do this. If everybody you meet tells you that the teacher for CS2xx is horrible, incompetent, incomprehensible, and sadistic, then why on earth would you sign up for that class? Rule of thumb: pick courses based on professors, not on their topics. Choosing good profs might mean a 3x difference in what you get out of four years.

  • Do side projects.

    Two main benefits:

    The extra experience boosts your skills in many different ways. Here’s a bad analogy: if you want to be a painter, sitting through 8 semesters of college isn’t going to make you a great painter. You have to spend time breathing in turpentine to get the practice needed. Another bad analogy: doing side quests in RPGs will make your chars higher leveled than if you went straight through the main storyline. Real talk though: you’ll learn so much about what people in the real world are doing and thinking about that you wouldn’t get from the classroom.

    (See above section on “trendy topics”.) Besides, companies are falling over themselves trying to hire [currently trendy thing] programmers. Even making a crappy music organizer using [currently trendy thing] is a huge benefit when looking for part-time/internship/full-time positions.

    It doesn’t really matter what you make. One of the things that I made was a tool that automatically checked Craigslist and alerted me when someone listed an iPhone. I was the only person to ever use it and it was really just a bunch of sample code I found from various places on the Internet duct-taped together, but it was different from things I had done before and actually helped me out quite a few times.

    Need ideas? Check out Hacker News once every couple of days and look for posts that start with “Show HN” to see what everyone else is up to.

  • Ask for help.

    Use office hours. Nobody will know what you don’t know until you ask for help. Suffering in silence helps nobody. Office hours certainly aren’t the solution to all problems, but if you don’t try to use them, that’s your problem.

    Also, is everyone in the lab working on this week’s assignment? Chances are that someone is willing to whiteboard out a concept that’s difficult to understand.

Comments, suggestions, etc. appreciated.