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The Best Teacher I Ever Had: An Ode to Stephan Regoczei

December 3rd, 2008

The most interesting courses at school were my non Computer Science courses (the comp sci courses were pretty easy since the instructors depended heavily on code samples and textbooks), and Stephen Regoczei’s course on Digital Multimedia tops my list for being the most interesting and inspirational course.

I usually picked my summer course while tree planting since most of the course syllabuses were online, but Regoczei’s course (aside from a vague 200 word blurb that the course digital multimedia related topics) had little information.

I emailed Regoczei requesting a syllabus and received a reply along the lines of:

Due to socioeconomic reasons, I do not respond to my email.

His course was ironically about communicating, the internet, and digital media, but yet he wouldn’t respond to email?! This was weird! I signed up for his course, I was intrigued.

On the first day of class, I sat near the front – but not in the front row (I was trying really-really hard not to be too geeky). Like most students in the class – I was clueless to who this Regoczei character was. Ten minutes after the class was scheduled to start we still didn’t have a professor, and students started leaving. Minutes later, a man who looked like he could be our professor walked through the door, but he then sat down among the students took off his jacket, took off his shoes, and the class waited a couple more minutes. The man who could have been our professor, started striking conversations with those around him, then stood up and walked to the front of the class, and introduced himself in a strong foreign accent as Stephan Regoczei – he was our professor.

With a series of five chalkboards available to him, and a full class, Regoczei would start jotting his notes on the middle black board, he’d then move left (not right as one might expect) to the next board, then back to the middle board. Then to the bottom left corner of the middle board, to the top right corner, filling in any empty space with his notes. He never touched the left or right most blackboards, but instead created a jumbled nest of notes that were impossible to follow if you hadn’t been taking notes. Regoczei often hedged around answering assignment / test related questions, instead he assured us that we would either “get it” or “not get it”, but he would say that he felt we were smart enough to “get it”. Over the first few weeks students would occasionally storm out of the class as they were obviously frustrated with his unconventional approach to teaching. When students did storm out he’d giggle and make funny remarks like “I guess they won’t ‘get it’, they must have been in the wrong class”.

The marking structure for this class was as unconventional as his teaching style – which had many students griping (I think some were on the verge of starting a petition to try and have him fired). The assignments weren’t hard, but they were extremely open ended which made you think. One assignment was along the lines of “present four topics in the Media that you found interesting”. Submissions in the form of a four page essay consistently scored lower than a single sheet of paper filled with bullet points and hand drawn color pictures. At the end of the course most of the students that “got it” had abandoned their pens and computers for paint, scissors, and pencil crayons. On my final exam I used a pair of scissors to turn my exam book into a pop-out, and had answered every question with a different colored pencil crayon.

In retrospect Regoczei really forced his students to think outside the box in a conventional setting – if we didn’t think outside the box we received a poor mark. For me, he demonstrated that if you understand the constraints of your environment, then you can play within these rules and thrive as you change the rules. Today I’d label Regoczei as a heretic.

Regoczei’s course also promoted a great sense of community – the first 45 minutes of his class were dedicated to a media show-and-tell where students could show an exciting product, or bring up an article for discussion. In a couple discussions we debated whether the oil slicks (highways) covering our country were worse than the oil spilling into the oceans and the emissions in our air, or how antiques featured on the antique road show can maintain value whereas mass produced replicas were cheapening our world, and we had ongoing conversations on quality vs quantity. In addition to the discussions, his extremely open ended assignments forced the class to come together and compare their marks and assignment strategies in an effort to figure out his bazaar marking scheme.

Today I think Regoczei’s main points were (but I’m not sure, and every student walked away with different ideas):

  • You need to think outside the box in order to be successful
  • We should question everything
  • People that can get beyond conventional thinking will never need to look for a job, because the jobs will always find them
  • There is a world of difference between “Kiddie” computing (Microsoft based PCs) and “Grown up” computing (unix, linux, macs, anything else)

This course along, with my discussion based English seminars were the most exciting, inspirational, and though provoking courses at Trent University. These were the courses that really taught me how to learn, inspired me, and left me hungry to continue learning, reading, writing, thinking, and growing.

This quote from Arden’s book reminded me of Regoczei’s approach to teaching:

Good marks will not secure you an interesting life.
Your imagination will. – Paul Arden, Whatever You Think, Think the Opposite

What inspirational teachers have you had in the past?

Author: Adam Kahtava Categories: Community, Musings Tags:

Bad Advice: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all

November 28th, 2008

“If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all” is bad advice and here's why.

During the process of discussing something not nice we develop a vocabulary to express our discomfort with the item in question. Once we've developed this vocabulary we can then communicate our concerns within our community – the chances are, others probably share these concerns / frustrations, but they might not have developed the vocabulary. The community discussions might result in a resolution to the problem, or may be ignored, but at least you can feel satisfied that you tried.

It's kind of like that one person during a lesson / presentation / lecture that asks the exact same question you were thinking, when the question is presented a whole new slew of questions are asked as the class engages in discussion.

Conversely, saying nothing, does nothing, you remain isolated, and your concerns / questions / frustrations are permanent.

Speak your mind, you only live once, and most of us can accept that your ideas today will differ in the future – we change. More companies / people / organizations should take feedback as a compliment and encourage discussion.

* photo courtesy of Matthijs Rouw
Author: Adam Kahtava Categories: Community, Musings, Personal Tags:

Living The High-tech Illusion: Software Development is Not Rocket Surgery

June 15th, 2008

#CalgaryBarCamp was swell. It was refreshing to meet such a diverse group of like minded people that all essentially do the same thing (create software), but do it in different ways using different tools, platforms, and languages. The ad-hoc discussions both in the bar and between sessions were my highlight. A reoccurring theme in our conversations was that technology, tools, and platforms don’t matter that much. What really matters is: people, communication, ideas, taking risks, and motivation.

The topic of our discussions reminded me of something David Heinemeier Hansson said when talking about software development:

You don’t need to be a f***ing genius to make any of this stuff work, it’s not rocket surgery! – David Heinemeier Hansson at Startup School 08

DeMarco and Lister also echoed this outlook back in the 80′s, and publicized: the High-Tech Illusion:

the High-Tech Illusion: [is] the widely held conviction among people who deal with any aspect of new technology … that they are in … high-tech business. [These people] are indulging in this illusion whenever they find themselves explaining at a … party, say, that that they are “in computers” … The implication is that they are part of the high-tech world. [These people] usually aren’t. The researchers who made the fundamental breakthroughs in those areas are in the high-tech business. The rest of us are appliers of their work.Peopleware : Productive Projects and Teams

If we were in the High-Tech business, then we’d be the bottom feeders (the parasites, the grunts), because our daily activities revolve around consuming other peoples research and work (programming languages, platforms, frameworks and the like). We are consumers, we’re not on the cutting edge nor are we in the high-tech world.

Perhaps building software could be much like outfitting yourself for a day in the snow. You head off to the local shopping mall, you acquire the functional items to keep yourself warm, but brands and store choice don’t really matter. Whether we’re buying winter boots or choosing a programming language, technology doesn’t really matter. There are an infinite number of ways to solve any problem, as well as an infinite number of technical permutations to form a solution. If we can solve the problem within the constraints of our problem domain then we’ve succeeded.

The High-Tech Illusion often permeates my world – I work as a Web Developer in the Microsoft realm. I continually see the High-Tech Illusion manifests itself in these situations:

  • Colleagues talking in vague opaque high-level metaphors that patronizingly shield you from the inter working of what they assume is beyond your comprehension
  • Fixations on specific tools, hardware, platforms, and methodologies while the problem that needs to be solved is diluted and any combination of these items could solve the problem
  • Colleagues that assume superiority and can’t acknowledge that knowledge is acquired through research and a continual efforts to improve

Pretentiousness in the software realm (in teams, organization, and so on) is usually the byproduct of someone that’s living the High-Tech Illusion.

I’ve been guilty of subscribing to the High-Tech Illusion. How does the High-Tech Illusion permeate your world? How can we get back to reality?

Griping About Users: What’s Wrong With Forums?

May 10th, 2008

Forums or Newsgroups are a great way to expand your community, contribute to the greater development community, hone your communication skills, and stay grounded. However, forums can have a frustrating dark side. From what I can tell, the dark side of forums stem from the wide diversity of users.

On Forums we have:

As a forum contributor, I like to think that I’m giving something to the community, but some days I feel like I’m wasting my time and here’s why.

Frustrating forum threads:

When contributors pass your words off as their own:

Amanda from Microsoft offers this bit of advice on 08-28-2007:

Which seems vaguely similar to something I might have said back on 12-07-2006:

When users are belligerent:


“Adam has so little time he can’t even read your question …” – Brian

When users want a quick fix or want you to do their work:


“please verify and do for me some work.” – dagamishiva

It makes it all worth while when users are genuinely grateful for your advice and suggestions. In the end, forums (and helping people in general) is rewarding, and some forums that explicitly cover more advanced topics omit the frustrating chatter and facilitate professional level discussions.

Author: Adam Kahtava Categories: ASP.NET, Community, Musings Tags:

Community keeps us Grounded, Expand your Community.

March 4th, 2007

Whether it be a group people living in the same area, the scientific community, the business community, the software community, or the global village, community is what keeps us all grounded.

Community’s facilitate cross pollination (the sharing of ideas, thoughts, and alternatives), and keep egos in check. Communities reduce ignorance, can prevent the Not Invented Here (NIH) mentality, can prevent Social Isolation, and can prevent other personal or business stifling consequences.  By expanding our communities we become more grounded. To expand our community in the scientific / software realm we can attending local events, network with colleagues, participate in online forums, participate in peer reviews, contribute as technical editors, subscribe to industry related magazines and publishing’s, maintain professional memberships, donate time, or contribute to other community related events.

Community is important, expand your community!

In an effort to expand my community I’m:

  • Editing technical books
  • Contributing to online forums
  • Blogging

In the future I’d like to:

  • Present at user groups
  • Contribute to an open source project
  • Attend more conferences

How are you expanding your community?

Related thoughts:

No man is an island, entire of itself
every man is a piece of the continent, …
- John Donne, Meditation XVII, English clergyman & poet (1572 – 1631) 

Not Invented Here, in the context of corporate culture, sometimes occurs as a result of simple ignorance, as many companies simply never do the research to know whether a solution already exists. – Wikipedia: Not Invented Here

If it’s a core business function — do it yourself, no matter what. – Joel Spolsky, In Defense of Not-Invented-Here Syndrome

Author: Adam Kahtava Categories: Community, Musings, Team Work Tags: