I went to Reed College, a wonderful small liberal arts college. It was a perfect fit for me in almost every way. Except one thing: Reed offered no computer science. Excellent math and physics program in the liberal arts tradition, but no engineering of any kind. I was fine with that tradeoff at first but got frustrated, even considered transferring to MIT.
What made Reed work for me was a tiny little computer lab tucked in the library basement, the grandly named Academic Software Development Laboratory. That was the home for a few beardy Unix nerds, some students, some staff. Gary Schlickeiser was in charge at the time (Richard Crandall set it up). Gary hired me and I spent the next four years getting paid part time and summers to learn Unix at the knee of folks like Bill Trost and Kent Black. Our official job was writing software for professors’ research projects and providing Unix support, but really my time was spent being steeped in Internet culture. Also a lot of Netrek.
My very first job was getting Netatalk working on our Ultrix 2.2 systems so they could be file servers to Macintoshes. Mind you, this is 1990, networking software back then was full of jaggy sticks and sharp rocks. I learned how to download software via UUCP, how zcat | tar worked, how to run make and read compiler errors, all sorts of wooly crap. I got it running but it didn’t work, at which point Norman Goetz taught me how to use some ancient packet sniffer (Lanalyzer?) to figure out the problem. That’s when I learned about little-endian vs big-endian and in the end all I had to do was #define MIPSEL and suddenly it all worked. That was my first month’s accomplishment.
And so I was initiated into the Unix priesthood. Ever since then I’ve traded on my ability to write software and make computer systems work. Software is not an academic discipline, certainly not a liberal art. It’s a craft. And the only way to learn craftsmanship is to apprentice to master craftsmen, to learn hands on from experts.
The D-Lab was the home for that expertise. Later I worked on more interesting projects including Mark Bedau’s artificial life research, running a Usenet daemon, setting up Reed’s first web site, etc. Those projects led directly to my career.
Reed stopped having a D-Lab around ten years ago. But two years ago a new program started, the Software Design Studio, with enthusiastic support from some alumni. Reed is also creating a computer science program that will be pretty math intensive. I hope the SDS is a place where folks can learn some of the applied craft.