Friday, May 6, 2016

Solving for Passion

For the last few years, I have had the pleasure, and the privilege, to participate in graduating students’ project reviews at a major university.  Students in their final semesters of earning a Computer Science or Computer Engineering degree are asked to come up with and implement a project of their own choosing, within the guidelines set forth by the professor for the course. Students typically identify a user or a client for their work – a university department or research lab, consumers, charitable organizations.

A few dozen projects I have reviewed so far have mostly been spectacular. Students put their heart and soul, and considerable skills and passion for the technology, into this assignment.  However, there are interesting differences in the presented work.

Some cohorts of students appear to have lofty, large-scale goals. They are interested in solving big important problems related to hunger, or low productivity, or deadly deceases for large populations using tiniest of tools. The teams pull research from international conferences and large NGOs, make highly speculative assumptions about complicated unknowns, and pull together technologies that are both rare and not really designed for these purposes.

For these projects, results are typically modest, presentations are ambitious on vision and poor on structure, and risk of running into crippling unknowns is high.

Other groups appear to be much better prepared. The projects capitalize on the cutting-edge technologies, tests are neatly recorded on video, and presentation slides showcase the scientific background and beautiful technical documentation.  However, these projects aim a bit lower: gadgets that offer a small improvement on the existing products.  Polish replaces passion.

When the focus is on delivering a good-looking presentation, creativity gets lost, or at least greatly diminished. This batch of working, well-documented projects lacks excitement, grand vision, reach into the unknown.

College is the time to dream, to stretch for the moon, to grow one’s ambitions. Most people go on to have a long and very practical career, where delivering a small improvement is valued higher than big ambitious undertakings. We will all be better off if we had more passion and creativity to go around.