“You either have it or you don’t have it.”
Overhearing a conversation among Computer Science underclassmen.
Everyone, including myself, likes to believe that their immediate environment is a welcoming one, that fosters a supportive community resilient to discrete division of its members.
Today, while I was studying in the second-floor lobby of the Computer Science labs, I overheard an enlightening conversation. About five second-year CS students had come out of a lab after taking what sounded like a tough Systems Programming midterm.
If your school is like mine then Systems Programming (CSC 357) is one of the toughest classes a CS major will take and is a sort of rite of passage in our immediate community. Achieving an A in a course that consumes every extra hour outside of minimal sleep and class is an unmatched feeling, one that I am proud to say I have experienced. With this in mind, you can understand why everyone would be emotionally volatile while enrolled.
Back to the story.
I can’t help but listen to their conversation, as I was once there myself, and what I heard derailed my idyllic image of our little CS community. As one student acknowledged defeat to a certain test problem, another would ostentatiously claim victory over the same one. As one student would publicly long for a nap, another would declare they were leaving to continue working, chomping at the bit.
What stuck out to me the most, aside from the egregious series of one-upping that had just occurred, was the fact that when one of them mentioned withdrawing from the course entirely and succumbing to the stress, no one said anything.
Not a single word of support.
No pep talk.
No offer of help. Just an awkward silence that filled the room to bursting.
I had several friends, even myself, in my term and terms following, that wanted to give up on this class. The difference was that when someone was ready to submit, they were rallied around and encouraged to keep grinding, offered help and bombarded with pep talks.
However, the thing really threw me for a loop was what happened next.
The only thing that burst the awkward bubble of silence was the slandering of another student, who was absent, that was having an even harder time.
I know we were all taught at a young age that talking about someone behind their back is not appropriate, but this was more than that. Someone who was almost at rock bottom, with no helping hand extended by their immediate friends, clambered on top of another who was even lower and defenseless in order to regain the little bit ground they had just given up.
This is when the others started helping, but in their own self-preserving way. The others layered it on the absent victim-turned foothold, declaring that they should withdraw and that they had no chance, amidst awkward shuffling of feet and the inspection of a neighbor’s shoes.
After the sacrifice had been made and all parties were feeling better about themselves, the gang began to disperse, but not before wrapping everything up. As everyone added their final words, one student said this in reference to the class, and by relation, this field of study:
“You either have it or you don’t have it.”
Kind of reminds you of binary doesn’t it? One or zero. On or off. Has or doesn’t have.
This is what’s wrong with the field of computer science and programming. This is the reason there is a stigma associated with the world of developers
This is not the environment I want to live and work in.
This seems like a good place to start when it comes to making a change. Instead of putting someone in a bin marked “defective,” why don’t we prop them up and restore their resolve?
I understand that this is a competitive domain and that this class is high stakes, but it shouldn’t be the default behavior in reaction to a high stress situation for the young, up-and-coming developers of this generation.
In a field that is said to be dominated by young, hoodie-wearing, white males in their mid 20s, the last thing we need is to add “elitist” to the list of adjectives (if it’s not already there).
Realistically, if I want to see a change, I have to do something about it. I recognize that I should have said something to them then, but I wasn’t brave enough and so my only remaining option for this specific event is to write about it. In the future, I hope I will have the courage to say something and begin a process of change here.