I graduated on May 22nd, 2017 from Boston University with a Bachleor's and Master's degree in Computer Science. I was asked to give the graduation speech. Here's what I came up with.
Good Morning Faculty, Friends, Family, and Fellow graduates,
Definition of CS
Ok students, let’s imagine you’re standing at the steps of BU, you’re about to embark on a remarkable adventure. If you were like me you came to BU because you wanted the option to take classes in a myriad of different subjects to satisfy the nooks of your intellectual curiosity. If you were like me you frankly had no idea what that was.
I, like many of you, had a natural propensity towards computers and thought that Computer Science was the science of programming computers. I was wrong.
Reminiscing about classes
Fast forward to your first day in a computer science class. For many of you that was CS111 with Sullivan or CS 112 with Snyder.
I can remember distinctly the first problem set I did in CS 112. We had to write a circular buffer in Java.
After that first pset I was hooked. I remember walking out of MCS at the wee hours of the morning with a big grin on my face. I remember writing a mini-google and creating a game AI in Snyder’s 112 class but that’s not what was important, the concept of recursion, writing beautiful algorithms to reverse a binary tree, or writing a hash table in 10 lines of Java have stayed with me to this day. It was fun, it was exhilarating and it made me feel alive. I wanted more.
So the next thing I did was I signed up for all the CS classes I could. And I learned a valuable lesson; there are two types of CS classes “Theory” and “Applications”. Theory classes often don’t involve programming at all. Instead of spending hours debugging my applications, I found myself debating the finer points of Dijkstra’s algorithm in CS 330, or writing proofs in CS 131. Each class, as professor Appavoo would say, peeled back another layer on the onion.
After we learned about data structures in CS 112, I wanted to know how memory was laid out. So I took CS 210, Computer Architecture. When I learned that you can manipulate memory directly in C, I took 410, Advanced Software Systems (or as Rich West calls it JUST Software Systems). When I learned what a kernel was, I wanted to write a kernel, so I took CS 552, Operating Systems. As soon as I learned about networks I wanted to hack them, so I took Professor Goldberg’s Network Security class where we got to “hack” into Wifi network. My education was a directed graph of “Why’s?”
While working on CS, I developed a friend group. We hung out in BUILDS, a makerspace in the basement of the CS department. While my formal education answered the “Why’s?”, in BUILDS, that question morphed into “Why not?”. Why not paint the walls? Why not drill through the door to install a monitor? Why not run an extension cord through the ceiling in order to support a 24 node beowulf cluster? Why not travel to China to compete in the student cluster competition? While we’re at it, Why not Germany? We travelled the world because no one stopped us.
The one thing that relates all these activities is the hacker mentality. We do things because they’re fun and because we can. People in BUILDS are motivated by knowledge itself, not by money or fame.
One of the biggest things we did was host BostonHacks, a 24 hour hackathon. For those of you who don’t know, a hackathon is a 24 hour event where a bunch of students get together and spend the weekend creating something. They create anything from an app to find the closest bathroom, to robots that can keep your home safe.
I remember staying up all night the night before the hackathon, tracking the location of three different buses that picked up people throughout the night. Armed with volunteers sharing their locations and frequent phone calls I coordinated these buses to pick up 150 people from locations as far away as Toronto and New york and many stops in-between. Drowsy but excited, I greeted the students streaming off the buses I had spent the last 9 hours tracking.
Through BUILDS, I learned that it’s really hard to distinguish yourself by doing the exact same thing as everyone else but really easy to distinguish yourself when you forge your own path.
The intro courses have what are called “CA’s” they’re upperclassmen who hold office hours in the evening, long after the professors have all left, and help students with their problem set. One of these CA’s, Alex Breen, had an impact on me. He was magnanimous, funny and most importantly wicked smart. He took the time to explain to students complex topics in a way that was understandable and relatable. I wanted to be just like him.
Fast forward a year and I got the opportunity to do the exact same thing. I was a CA, first for 112, then for 210 and finally I took a step up and became a TA for 558. It brought me great joy to sit down with students and teach them a subject that I loved. As I’m sure the faculty here know, often students surprise you. They come up with innovative and exciting term projects, they see things in a different light. They carry the spark that makes BU CS so great.
The Buck Stops here
As computer scientists we sit in a privileged position. Everyone else gets to talk about the world they want to see, we get to code it. Our ideas form the backbone of the biggest banks, the way people communicate with loved ones, the planes, trains, and cars that transport people. Computer Science is fundamental to every field.
I call upon you to use your talents, your time, your ideas to shape the world in your own vision. Don’t let others use your talents for their own gain. The buck stops with you, you are responsible for the impact you have on the world. Make it meaningful.
I want to end with a quote from Steve Jobs:
"When you grow up you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world.
Try not to bash into the walls too much.
Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.
That's a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it... Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again."
Thank you and Congratulations fellow graduates!