Happy National Day – A Letter To Computer Science Students

Dear fellow Comp Sci students (past, present, future),

Tomorrow, on 9th August 2014, our nation will be celebrating its 49th birthday. As we mark another milestone in Singapore’s short but illustrious nation building, let us take a step back from our daily programming and debugging, to look at how we fit in the big picture, to see how we can contribute to our homeland’s continued success. Not “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (best left to the National Servicemen among us including me :P) but more along the lines of “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.

In Comp Sci, we are in the business of learning – always racing to keep up to date with the latest trends in IT, the latest technologies, programming languages, design patterns and software development methodologies. And so it seems fitting to look at the core values of our very own Ministry of Education – Integrity the Foundation, People our Focus, Learning our Passion, Excellence our Pursuit.

Integrity the Foundation

This should be the prerequisite for taking up Computer Science, not A in Math or an aggregate score of 6 points for ‘O’ levels. Realise that what we are studying can have a great impact on society. Everything is linked to IT systems nowadays and we are going to be the people building and maintaining these systems. “With great power comes great responsibility” – others are going to expect to be able to trust us to carry out our tasks with integrity and not fear day and night about us hacking maliciously with the intent of stealing data or creating chaos. An academic education does not make a person better – “”A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad”  – his/her heart must be right in first place. When you are unable to complete your assignment, do you copy others’ code and submit it for your own?

People our Focus

A common sight in family gatherings nowadays (eg. Chinese New Year) is that of kids glued to their mobile devices. Even couples having candlelight dinners would be busy taking Instagram photos of their food and checking their Facebook accounts instead of communicating with one another. Our purpose of taking up Computer Science is not to stare at the computer screen the whole day long and get lost in a fantasy world of our own. The course is to equip us to help others leverage IT to enhance and enrich their lives. Many Singaporean seniors have bemoaned the loss of the kampung spirit. Is it because we have stopped living in kampungs where doors were always open? No, it is because back then, “people” was everyone’s focus. They may have been struggling to make a livelihood but they never forgot to care for their neighbours, even watching out for each other’s children, giving us the phrase “It takes a village to raise a child”. Are you helping your neighbours with their IT problems (assuming you know their names) or are you stuck in your room glued to the monitor day and night?

Learning our Passion

In learning anything, it takes aptitude and attitude. Even with subjects that we are good in, there will be some point where we will face difficulty and perhaps despair. The Straits Times reported on 22 July 2014 that “Computing is cool again – more and better students apply for courses in NUS”. The last paragraph quoted a potential student as saying “The standard work attire is T-shirt, shorts and sneakers…” – that seems cool but do you know why? It’s because you will be sleeping in the office almost everyday 😛 When deadlines loom, when coding 10,000 lines a day breaks our necks and backs, what’s going to keep us going on? Passion? Not really. Having all the passion in the world for Comp Sci is not going to keep us in this line for long. Same goes for the artists, musicians and athletes out there. It is only when we are passionate about learning, that we will always learn new things, find new ways of doing stuff and add spice to our monotonous lives. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime” – without continuous learning, the man will either be sick of the fish or get tired of fishing. When was the last time you picked up a new programming language?

Excellence our Pursuit

To look at excellence, we need not look further than the Olympics. Its motto is “Citius, Altius, Fortius” which is Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. How do those athletes achieve their amazing feats of athletic ability? Is it by saying “Alright, I think I’m good enough, I can stop now”? Suppose you are asked to write a program to test if a number is prime – do you just write a loop to test divisibility by ALL the numbers before it and call it a day? We may be doing the same things day in and day out, but that doesn’t mean we can’t improve on it. Matthew Weier O’Phinney, Project Lead of Zend Framework, shared this during his “Designing Beautiful Software” talk at ZendCon 2012 – “Don’t be a code monkey, be a software craftsman”. We can either code enough to get the job done or turn it into a beautiful piece of functional art. What is your choice?

It is hoped that this letter will open up our minds and see that Computer Science is not just another subject. It empowers us to change other people’s lives. It equips us to contribute in a significant way not just to our society, but to our nation. As individuals, our efforts may seem small, but as a community, we can do great things. Together We Make The Difference – The Future Is Ours To Make. Happy National Day (^ v ^)

Semper Discens,
Your fellow compatriot