Get with the Program

Dec. 2, 2009, 12:01 a.m.

Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, it is no surprise that Stanford is home to many brilliant emerging minds in Computer Science (CS). However, within this group of talented students, there is an even more distinguished group–those who make it into the CS section leading program.

Computer Science section leading has not always been a competitive job to land. When Eric Ruth ’09, currently a first-year Computer Science graduate student, applied in the winter of 2006-07, he did not have to face the extra stage that current candidates must potentially deal with.

Now a co-coordinator of the CS section leaders, Ruth commented on how the process has changed in the years since he applied.

“The program has been growing more popular,” Ruth said. “It became more competitive as there are now more applicants and less spots, so we need more ways to differentiate the applicants.”

Today’s applicants need to first submit an online application, Ruth said. Then, the applicants must do a 30-minute interview, which includes teaching a mock CS session and debugging code. If there are still too many qualified candidates, there is a tiebreaker stage in which applicants are presented with difficult questions to make sure that they have a solid grasp on the information.

Thomas Medina ’11 had to apply several times before finally getting in.

“It became more competitive last year because of the influx of people who want to become section leaders,” Medina said. “It’s a fairly secure job once you get in. It’s almost impossible to lose except for gross negligence.”

Alex Churchill ’12 applied last year and made it to the final round, but didn’t land the job. Reflecting on his disappointing experience, he feels that he is a more prepared applicant now.

“I just recently applied again,” he said. “After taking CS 107, I think that I’m much more qualified to be a section leader than I was before.”

Of course, not all advanced CS students want the position. There are many students who take CS 106A, CS 106B and CS 106X and still do not want to become section leaders.

“I chose not to apply because it’s a very large commitment,” said Suril Shah ’13. “There are just so many things you have to do. It’s freshman year, so I want to explore more courses first before settling into the job.”

The selected section leaders have many responsibilities. Though the pay is competitive and there are perks, the commitment can be several hours per week.

According to Mehran Sahami, a professor of Computer Science, section leading responsibilities include teaching a weekly 50-minute section, grading assignments and exams, holding helper hours at the computer cluster at Tresidder (the Lair) and attending weekly staff meetings to review and standardize grading rubrics. In addition, students are required to take an additional teaching-oriented course, CS 198, during their first quarter of section leading.

So why would students want to commit that many hours of their time to section leading? Current section leaders pointed out the benefits of teaching a subject in terms of their own knowledge.

“It gives you a solid foundation of Computer Science and teaching,” said Leland Farmer ‘11. “You understand CS with great depth after teaching it, since you have to communicate it to people who don’t understand immediately what you’re talking about.”

Other students referred to the social perks that come along with the job. Sahami explained that section leader coordinators organize a fun activity every week to build community.

“We sometimes have Human Mario Kart,” Sahami said. “They get to go down the ramps of a parking structure in a big wheel and they have races. Also, there’s Four Square on Fridays and sometimes, we have some puzzle solving games. They’re all voluntary but in good fun.”

In addition, many tech companies provide benefits to the section leaders.
“We had a Microsoft section leader event a couple weeks ago,” Farmer said. “Microsoft took 30 section leaders to go to SkyHigh for free and then they took us out to In-n-Out and paid for our food.”

Others point to the fact that section leading provides a community, both during school years and post-graduation.

“We have a pretty tight-knit community,” Ruth said. “It’s a nice way for Computer Science people to meet other Computer Science people.”

Sahami explained the benefits of knowing other talented Computer Science undergraduates.

“It’s a good way to find project partners,” Sahami said. “It’s a good way to find people you’d really like to work with on things.”

Farmer, Medina and R.J. Walsh ’11 feel that this position may lead to post-graduation opportunities in both high-profile tech companies and growing startups.

“Section leaders have a good reputation for being knowledgeable and above-average CS students,” Medina said. “A lot of section leaders end up working for top-tier companies.”

Networking opportunities are more readily available to section leaders, according to Farmer.

“Usually after every meeting, there is always some company that gives a talk geared toward recruiting,” Farmer said. “Being a section leader really helps for applying for jobs in the field.”

Walsh agreed.

“There is a huge alumni network,” Walsh said. “My inbox is always flooded with alumni messages saying, ‘Hey you! Come work for us!’”

Churchill, still waiting to hear the outcome of his application, hopes to become a part of this community that exists within the CS section leaders.

“This is definitely an attractive job because of the many connections,” Churchill said. “Especially in computer science, contacts within the industry are extremely important.”

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