Thursday, July 21, 2016

Snowbird 2016

Earlier this week I attended the 2016 CRA Snowbird Conference, a biennial meeting of CS chairs and other leaders in the the computing community. I’ve attended every meeting since 2010, the first as a panelists on journals in CS and the last three as department chair. I enjoy this meeting mostly for the networking with other chairs across the whole CS discipline.

Computer science sits in an enviable position with booming enrollments, our graduates easily finding quality jobs in the field and computing literally changing society. Success breeds challenges, top of this list is how do we cover the dramatically increasing course load. Right now most schools are applying a variety of short-term solutions from increased use of larger classrooms, sometimes with recorded video, instructors and teaching faculty, PhD, MS and undergrad TAs and less small specialized graduate classes to allow for more core courses. What we haven’t seen is increased teaching loads. We need to be careful not to drive faculty into industry’s waiting arms.

The confrence had some interesting speakers such as John Markoff from the New York Times on the excitement and concerns over machine learning and automation, Cynthia Dwork on the theory approach to privacy and fairness in the big data era, and Robert Morse from US News on how they rank CS departments. I'm generally fine with the US News Ranking, they measure reputation and reputation is in the end what matters in recruiting students and faculty. Many at the meeting had other, less friendly, opinions towards US News and rankings in general.

One popular session discussed schools and colleges of computing beyond the department. Most of the successful transitions came out of CS programs in colleges of science, such as at CMU and Georgia Tech. Rarely do we see the transition out of engineering. With both the growth of computer science and its increasingly central role in many academic disciplines, now is a good time to make the argument for more colleges of computing. Perversely the growth makes such changes more challenging as an engineering dean would not want to give up such a large and growing part of their college.

The Snowbird conference moves the conversation away from the weeds of current results to look back at what our field has achieved and where it is going. It's never been a more exciting time to be a computer scientist and while chairs always love to grumble when we get together, we all know how lucky we are to be leaders in this era.


  1. CMU has a *college* of computer science---- it's not in a science school at all.

    1. Now, yes. Originally, no. They were part of the Mellon College of Science and THEN they split off to form the School of Computer Science.