I needed this?

math_symbols What would possess an adult woman to study computer science?

It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

My manager asked me if I thought that studying basic computer science might help me take a “deeper dive” into my various interview podcasts. I thought it would, but that was before I realized that there is no such thing as basic computer science. Starting at chapter one, you are writing algorithms that, true, for somebody like Stu Feldman is pre-K work, but that for somebody like me, whose heart pounds at the sight of variables and integers, is a spur for cognitive lockdown.

Suddenly my life at +40 is on hold until I can figure out how to write an algorithm to indicate what numbers are prime; to read a series of numbers and then print them in reverse order; to create a Caesar cipher — you get the point. I can no longer use my non-work time to read whatever I like, write fiction, do a crossword puzzle, watch a movie, go to the theater or hang out with friends, at least not until I get through a couple pages of computer science.

Actually, I could even write an algorithm of what my life is today:

1. Let X = my life.

2. Let B = computer science studies.

3. Let C = everything else.

If X, then do:

B. Stop. Else do C.

Of course I am the oldest person in the computer science lab at Fordham, and the only female student. I will answer a question if I’m sure I’m right. Occasionally, I have to ask a question. I only hope I don’t look like a drooling escapee from the Hebrew Home for the Aged when I ask the very same question in another five minutes. If I didn’t have a tutor who prepped me through every single practice and homework problem, I would go to class knowing as much about algorithms as I know about the growing season in Punjab province.

I had an epiphany today: I do not actually apply anything I learn from one problem to the next one. I am only capable of understanding, but incapable of learning.

A computer scientist friend of mine at IBM encourages me not to lose heart. “Designing an algorithm is the same as working on a puzzle,” he says. “You just sit with paper and pencil until you figure it out.”

I could sit with paper and pencil in solitary confinement for a thousand years and I still would not be able to figure out by myself how to determine what number is a prime and what is a composite. Here’s the algorithm for my computer science innumeracy:

Let A = My life in solitary confinement.

Let B = Computer science problem.

Let x = years.

If Ax is less than or equal to 1,000, then do:

B. Stop.

Else, cry.

You know what’s really awful about this experience? Not that I will most certainly flunk the course. I don’t even care much if I do. I would care if I flunked a course in Restoration Drama because literature is my strong suit and it’s something I care about.

I don’t even care that much that my incomprehension reduces me to tears every time I stare at the instructions in my Invitation to Computer Science textbook. Maybe everybody needs a good cry on the order of once or twice a week.

What’s really awful is that my manager will have to report to our VP that the funds earmarked for my basic computer science class was good money thrown after bad. Maybe I’ll be fired after I prove beyond a reasonable doubt that I am an imbecile. I will have only myself to thank for thinking I am actually capable of learning something outside my comfort zone. My comfort zone is hard enough. I knew that. I wish I had left well enough alone.

I have to conclude that I am capable of doing exactly one thing in my life: Using the English language. My use of it may not qualify me to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, but it has kept me employed for my entire adult life. Heaven forbid if I ever have to grow my own wheat, sew my own clothing, build my own house or balance my own checkbook. I would be useless. I only hope nobody ever finds out.

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  1. Andrea said

    Hang in there Babs . I think it will start coming together at some point soon.

  2. Pabs said

    Bruchaleh–it’s never the student’s fault! I firmly believe that with the right teacher, anything is teachable. Get thee a tutor! Anyone under the age of 23 should qualify.

  3. mirel said

    Brookie, you are boldly going where many of us have never been! I think the key to success (or at the least, less panic) lies in your first sentence: “My manager asked me if I thought that studying basic computer science might help me take a “deeper dive” into my various interview podcasts.” I’m guessing IBM is not sending you to this class to become a computer science whiz, or even to really learn computer science. Rather, the goal is to get more conversant with some terms and concepts (e.g., using the word “algorithm” in a sentence, and spelling it correctly! — something we in non-computer-land can’t do), which will inevitably inform and improve your future interviews and writing. And if you think of that as your goal, you are well on your way to getting an “A+”!

  4. Janet said


    I think you already have learned a lot. At least you taught me more than I already knew about basic computer science and algorithms.
    And, of course, you have used this blog and language to let us know about you and to make us laugh and commisserate, so I think you’ll be fine, too. I second what Mirel said.

    One way this course will help your podcasting is by giving you a deeper appreciation for what some of your interviewees do.

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