My experience in the Google ̶̶S̶w̶e̶a̶t̶s̶h̶o̶p̶ Workshop

November 20, 2011

I recently attended GDD 2011 (Spoiler alert: the Android Ice Cream Sandwich OS has some nifty features. Beam for instance), which took me down memory lane and reminded me of the Google workshop I attended during my CS BA studies, back in 2010. I posted a link to our project in this blog.

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The ‘workshop’ is a project every CS graduate from Tel-Aviv University is required to complete. You usually have a choice of around 10-20 workshops (there are more workshops during the 2nd semester), with workshops varying from creating a small robot which will be able to traverse an obstacle course (with a real robot), to more complicated optimal-path finding algorithms, computer vision related projects, machine learning, various mobile-based applications and much more. A relatively new workshop that was available was the Google workshop.

Obviously it was in great demand for having ‘Google’ in its name (the TAU method of getting the courses you want each semester is based on a bidding system. You receive points according to your XP, i.e. how many courses you already completed, and then use those points to bid on courses).

After talking with some of my classmates who completed other workshops, I realize that the Google workshop was one of the only workshops that placed emphasis on Milestones. Milestones were meetings we had about once a month, during which each team held a 15-20 minutes presentation, first discussing its project, and later on its progress on what it promised to complete by that milestone, as well as what we intend to complete next (our objectives). In most other workshops the groups met a couple of times when the semester began, and then the professor pretty much left you alone until you were required to hand in the project at the end of the semester, usually a couple of months after finals ended.

Looking back on it now, the Google workshop, in many ways, prepares its students much better for the scary ‘outside world’. As a programmer you need to be able to write elegant code, but also to give proper estimates as to how long it will take you to write that code. Give an ‘easy’ estimate (“Create a ‘contact us’ form? Oh, about a month’s worth of work”) and you’ll quickly be marked as an inefficient worker. Provide a ‘hard’ estimate (“Design the application’s database? I can whip that up in a day!”) – and it’ll quickly backfire on you. Just like goldilocks, you have to find that sweet spot in the middle. As someone with little or no experience that might prove difficult, but no one said it would be easy.

Another real-world aspect of the workshop was that we got very little ‘references’ from the team. That might seem unfair, unprofessional or perhaps plain old cruel, but in reality – it isn’t too far off from what you’ll face when you start working somewhere. Sure, there’ll probably be more experienced developers on your team who could offer you pointers, and if it’s a big company it might even have an organized system of training new recruits, but your autodidacticism skills will always be put to the test.

We also had to decide how to implement everything ourselves, even in terms of which platform to use. For instance, the workshop instructors introduced us to GWT (when I say introduced I mean that they let us know of its existence and where we can read about it), but didn’t require us to use it. If you haven’t heard of GWT, I recommend reading a little bit about it. It’s an interesting concept. I currently develop using the GWT platform, and I believe it is here to stay. I might even write a post about it soon (if I get around to it). We eventually opted against using it, and I’m pretty sure it was the right thing to do (it was probably “over-kill” for our purposes). But had we chosen to use it, and were to fall behind on our schedule as a result – we would have to face the consequences, or pull very long all-nighters. We couldn’t blame the instructors if it turned out that GWT was unsuitable for our purposes. It was our responsibility to properly research the technology we chose before using it.

Like I said, our workshop conditions were somewhat more difficult than that of the real world, but like we say in the IDF: “Kashe Ba’Imunim, Kal Ba’Krav”, which translates to “The harder the training, the easier the battle”, or to quote General George S. Patton – “Pressure makes diamonds”.