24 April 2011

Masters in CS: worth it after professional experience?

I'll be defending my Master's thesis on May 6th, and if all goes well I'll be graduating with full pomp and circumstance a few weeks thereafter. Hoping that these notes on going back to school to get a Master's in CS after working for many years may prove useful to someone else, I figured it should be captured before I (hopefully, fingers crossed) graduate.

Quick Context
I'd been working for an organization that had treated me well for about six years. Things were good- I'd started out as a developer, almost fresh out of college. Over the years I got various other responsibilities. Eventually, I landed up leading a team that built and maintained a lot of software integral to the organization. This was 7 years after finishing my bachelor's degree.

Making weather stations
Learning on my own
I used to busy myself with various projects outside of work. I'd build weather stations (which got hit by lightning sporadically), write my own Android apps, try and build strange home automation tools, and sometimes try to instrument my pets (never really worked).

Learning on the job
Put delicately, work had stopped challenging me as much as I would have liked it to. Problems existed that needed to be solved, but they seemed to follow similar patterns. The ones that scared me had been solved, or weren't solutions the organization needed to invest in anymore.

Between work and my own tinkering, I just didn't have the commitment to dig in and try and learn a whole bunch of things in a thorough way. I'd read up a lot, but there wasn't any accountability to really understand things in a way that was truly beneficial. Most of my reading/tinkering made me feel like I was a spectator to what was going on, where I really wanted to be a part of it.

Finding an institution
Seeing that most formal education offers a grounding in a wide array of topics, I felt that a Master's would be a good idea. I started to scour websites of various colleges and universities for information and details on admissions. My undergrad performance left a lot to be desired; my second year's grades read like output from a loop over Random.nextDouble(). But I hoped that my professional experience might offset that disaster. I started to contact various admissions departments for more information on programs, and for queries on admissions requirements. This proved to be really frustrating.

Hand it over.

Tangential vent: who's the customer?
Someone who wants to go to a higher learning establishment is (reasonably speaking) in economic terms: a client. They pay the institution for a service: education. Yet most non-academic (ie: admissions, payments, records etc) departments at every university/college I dealt with treated me horribly- no returned calls, no real information, and never any emails with substance (if replied to at all). This was very disheartening. You're supposed to make a commitment of many tens of thousands of dollars* over two years to people you can't get straightforward and thorough details from about what their program has to offer?!

The Academic Departments know what's up
The best way to learn more about a program, to understand how it functions, and to get details on admissions etc. is to contact the Chairperson for the CS department (CC their assistant if they have one too). In general, they're very pragmatic- and will make considerations if you weren't a rockstar during undergrad but have had good working experience. Also, they're going to be the ones to eventually decide whether they want you in their program, so getting a relationship with them up front can't hurt. 

Distance learning?
Since my local options had run dry, or were just painful to deal with, I decided to expand my search to universities that provided distance learning. Not surprisingly, any college that provides distance learning also does a pretty good job of communicating with potential applicants via email**. I landed up getting admitted into Hofstra after learning more about their CS program.

Not easy, but rewarding
About 90% of my courses were really good. In general, the amount gained from a course was proportional to the amount invested by the professor. Surprisingly, I think that all parties (educators and students) have to put in a lot more effort in a distance learning setting than they would in a traditional classroom setting. Consider that your average course taught over distance learning requires that the professor create a video, slides, notes and provide references to various supplementary materials as part of a single lecture. Instead of office hours, you have discussion boards where everyone participates and sometimes the professor throws down a specific discussion point.

The net result is that you have a much higher bandwidth with your professor- you're in email contact with them often. Frequently, professors will provide their IM handle so you can IM them anytime too. You get to watch the lectures on your time: evenings, weekends or whatever works.

Homework on the road
I landed up spending weekend after weekend on school for about two years. Most evenings in the week had me hunched over my laptop listening to lectures or answering questions. It isn't easy, but distance learning makes it possible if you have a job that's demanding. You have to develop the discipline to context switch completely though. I kept my "school" laptop on me at all times so that I could power up and watch a lecture or answer a homework assignment if I had any free time***.

Was it worth it?
Yes. Its been a really rewarding process. I've had a bunch of classes of which my favorites were:
  • Algorithm design and analysis: going all the way down to fundamentals and approaching each data structure from an implementation standpoint and analyzing them for every possible operation. Order of magnitude is my best friend.
  • Programming Language Concepts: All I'd had any real experience with were imperative languages, so this was a real mind expander. It exposed me to the fundamentals of functional languages from a theoretical standpoint and then I got to play with them too. (I had to write code in ML and see the most sensible compiler output ever). This class alone made the whole gig worth it. 
  • Security: which makes a lot more sense after you've had to deal with it in a corporate setting. I got to understand asymmetric key generation, encryption, and decryption by hand (and wolframalpha.com). Not to mention getting familiar with Kerberos and all sorts of other network based authentication systems that make you chuckle when you get a sales pitch about SSO from a vendor. 
  • Operating Systems: Based on Andrew Tanenbaum's Modern Operating Systems. Deep dives into processes and threads, memory (everything you ever wanted to know about managing memory, algorithms to do so, and tradeoffs), and file system design.
  • Databases: Really understanding how they're built. This proved immensely valuable at work- I took all the theory and was able to apply it back in practice. 
  • Advanced Data Structures: Implement every data structure possible with a different one. Get familiar enough with Huffman to create tables and then compress boring documents during a meeting for fun, on paper. 
Most of these taught me things I was able to put to use immediately at work, or in my own tinkering. In many cases, I felt like the framework provided gave me a much better footing for theoretical and design discussions.

I'm glad I waited to do my Master's after I had a bunch of work experience behind me. Encountering problems in real life (and sometimes solving them in a rube-goldberg fashion) allowed me to gain a lot more from school than I would have had I not encountered the problems before hand. I think you get a lot more 'ah-ha!' moments..

My primary rationale for going to school was because I felt like I needed to be challenged with problems that I hadn't encountered before. This I got in spades.. And then then there was the character building from the volumes of homework, assignments, papers and such. But it also became glaringly apparent that this would be a finite engagement. Eventually you graduate (you hope!). I wanted to continue this education/masochism. To some degree then, this whole experience helped me realize that I needed to find a different job: where I would have to face a whole bunch of problems that would make me nervous and would have to learn a lot on the fly. And so, I started job hunting. But that's a different story..

And now, enough procrastinating and back to wrapping up my thesis so I can try and graduate...

* Be prepared to invest between $20K to $40K for a good good distance learning program. Plan on getting a laptop that you'll use for the entire program too.
** Drexel and Hofstra were two that did particularly well.
*** The amount of energy you have to put in is a lot. Plan on getting hit for no less than 15 to 20 hours a week. Recovering once you fall behind is really hard, since the homework and discussion board posts all start to add up and create a huge backlog. 

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