The Poor Comparison

When I was in graduate school, I took a class called Software Engineering. This rather generically-named class was designed to teach students the discipline and practice of building software professionally. It was taught by one of my favorite professors, Dr. Sean Arthur.

Dr. Arthur was something of a polarizing figure in the Computer Science department. He loved teaching early morning classes, pop quizzes, and trying to make his students think. His trademarks were a nigh-irrepressible good humor and a set of homespun catchphrases uttered in his country accent. He retired in 2016, but during my time at Virginia Tech he was a fixture.

Near the beginning of the school year, he assigned the class a miniature research paper on the topic of integration testing.

If you know me, you know that there’s two ways I do an assignment: either not at all, or all the way. As I liked Dr. Arthur and wanted to impress him (he did write my recommendation to get into the graduate program, after all), and since software engineering was a topic I was interested in and hoped to find employment in, I decided to go all out on this one.

I wrote that research paper as though I intended it for publication. I still have it; looking back on it now, it’s…OK. It definitely served its purpose: I can tell even now that I did the research, and I clearly put effort into how I formatted the paper and assembled and presented the data. For 23-year-old me, it was excellent. I proudly turned it in.

The subsequent class period, Dr. Arthur was in high dudgeon. He informed us that he read our papers, and they were terrible. How could we call ourselves graduate students when we didn’t know how to write, didn’t know how to do research, and couldn’t even complete a short paper on a simple topic? He spent several minutes bemoaning the state of the modern educational system where students submit drivel and expect good grades simply for showing up.

Then he called out two exceptions. He named me and another student as the exceptions. He said our submissions showed we at least knew how to write a research paper. He gave the two of us our papers back, both of which were given an A. The rest of the class had to redo them.

I had been feeling somewhat anxious and somewhat angry during his speech, as I felt my paper did not deserve his criticism. I was both relieved and proud to find that the criticism was not aimed at me. He posted our papers to the class website as examples and told the rest of the students to do likewise.

I was, I admit, curious to see what the other exemplary student had written. So of course, I went to the class website and took a look.

I was appalled. While I had several sources, all published academic papers or articles in respected trade journals, the other student’s article simply cited Wikipedia. My paper was (in my humble opinion) informative yet engagingly written; my classmate’s was dry and boring.

At first, I was offended that this paper would even be placed in the same category as mine. The fact that this paper was considered worthy of emulation seemed to be more indication than anything of the declining academic standards of our modern education system.

But then, a horrifying thought occurred to me: if this was one of the good ones…how bad were the bad ones?!

I never found out. I still do feel slightly taken aback that this other paper got an A, but with the distance of time I can look at my paper and see a number of flaws in it as well. While I think the scholarship was superior (citing Wikipedia as your sole reference is inexcusable), both the structure and the writing need serious revision.

But ultimately, the lesson I took from this is to do my best on the things that matter. If I had written one of the poor examples, I would have been devastated. Not just because of the blow to my pride and ability but because failure in one’s chosen field is extra painful. But, having done my best, I had no need to feel ashamed.

6 thoughts on “The Poor Comparison

  1. The project I wound up being a part of was also built on Java, EJB in this case. It had a JavaScript frontend, a database, and EJBs as the glue between the frontend and the database.

    The other two group members were useless, so I implemented all of the functionality in the frontend (which was my component). The guy who wrote the Java glue was just useful enough to implement a few database queries that I could call, and the database guy was just useful enough to build a few tables. I had to fix both of their work, but having it at least partially done saved me enough time that I got the project done on time.

    A friend of mine from grad school helped me out with some of the display code (I’m fairly conversant with JavaScript, but less so the part that displays content in a browser window). I found it amusing that a random person not even in the class was still more useful than either of my teammates.

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  2. I learned two things from my Software Engineering course:

    1. JSP is the spawn of Satan.
    2. Never join a project with 100% turnover twice a year. Treat it as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

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    1. The project I wound up being a part of was also built on Java, EJB in this case. It had a JavaScript frontend, a database, and EJBs as the glue between the frontend and the database.

      The other two group members were useless, so I implemented all of the functionality in the frontend (which was my component). The guy who wrote the Java glue was just useful enough to implement a few database queries that I could call, and the database guy was just useful enough to build a few tables. I had to fix both of their work, but having it at least partially done saved me enough time that I got the project done on time.

      A friend of mine from grad school helped me out with some of the display code (I’m fairly conversant with JavaScript, but less so the part that displays content in a browser window). I found it amusing that a random person not even in the class was still more useful than either of my teammates.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So what you’re saying is, the class did a great job of preparing you for your, well, job.

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      2. I’ve been pretty lucky; most of my coworkers have been relatively competent. At least, not as incompetent as my former teammates!

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