Behind the Scenes of a CS Degree

Behind the Scenes of a CS Degree

Problem Sets, Programming, and Parity—oh my!

The world needs you—yes, you—and your engineering prowess like never before. And this is no secret. There’s been a rising chorus, from Silicon Valley, the White House, and elsewhere, encouraging you to dive headfirst into code, pursue computer science in college, and join a small but growing group of women in tech.

But what happens between your first “Hello, world!” and your first day on the job?
Computer scientists are problem solvers, makers, and curious observers of their world. They’re also hard workers—just ask any CS student at the end of an all-nighter.

If you’re planning on pursuing CS in college and beyond, know that you’ll be in for four years of intellectual aerobics.

Occasionally, you’ll be frustrated. More frequently, you’ll be triumphant. Always, however, you’ll be awed by the sheer power of computing—a power that’s very much in your hands.

So what’s going on behind the scenes? College classes are one route by which many future technologists discover their computer science chops. The she++ team wants to give you a look into the academic life of a Stanford Computer Science major student.

  1. Problem Sets: they’re the basic unit of work for any college student. The workload for your computer science classes might take the form of projects that you’re required to code up (Stanford’s introductory 106A course asks you to build Break Out) or handwritten psets that you’re required to submit. In any class—from CS 106A, “Introduction to Programming,” to CS 240H, “Functional Systems in Haskell”—you’ll find that students bring a range of experience to the course. Don’t let a student with impressive programming skills intimidate you. Chances are, they’ve got a few years of programming experience on you. But the learning curve favors the diligent—you’ll be able to catch up to (and even overtake!) experienced programmers if you put in the time. If you’re that student yourself, be willing to extend a helping hand to beginner students who’d benefit from your experience and insight. Together, you’ll make short work of your programming assignments.

    The difficulty of these assignments can be a shock to the senses. You’ll likely leave lecture feeling as though you’ve got a handle on concepts; psets give you a chance to apply that knowledge. They’re hard work, and they’ll demand a significant portion of your non-class time.

    Cue the stereotypical image of the scruffy, ramen-slurping CS student working on his (always a male student—why is that?) problem set into the early hours of the morning. That doesn’t—and shouldn’t—have to be you. Set your hours, fight the urge to procrastinate, and take pride in the fact that you’re learning CS on your own terms—no 2 a.m. ramen for you!
  2. Programming: If you find yourself looking for ways to test your CS abilities outside of class, take on an independent project. Build an app; identify a problem and tackle it with everything you’ve got. As a female technologist, know that your insight is unique and endlessly valuable. she++ founders Ayna and Ellora noticed a gender imbalance in their CS classes and decided that they’d do something about it. The rest, as they say, is history.

    Extracurricular projects have taken on lives of their own. Stanford students built Instagram, Loopt, Bonobos, and Snapchat. But, when you’re starting work on your own project, don’t think of it as “the next (insert existing startup name here).” You’re an original, and so is your work. Own it.
  3. Parity: Stanford announced in October of last year that computer science is now the most popular degree option among undergraduate women. But that’s speaking in sheer numbers. Computer science is the largest major at Stanford in general, and women make up only 30% of that whole. There’s been slow but steady progress towards absolute parity in the major, but a 2012 Stanford Daily article noted a drop-off in the number of female CS students after CS 106A.

    So you’ll likely notice a drastic shift in classroom demographics as you move from introductory courses to more focused and advanced classes. Very likely, you’ll be one of only a handful of women in your upper-level systems course. There’s a good chance that your math-heavy theoretical CS classes will be majority male. In these cases, don’t be intimidated by skewed distributions. Take pride in the fact that you’re moving the balance of genders in the right direction.

    You’ll notice that computer science is also in sore need of cultural parity—in recent years, brogramming has become a popular buzzword for the hard-partying, frat-like culture of many startups. You can break this mold. A more inclusive, compassionate group of computer scientists will ultimately produce the better product and make a greater impact on the world.

she++ seeks to dismantle the untrue stereotype that computer science is not a career for women. We work with the technology industry to create a culture that is more appealing to women, and we work with women to dismantle harmful perceptions that they cannot succeed in the technology industry.

for more information about she++ initiatives, email or visit  Be sure to check out #ItWasNeverADress to read more stories of how perceptions and assumptions about women are evolving. 

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