"My brother is too kind. He was eminent when my eminence was only imminent." -Niles Crane
Question #91185 posted on 04/23/2018 7:12 p.m.

Dear alumni and current writers of the 100 Hour Board,

What is computer science? Do all programmers pull all-nighters, never shower, and live off of cold pizza and energy drinks in a basement?

Where did these stereotypes come from, what is reality like, and why are there so few women in CS (source)?

-My Name Here


Dear My Name Here,

We appreciate your enthusiasm for Alumni Week, but we're not yet holding it. While we have held some alumni weeks during finals week in the past, we don't always do it then. This year it just didn't work out to do it during finals, so we're in conversations with each other and the alumni about when to hold it. Rest assured, we'll make an announcement (via the announcement banner at the top of the home page) when we decide what week to host it, and we welcome all your questions then! (As well as before, of course, if you have questions for the current writers.)

-The Editors


Dear Anon,

I will answer the first question of "What is computer science?"

It is important to understand that there are some very general definitions of Computer Science but the specific definition will vary according to who you ask. You seem to associate computer science with programmers, which is not incorrect, but is a more specific definition than some. Wikipedia has a pretty general definition:

Computer science is the study of the theory, experimentation, and engineering that form the basis for the design and use of computers. It is the scientific and practical approach to computation and its applications and the systematic study of the feasibility, structure, expression, and mechanization of the methodical procedures (or algorithms) that underlie the acquisition, representation, processing, storage, communication of, and access to, information. An alternate, more succinct definition of computer science is the study of automating algorithmic processes that scale. A computer scientist specializes in the theory of computation and the design of computational systems.

You might notice that the first sentence basically says that computer science is the term for pretty much anything that has to do with controlling or managing computers. The last two sentences try to narrow the scope to the study of algorithms and computation theory. I once had a teacher ask those of us in the computer science major if we considered ourselves computer scientists and most of the students said they did not. My teacher preferred the term "software engineer" because that more accurately described what he did on a day-to-day basis. I consider a software engineer someone who designs and creates programs as the main part of their job. As you can see, there is a difference between computer scientists who focus on studying and improving computers and algorithms, and software engineers who focus on creating software. With that said I think it is still accurate to call the major "computer science" rather than "software engineering" because the core curriculum consists of much more than simply coding but also study of algorithms, graphics for design and graphics for display, study of low level operations of computers, encryption algorithms, and other things that fit comfortably within the above definition of computer science. (I will note that I received an email from the BYU CS department in the last 6 months asking the alumni's opinion about expanding to 3 different majors called computer science, data science, and software engineering but I don't know if that has been implemented yet)

Now, it may be true that those who consider themselves computer scientists code all night, never shower, and live off cold pizza and energy drinks in basements but for the most part I think that is a stereotype for developers or software engineers. It's not true but I do know a fair number of people who have stayed up late so they could finish a program or fix a bug in their code. Just like many stereotypes it is an exaggeration of some viewed behavior.



Dear you,

Just going to say that some of the stereotypes aren't without basis. Every time I walk into the CS side of the main floor of the Talmage, I'm struck with how weird it smells--a bad combination of sweat, must, and people who have been in one place for far too long. And there is an inordinate amount of free pizza in the Talmage, resulting in many of its inmates having pizza as a staple to their diets. Additionally, the Talmage seems to have been designed with the thought that people who study math, CS, or stats don't actually need sunlight in their lives (which is highly unfortunate). The windows are few and narrow, and everything is kind of gross and ghetto. Finally, there does seem to be a higher than normal proliferation of socially awkward individuals in that building (myself included, unfortunately).

~Anathema has no particular love for the building she practically lives in


Dear MNH,

I mean, my husband is a CS major, and we do eat a lot of pizza and live in a basement (apartment). He does shower every day, though, and usually only pulls all-nighters when he has a big project due the next day that he has to finish (much like students in pretty much every major). Not everyone who likes computers is inherently a weirdo.

Why are there so few women in CS? Probably for the reason there aren't tons of women in any of the STEM fieldssocialization to not go into STEM, the worry it won't fit with being a wife/mother (especially at BYU), stereotype threat (women feel they're expected by society to be worse at math, so subconsciously often perform worse on math tests if they have a reminder that they're a woman beforehand, like filling out a bubble marking their sex, or being the only woman in a room full of men), an uninentionally "chilly" climate for women in those majors, etc etc. College campuses are doing things to change this, but as long as implicit biases against women in STEM majors continue, probably the number of women in those fields won't be as high as we'd like. If you're interested in learning more about why there are so few women in computer science (or math, or engineering, or technology), here's an interesting article about it.