I’ve been back from the SIGCSE Symposium for almost a week now, and I’m starting to dig my way out of the pile of work that invariably develops when I’m gone. As happens at just about every conference, I met some new people. A question I’m often asked, and like to ask in return, is how I got into computer science. In telling the story last weekend I realized I had never blogged about it. Now that my work isn’t threatening to bury me, I have to time for it.
I first took a programming class in high school, which I realize now was somewhat unusual in the 1980s. But the AP class I took was calculus, so when I got to college I chose math as my major. I liked computer science enough to select it as a minor, and in my sophomore year I took a data structures class with Steve Mahaney. I had no idea at the time what a prominent complexity theorist he was, which was probably good since I might have been intimidated. Instead, as was typical for me, I visited his office hours on a weekly basis to ask questions. He was always welcoming, and at the end of the semester he asked my study partner and me what our plans were after graduation. My partner told him that she planned to get a job, but I said I was thinking of going to graduate school. Steve told me to come back and talk to him before I applied, which I did. During that meeting he asked if I had considered applying to graduate school in computer science. I told him I wasn’t wild about programming, so, no, I hadn’t considered it. He laughed and spent the next 30 minutes telling me about all the other things I could study in graduate school. Thanks to his convincing, and to an excellent letter of recommendation he wrote for me, I applied to and was accepted at the University of Chicago. He later went on to help me pick my advisor, for which I’m eternally grateful since Janos was the best possible match for me. To say that I was crushed when Steve died of a stroke in 2007 would be a huge understatement. I’m just glad that I had always been very vocal about letting him know what a difference he had made for me.
Even though he’s gone, I think about Steve now and then and particularly when my life is in flux. I’ll often have advisees come to me asking about what they should do with their future. As much as I admire the ones who have a multi-year plan for what they’ll take and do, I sometimes wish I could get them to relax a bit. I want to tell them that you never quite know where and how you’ll get the push launching you in a direction you didn’t expect but is in fact precisely where you need to be. As time has gone on I’ve seen more and more that predicting where I’ll be next year is difficult and sometimes not very helpful. It’s important to have faith that the twists and turns in life are a part of the process and not something to be smoothed or avoided. So thank you again Steve for that big shove into a field I adore.