I’ve made countless decisions in my career since first arriving at Stanford in 1989, but one of the top 5 specific decisions that I’ve made was to become a section leader for introductory Computer Science classes at Stanford my sophomore year. I literally can’t think of a single choice that’s had farther reaching implications in my career. Some background is in order, I think.

The introductory CS classes at Stanford are called CS106A, CS106B, and CS106X — they’re taught by lecturers (who, in my experience, were far & away the most committed, thoughtful, caring, accessible, and, ultimately, impactful teachers at Stanford) and the class size was often large, anywhere from about 50 students up to 300 or so. The lecturers were supported by one TA, and a staff of “section leaders” — each an undergrad who was responsible for 6-10 students, would lead a weekly section, grade programs and generally give close attention to their group.

In any given quarter, there would be about 50 of these section leaders, as well as 2 “CS198 Coordinators” — these 2 were generally grad students, and they selected and hired new section leaders through an interview process and also taught a 1 quarter class on how to teach.  It’s a great program, with a fantastic focus on peer teaching, and I think resulted in great results not only for the students taking the 106 courses, but also for the section leaders themselves.

I was turned down the first time I applied to be a section leader, but wanted to do it badly enough that I applied a 2nd time and was accepted. And eventually I was turned down twice when I applied to be coordinator, being accepted the third time around as a grad student. And that was probably my best experience at Stanford — well worth the feeling of getting turned down the first two times.

I think we knew, even then, that the program was incredible — that it selected amazing people and helped them develop in amazing ways — helped them learn CS at a deeper level, of course, but it was also shockingly effective at helping us all learn to teach and communicate — to really balance out the technical aspects of our education.

It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we can really see how incredible the program has been. The reason I’m writing about it now is that a few weeks ago we had the first ever reunion in the 40 year history of the program, and it was just awesome. (You can read Eric’s blog post and see his pics, too.) The make up of the attendees was a bit like a who’s who list of Silicon Valley: startup founders, new CS professors, VPs of Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, CEOs, VCs, chief architects, researchers, and many others. The density and scope of achievement is really hard to describe, honestly. This program has had as much impact on Silicon Valley as any single program that I know of.

More personally, it reminded me of how many lasting, close friends that I developed there — most of my best friends went through the program at some point, and it was so good to see so many of them together.

I trust we won’t wait another 40 years to have the 2nd reunion of the program — I’m looking forward to having another one, soon.

One comment

  1. John –

    I’d love to get on the list for the reunion. CS198 section leading was a transformative experience for most of us, I think. I wasn’t as involved as you were (1 year as section lead), but it changed how I looked at computer science, and opened my eyes to the fact that anyone can do this stuff, if they’re interested and motivated to do it, and if they run across the right “coach” or teacher who can open their eyes. I’m still friends with people from the sections I taught. 16-17 years later, a couple of us live in Austin and meet up on occasion.

    Small world.

    ps – the other program that I thought was really interesting was the RCC program – I had the good fortune of wearing both hats at Stanford, but I sure was lucky to get the jobs because I had no idea how valuable they would be until *after* I started doing them.