Humanizing Technology: Devesh Dayal

Humanizing Technology: Devesh Dayal

Today I spoke with Devesh Dayal, a senior at Penn and instructor of a minicourse in JavaScript in the Engineering school. We discussed the evolution and future of the computer science education space, as well as what drives him personally to be a star developer.

We spoke over hangouts, but unfortunately, OBS crashed twice and we lost the recording of the chat. Learning experience for me to check, double-check, and make backups, noted.

In lieu of the recorded video, we worked on a transcript-style text version that I hope you’ll enjoy.

Sacha’s Takeaways

  • Devesh’s inspiration to hack and build comes primarily from his desire to dive into something completely blind, and see how far he can get in learning it on the fly. Quite an admirable motivation, in my opinion.
  • In his own words, Devesh attributed “100% of his passion for teaching” to the desire to impart “even 10% of the excitement I’ve felt in building things myself” in the hopes that students will share the same joy.
  • In his (and my) opinion, formal education in computer science is augmented by, not replaced by, additional online and ad-hoc learning materials: learning how to build something is one thing, understanding why it works is another.

Full Transcript

SB: Introduce yourself - tell us about who you are and what drives you.

DD: I’m a rising senior at the University of Pennsylvania (somehow) and current student instructor of CIS 197, a specialized mini-course on JavaScript and Advanced Web Technologies. I do a lot of things related to CS and hackathons on campus, so if you’re interested in any of those things - I’m free to talk anytime!

SB: What was the singular moment or experience that inspired you to study computer science?

DD: I spoke to a friend about this recently and I agree that a lot of the people I’ve met who are happy with their CS experiences have this one defining moment in their lives that pivoted them towards knowing that CS is something that they wanted to do. I think I can relate to that somewhat - my high school in India had no formal computer science curriculum (no AP CS equivalent) but I got lucky in that there was this one, weekend long workshop on Game Design in Java that promised no prior technical / programming experience. I did that workshop, came out of it at the end with a game that worked (sort of like a lighter version of space invaders) but had absolutely no idea how any of the pieces really fit together. I spent the next 2 weeks going over that code, rewriting it from scratch, using a super helpful website that I was super proud of finding (StackOverflow lol).

When I was done, my game was way more complicated than what I originally built - with high scores, local multiplayer and even animations. But most importantly, I understood it.

I love that it took literally nothing but my own curiosity and drive to learn that let me make something tangible/real - this is something I can’t see any other field of study offer.

SB: What do you think of the dichotomy between education in academia and the conflux of hacker academies, Coursera, and other online computer science learning materials?

DD: This is a good question, especially given how the latter are becoming increasingly popular for people from non-technical backgrounds looking to make a career in tech. I think there are two main purposes that both academia and online bootcamps fill individually. Academia focuses on building a foundation for further learning: you learn about logic, data structures, algorithms, complexity and efficiency - truly understanding why and how a system or application works. It doesn’t, however, teach you the best way to actually go build something yourself. Online courses and engineering bootcamps do the exact opposite - with a little background into the underlying motivations, it’s all about actually creating something that works, exists, and can go out into the real world - websites, mobile apps, indie games, etc. Together, they form both sides of the same coin and it’s really hard to succeed with just one and not the other.

SB: Your pivotal experience happened outside an academic setting, and from what I’ve heard, those moments of clarity from others’ experiences have also happened in more “build it” environments. How do you think academia can compete and evolve considering that most lighbulb experiences seem to happen outside of the classroom?

DD: Universities are gradually coming to realize this as well - the regular tried and tested formula for how computer science is taught at both engineering and non-engineering schools is changing rapidly, with more and more courses focusing on real world applications. Penn’s a great example of this, with the 19x minicourse system, where, just to push the boundaries of learning, students are allowed to teach courses on applied languages and frameworks (if they know what they’re doing ;))! Universities have also suddenly become far more open and supportive of out-of-classroom learning experiences like hackathons and student organizations, which is where you’re truly encouraged to shine. There you dive into something with no high stakes, armed with nothing but your own personal motivation to learn.

Academia doesn’t need to necessarily compete with these ad-hoc, hacker experiences. Rather it needs to highlight the importance of both working in tandem for an education experience that truly prepares you for anything that may come your way.

Learning how to build a website powered by specific JavaScript frameworks won’t help you when it comes to making a web browser in in virtual reality, but understanding how that technology works, what the most efficient way to render elements using provided hardware is, or the complexity cost of each additional line of text on the screen is what’ll really help you in the long run.

SB: Going off of that, a Penn education costs a quarter of a million dollars - YouTube/Coursera are free. Hacker academies cost on the order of $10-20k at the top end. Is it really worth it? And why?

DD: Nope - you should stream on Twitch all day!

Just kidding, although being a game streamer really does bring in the big bucks if you’re good at it. Going to university comes with a hefty price tag, that’s for sure, but it gives you more than what you think you want to learn. Choosing Penn, a school that is definitely not prominent for its engineering school alone, was a tough decision to make. While it’s certainly true that you could learn more about specific engineering technologies at engineering specific universities or hacker academies, you don’t get the amazing diversity of thought and ideas that you may find at Penn. For instance, despite all the jokes about the relationship between Wharton and Engineering, a lot of the ideas that engineers may have really wouldn’t go anywhere if it weren’t for the constant presence of a business school that encourages startups and innovation from the grassroots level. And just the opposite works as well - building the next social network or the next Tinder/Uber/Facebook for tutors” means you need to understand just what it is you’re doing outside of business plans and funding!

A university experience, in my opinion, is one that give you a very real sense of what it’s like to be in the real world, working with people from different backgrounds and thoughts, and dealing with unpredictable situations in the best way possible.

Can any one online course/engineering bootcamp ever offer something like that? Maybe - but it’s definitely not the norm.

SB; You have spoken a lot about how hackathons have changed the way you think about writing code and working - did the same inspiration and dedication that drove you through those events motivate you to teach?

DD: Hackathons have been somewhat of a blessing in disguise for me. While there are the obvious benefits - the ability to create something straight out of a sci-fi movie with your best friends + unlimited food and fancy swag - I’ve also come to realize that hackathons have shaped my own philosophy towards learning. What excites me most today are things that I know little about. This has been the general theme for my time at Penn, from courses I’ve taken (shoutout to CIS 568: VR Game Design taught by the incredible Sacha Best) to the professional work experiences through internships that I’ve pursued. If I were to track my interests over each year at Penn, they have gone from generic computer science to web development, artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual reality, and even game design.

What I’ve found is that a desire to actually leap into a topic headfirst and come out with an experience worth re-telling is more rewarding than anything

The same inspiration is one of the many reasons why I love teaching. From workshops and lectures I’ve taught to one on one discussions with students, I always try to push people to realize what it is they’re excited about, and then help them get there. In CIS 197, students submit project proposals a month before the end of the semester in which they’re encouraged to be ambitious - to try new things and make something that has positive impact in either their lives or the lives of people around them. I’m constantly amazed by student ideas and how they perform once they realize it’s possible. Teaching is very much a learning experience for me and working with all the students I’ve taught in the last year has really been the most rewarding and continually exciting experience of my time at Penn!

About Sacha Best

I'm a recent grad of the University of Pennsylvania in Computer Science who is passionate about virtual/augmented reality and teaching.