Four great questions to ask in a technical interview

I’m excited to be able to say that I accepted a great job offer at a dot-com in San Francisco. I get to start right after I graduate in May. Now that my job search is over, I want to share some of the questions I had for interviewers that got the best responses on the spot.

• “If you had to work in a different group or department within your company, what group would you join? Who is working on something you’re interested in?”

Hands down, this question got the most, “Ooh, that’s a good question,” responses. I like it because it tells me what groups have exciting new projects within the company, and whether the employees are excited about their company’s up-and-coming projects. I get excited when engineers are excited about what their coworkers are doing. I think interviewers like this question because it’s a little out-of-the-box and because they get to talk about their own experiences with and opinions of the company.

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Library research does not need to be taught in every introductory course.

In four years of college, I’ve tried to get both depth and breadth into my class schedule, as a good liberal arts student should. In addition to computer science classes (my major) and Japanese classes (my minor), I’ve taken introductory classes in philosophy, math, cognitive science, history, English, and physics. However, taking a breadth of classes has led to an unintended consequence: I’ve had to endure four or five different introductions scholarly research.

The format is always the same: a research librarian comes to class, loads the PowerPoint deck, and proceeds to tell us how to search the library catalogue, order books from Interlibrary Loan, cite a source, and use Google Advanced Search. They’ll probably throw in a few slides on why Wikipedia is unreliable as a scholarly resource. Continue reading

Your laptop in class is distracting me, too.

In December I posted my thoughts on whether professors should allow students to use laptops in class. My main point was that regardless of whether it’s okay for students to distract themselves, their laptops are also distracting and disrespectful to the rest of the class and the professor. Most of the commenters disagreed with me, but my classmate Cordelia feels the same way. She posted this morning on her blog, One Two Six Oh Four, an illustrated example of how frustrating it can be.


Find the rest of the comic here.

Take notes and learn now, or get them online and learn later

Today, as I sat in a physics class copying graphs from the lecture slides, I saw the guy in front of me ask his friend, “This is all going to be online later, right?” When he got an affirmative answer, he stopped writing entirely.

Even though I knew the notes would be online, I still wanted to copy the graphs. Taking notes means distilling the presented information and picking out the important parts, which implies at least some level of understanding. If I can’t explain something to myself on paper, it means I need to be asking more questions. As I’ve written before, it helps me learn. Continue reading

Please don’t use someone else’s PPT deck

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a lecture given by a New York community based around the site LessWrong. The lecture focused on the site’s first core sequence, Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions. The subject matter and the meetup group were great (and highly recommended!), but the presentation suffered from one obvious shortfall: the presenter used someone else’s slide deck.

I happened to be at a party with the presenter the night before the lecture, and he told us how excited he was that an eminent authority on the subject had given him the slide deck he usually uses for the lecture. The presenter went on about how his presentation would be much better now with slides that were literally crafted by an expert.

Unfortunately for him, slide quality on its own doesn’t make a great presentation. Continue reading

Twitter and chat in class are signs of bigger problems

Last month I attended a “Technology in Education” panel in which one of the student panelists described a class she took while studying abroad. She praised the professor’s idea of creating a Twitter hashtag for the class. He would project the twitterstream containing the tag onto the screen during class, so the students could see what the others were tweeting, share links, and ask questions.

On Reddit two days ago, an education professor bemoaned his university’s chatroom system. His class is conducted in a computer lab, where all the students have access to a shared chatroom (which the professor cannot disable). The professor does not watch the chatroom while he lectures, but he can see afterward that a bunch of students use the chat to post about how bored they are.

Plenty of sites claim that Twitter and other chat services are great tools that improve in-class student engagement. I disagree; I think these tools are half measures that imply there are bigger problems in the class.

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Senior research project: campus map browser app

Last month I alluded to my research project for this semester: making a browser app to provide walking directions for my campus. While driving directions are readily available, our existing campus maps are a little hazy on the walking instructions between buildings. If I can finish the app and get it on the college’s website, not only will it keep prospies and freshmen from getting lost, but it will settle a lot of arguments about the quickest way between buildings.

So far it can find the shortest distance between two points on the quad. My data consists of lat/long coordinates pulled from Google that represent intersections of sidewalks. Javascript calls the Google Maps API to get the shortest distance between those two points and runs Dijkstra’s algorithm, short-circuiting when it finds the goal. Then it gives me an array of points from start to finish, which the API uses to draw a line on the map.

There’s still plenty to do. In the next couple weeks, I need to figure out how to pull the coordinate data for the rest of the campus. If I can’t find a way to automate that, I’ll have to do it by hand, which is daunting. Even then, I know I’ll have to manually collect the data on which graph nodes are connected, because while I can plot down points on a custom map, I can’t find a way to automate connecting them (for that to happen, Google would have to be able to see where the sidewalks are on the map).

My long term goal is to have a package I can give to other campuses so they can replicate my project, but first I have to get my version set up. More updates to come!

As an org president, I’ve got to delegate more

I have a problem with delegation. When I’m the leader of a group, I tend to think that getting something done myself is a lot easier than taking the time to hand it off to someone else and explain how to do it. Not only do I save time in explaining the task, but I also don’t have to follow up to make sure the job was done right.

This is wrong.

Last month my college’s nerd club (of which I am the president) put on an anime/gaming/comics/videogame/scifi convention called NonCon for fellow local nerds. While the convention went very well and attendance numbers were comparable to last year’s, I was a wreck during most of the planning. My to-do lists were too long to finish in addition to my normal homework, my blog and my senior research project fell behind, and I had a lot of anxiety about getting everything done it time. While it’s a huge relief that the convention is over, I’m still an org president and I still need a lot of improvement when it comes to delegation. Continue reading

Perspective for less stress: make cookies!

Very often lately I have felt stuck with lots to do and no way to do it. In three days, the convention I’ve been helping to plan will begin, and even though the rest of the convention chairs and I have done a lot to prepare, it never feels like enough. Despite the fact that I have the same workload as the other convention chairs, I feel much more stress than they do, and it’s affecting my day-to-day life. There is something about my way of thinking then, rather than the actual amount of work that I have to do, that is causing my stress.

I’ve been looking for a new mindset for a little while, but a breakthrough came the other day when my housemate Jackie came home. She put a couple boxes on the counter and talked about her professor bringing cookies to class. Continue reading

I know I belong in CS, but sometimes I wonder

Sometimes my Compilers professor will introduce a topic saying, “Who knows what lexical analysis is? No one? What, don’t you guys do this constantly in your spare time? All right, I’ll show you …” I know he’s just joking, but every time he does this, it reminds me of one of the barriers to women in computer science that I am particularly sensitive about: wondering whether or not I really belong in programming because I don’t program all the time.

If my CS experience were limited to my college, I wouldn’t be very worried – I go to a liberal arts college where no one has only one interest. In the first few weeks of my freshman year when we’d ask what other people wanted to major in, it was always, “Classics and chemistry” or “Neurobiology and art history” or another pair of an art and a science. In my social sphere, everyone has broad interests, so it shouldn’t worry me that I like cognitive science, philosophy, Japanese, and knitting in addition to programming.

However, in the past few years, I’ve met more students who study CS in engineering schools. When they talk about how they live to program and never leave the lab, I feel like I’ve been wasting time by having other hobbies when I should have been keeping up with my competition. I worry that my skills aren’t up to snuff because I’ve been knitting or reading Japanese books instead of programming and reading compiler books. Continue reading