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Stanford = Army, MIT = Marines (google.com)
126 points by shalmanese on June 9, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 45 comments

It's more complicated than that. Many MIT professors are unapologetic about their relentless focus on engineering, but the MIT administration sees it as a problem that so few alumni achieve business success and make big donations.


When I was an undergrad about twenty years ago (brlewis, you were an undergrad then, too, right?), the Dean for Undergraduate Education was on record as saying “too many MIT graduates work for too many Harvard and Princeton graduates”, and the administration was retooling its admissions policy and curriculum so that the school wouldn’t have such a single-minded focus on training people to be brillant engineers.

Has the pendulum swung back since then?

I was an undergrad there twenty years ago too, but I was a physics major, not CS. My experience was that for science graduates, their training is mostly geared towards getting them into graduate school, not a job in industry. The prevailing attitude then (and probably now too) was that if you went into industry instead of academia, there was something wrong with you.

I went to University of California - Santa Cruz for my undergraduate in physics. Around my year, the administration realized that a lot of the students were having trouble transitioning to non-academic jobs. So much so that they started an "applied physics" program which allowed more classes in electrical engineering and computer science, and made a required class called Physics in Industry that I have had the privilege of speaking in a few times to tell young physicists how and why they could transition into a career in software.

I graduated in 1990 but worked there for 8 years afterward. I never saw any pendulum motion. Today it does not look at all like they want to brand themselves like the Marines, judging by the "LIFE AT MIT FAQ" on http://www.mitadmissions.org/

Yeah, but that doesn't mean the Admissions Department isn't lying through their teeth, knowingly or unknowingly. E.g. they were strongly emphasizing the tradition of hacking (http://www.mitadmissions.org/topics/life/hacks_traditions/) at the same time the Campus Police changed their posture on it and started arresting students in situations they hadn't previously. And while it's ugly to point out, they had to fire the Dean of Admissions in 2007 for falsifying her resume; she started in the Admissions Office in 1979 (if early in the year, she very possibly looked at my application...) and became the Dean in 1997.

They might also be trying to change MIT by attracting different students; as noted by sethg there was a strong push to change MIT from its traditional role of producing Sons of Martha who work for Sons of Mary, and it started a few years before he showed up (here is a fantastic rant by Hal Albeson on one of the early signs of that: http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/hal/papers/coop.html).

The Admissions Office even drastically changed its real admissions policy for a couple of years until the hard subjects (e.g. physics) faculty forced a correction of that. The admitted classes were overall having too much trouble with the core curriculum, but even if they were less capable on average they were still dedicated to the traditional MIT mission.

Self-selection by applicants is so strong (MIT survived for a dozen year without a professional as the Director), whatever gloss the Office is now putting on the Institute, it's able to change things only so much. E.g. MIT remains the a place where you don't graduate without taking (or placing out of) a year of the calculus and classical physics (taught at MIT speed), for all majors.

whenever i hang out with alums (from ~'02) i'm always surprised at how few value the concept of Selling Things you Engineered for Money. Most are extremely happy Designing Things for Big Projects (NASA/DARPA/Google) or Working as a Quant - but the actual dollar exchange is very dirty.

eit :(

Bob Metcalfe was interviewed in November 1998 by Wired (see http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/6.11/metcalfe_pr.html ) and he gave this interesting perspective on MIT students:

"Flocks of MIT engineers come over here," Metcalfe tells me, leading me up the back staircase at Beacon Street. "I love them, so I invite them. They look at this and say, ‘Wow! What a great house! I want to invent something like Ethernet.’" The walls of the narrow stairway are lined with photos and framed documents, like the first stock certificate issued at 3Com, four Ethernet patents, a photo of Metcalfe and Boggs, and articles Metcalfe has written for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

"I have to sit ‘em down for an hour and say, ‘No, I don’t have this house because I invented Ethernet. I have this house because I went to Cleveland and Schenectady and places like that. I sold Ethernet for a decade. That’s why I have this house. It had nothing to do with that brainstorm in 1973.’" He pauses for effect, as we arrive at his top-floor office. "And they don’t like that story."

I've observed this too, and as an '05, it saddens me somewhat.

Much of the top of my class seemed to find the "salesy" aspects of entrepreneurship dirty, and they wanted nothing to do with it.

Does anybody remember (for example) Reagan's cabinet? George Schultz, captain of Marines in WW II, secretary of labor then of treasury for Nixon, secretary of state for Reagan. Donald Reagan, lieutenant colonel of Marines in WW II, CEO of Merrill Lynch, secretary of the treasury, later chief of staff for Reagan, James Baker, USMC service in Korea, switched jobs with Regan. And isn't the current governor of Oregon a Marine veteran?

As for Stanford & MIT I couldn't tell you.

There are certainly Marines who've been tremendously successful after their military career--but that's not what the training and culture optimizes for. Look at Marine heroes--Chesty Puller[1] was such a "candid speaker" that the thought of a political career is laughable. Smedley Butler[2] retired, then wrote a booklet called "War is a Racket." These are the men that are the subjects of Marine running cadences, not George Schultz and James Baker.

Full disclosure: I did a tour in the Marines, found I couldn't get a civilian job, joined the Army for one more tour, and am now employed by a Fortune 500 company.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chesty_Puller

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smedley_Butler

I agree that I cherry-picked reservists (and could have gone on to Chaffee, long-time senator from Rhode Island, Paul Moore, long-time Anglican bishop of New York, etc. etc,)

But frankly, the regular Army types who have gone on to distinguished political careers have been relatively few and not always distinguished as politicians: among presidents, Taylor, Grant, Eisenhower. To the extent that Army veterans, regular, reserve, or Guard, are more conspicuous, the disproportion in numbers must count for something.

Officers, NCOs, and grunts.

Like all good and easy to understand argument this one simplifies things and glosses over some details, but overall I buy it. At least it's definitely true nowadays. MIT had a spectacular history of Electrical Engineering but for the last N years they have concentrated on the "next cool thing" syndrome, the worst case being the MIT Media Lab.

We have to remember that there are major outside influences that are shaping these institutions, especially for Stanford, being in the eye of Silicon Valley.

> MIT had a spectacular history of Electrical Engineering but for the last N years they have concentrated on the "next cool thing" syndrome, the worst case being the MIT Media Lab.

Stanford doesn't seem to have suborganizations that are as externally visible as Media Lab and the like.

> We have to remember that there are major outside influences that are shaping these institutions, especially for Stanford, being in the eye of Silicon Valley.

I may be too close, but I don't see Stanford as being radical or innovative in its organization.

For some relevant comments by Stanford's current president see http://www.stanford.edu/class/ee380/Abstracts/100526.html and http://ee380.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/videologger.php?target=100...

Sounds like the old joke any Marine will tell you:

"A Marine gets out and goes on his first job interview. The interviewer asks: 'I see you were a Marine. What did they train you to do?'. Marine answers: 'TO KILL PEOPLE SIR!'"

As a PhD student at MIT with many friends at Stanford, I'd like to say that both schools provide an abundance of opportunities for an engineering student to choose a less specialist path: business school classes, leadership in student organizations, student advocacy, business plan competitions, even industry consulting.

As with most universities, the opportunities are there, and your education is what you make of it.

As to Rebecca's comments on large-scale projects, when DARPA funding first dried up, the CS and AI Lab (CSAIL) turned towards industrial sponsors and pursued a vision of pervasive computing, incorporating advancements in networking, speech, and NLP. But there has been no shortage of recent DARPA sponsored large-scale projects (e.g. the DARPA Grand Challenge, command and control systems for urban search and rescue, semi-autonomous forklifts for war zone unloading).

But are any of those large scale DARPA projects pushing the foundations like some of the prior ones did? The ones you list are very applied, which may be appropriate for a nation at war, I took her point to be "where will the foundation for the next big thing come from?"

Hmmm, where would we place their VLSI project (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VLSI_Project), which among other things according to Wikipedia supported BSD?

IMHO, semi-autonomous robotic control is one of the holy grails of CS.

Robotics hardware is maturing rapidly, but the software algorithms for visual sensing, planning and manipulation aren't there yet. This is standing in the way of robots running (vs walking) efficiently, tidying up your cluttered desk, or taking care of our elderly.

"semi-autonomous robotic control is one of the holy grails of CS"

Agreed 100%, and it's a difficult and worthwhile set of AI problems (just not ones I'm personally interested in :-). I have no trouble with the Grand Challenge given that the state of the art makes it practical, it's that other ... perhaps more foundational stuff is apparently being neglected. The stuff that's "wow!" in 10 years.

There is a point of exaggeration. I don't think smart as they are, MIT engineers need an adaptation program like the marines to the real world. That's what comes with smartness, flexibility to think and adapt. You cannot say the same for a marine with physically extreme skills.

Not really. If you're an expert at "psets" that doesn't make you an expert at the far wider array of skills needed to survive and prosper in the real world. Sure you might have a 160 IQ and are able to instantly slice through any engineering problem that comes your way, but that alone will at best get you a permanent cubicle job as "Sr. Engineer".

That said, I agree that smart people have a far better chance of being able to learn the other skills. But the difference between the two outcomes relies largely on the attitude the person has. So the culture they're trained in should somehow instill in them the importance of the wider array of skills, so that the individual will internally emphasize and strive to learn them.

I'm not sure I agree with the analogy for MIT/Stanford as an _institution_ (in terms of the curriculum, administration's goals, etc.), but I definitely think it's true for the students and overall atmosphere.

Blowing things up and hacking on random projects :is to: MIT students || Starting a new business :is to: Stanford students

MIT folks also often use the word "Sloanie" (referring to someone in the business school) as a fairly derogatory term. (Though I guess this is a common view in general).

Not really relevant, but the Army isn't much better than the Marines at preparing soldiers for the real world...

That may or may not be true, but it doesn't mean that it's not their goal.

Here in the UK the Army's advertising is all about people who joined up and learned skills. I think the current one is about a girl who joined the Royal Signals and 8 years later she's an expert in "telecommunications" (it's an ad, so they're no more specific than that). By contrast the Royal Marines advertising is simple: "99% need not apply".

Functionally, ex-military folks often end up in DC doing government contracting or consulting related to military agencies and intelligence. So that's mainly for signals and intel guys. They earn way more money doing the same old job.

For everyone else, their skills are useless although pretty much everyone I outprocessed with were angstful stop-lossed guys wanting to go into law enforcement in their old towns.

Besides, the incentives are to keep people in the military, not train them to get out...so it's really either DC or bust.

I think you are mainly right. There are a small subset of us ex-Army folks with special skills that weren't signal or intel guys. That number is dwindling every year, partly because those highly skilled jobs (mine was calibration related) are being pushed to the DA civilian side. Also (as you correctly mention), you can do a short 4 or 5 year active tour, then get out into the civilian world and make literally 3 times the salary doing the same type of job.

I think the Army tries to pride itself on training people to get out ("Hey we pay for college, we help find you jobs when you are outprocessing!"), but the reality of the situation is that most of the Army isn't getting trained for their exit to the civilian world.

I know a couple navy engineers and air force computer techs who have gone on to successful private sector careers working on basically the same stuff they did in the military.

Don't forget about the medical people. Army Doctor/Dentist to civilian Doctor/Dentist is not a hard transition.

Anyway, I work in DC with a lot of army people (I am even typing this on an Army PC) and the biggest difference is Army people say I was a _ in the Army but the Marines just say I was in the Marines.

Wow. I don't know about Stanford, but she captured my MIT experience (Course 2, '95) perfectly.

Stanford student here, I don't much about MIT but I guess that's true of Stanford. I don't know if I buy the implication that Stanford is sacrificing the quality of its engineers for it, but she's definitely right about the focus. There is a lot of emphasis on entrepreneurship here.

I remember seeing Stanford advertise a full semester course in iPhone programmig back when developing for the iPhone got really popular. I don't think MIT had anything similar, and it does show how Stanford is willing to quickly adapt to today's software landscape.

Around the same time & if memory serves, I saw "Hacking the Google Interview" course by MIT so I guess that tells the story.

Heh. But the course you're referring to is 4 day IAP (January, the Independent Activities Period) course and clearly wasn't for credit.

There are some formal, frequently with a small amount of credit, more serious courses that are taught during IAP, like 6.092 "Introduction to Programming in Java" or even (as captured by OCW in in 2009) 6.096 "Introduction to C++".

Interesting. If you assume Carnegie Mellon and MIT are parallel (and in this respect, they are), this explains a lot about CMU :-)

I don't know about the army/marines analogy but I know that "IHTFP" would not have taken hold on Stanford campus :)

What about the Institute Screw Contest: http://www.mit.edu/~apo/big-screw/ ?

Note that while participants/targets have to agree to be in it, it is generally rewarded for poor preformance of one sort or another, e.g.:

1989 Gerald Sussman: for a really bad 6.002 term he taught.

1985 Shirley M. McBay: amazingly bad Dean for Student affairs.

1971 Ken Browning: Also a legendary Dean for Student affairs; a parody issue of the student newspaper was entirely dedicated to him. Although I don't know if he was indeed really bad, my only solid first hand info is from a member of a failing residential fraternity chapter.

Thought about it some more, seems if you want to use the arm forces analogy, MIT is more like Navy Seals Hell Week :) Tough while you're going thru it, but the friendships last a lifetime.


You're missing the point. Stanford being like the Army doesn't mean anything about any particular individual. It means that institutionally, [the engineering department at] Stanford consciously or unconsciously balances hardcore engineering fundamentals with making graduates industry-friendly, whether that means being Java/C++ heavy (which Stanford is), or encouraging spinoffs with IP policies, or whatever else. MIT (the OP thinks, and I find plausible) doesn't really institutionally pay attention to that in the same way. That doesn't mean that there are no hardcore fundamental Stanford people, or that MIT people can't go into industry.

If you scroll up to the other posts in that thread, it turns out to be a wider discussion about the role of MIT in research and the technology world overall, and in particular the claim that MIT was instrumental in solving a lot of the fundamental technical problems necessary for the Internet to work right, and that furthermore MIT was neutered in its ability to do such huge things by the cutoff of blue-sky DARPA funding in the early and mid 00's. And that, furthermore, a lot of the late-90's Internet boom in SV was dependent on MIT having solved these big fundamental problems, and that we should be worried that MIT is no longer doing things like this.

Rather outlandish, I'd say, but interesting, and at least worth talking about.

"Stanford being like the Army doesn't mean anything about any particular individual. It means that institutionally, [the engineering department at] Stanford consciously or unconsciously balances hardcore engineering fundamentals with making graduates industry-friendly, whether that means being Java/C++ heavy (which Stanford is), or encouraging spinoffs with IP policies, or whatever else. MIT (the OP thinks, and I find plausible) doesn't really institutionally pay attention to that in the same way. That doesn't mean that there are no hardcore fundamental Stanford people, or that MIT people can't go into industry."

Exactly. Up until very recently, MIT's introductory programming class (6.001) had the students learn Scheme, not for the purpose of learning Scheme, but to teach them general principles about algorithms. Nowadays, I believe they're using Python for that purpose. If a student wants to learn C++ or Java (or God forbid, Fortran), they're expected to get up to speed on their own time.

That's no longer true.

Some time ago the software engineering course and I think the compiler course changed from CLU to Java.

Now, for undergraduates, that which is not use Python (e.g. AI) uses Java, like the course 6.005, "Elements of Software Construction". Or MATLAB for a lot of EE.

Other departments have always had field specific introductory computing courses that teach whatever's relevant today, e.g. based on a quick skim of OCW, Java for civil engineering, "FORTRAN, C, C++, MATLAB, and Mathematica" for Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Python for Biological Engineering, etc.

From what I've heard, in EECS after the post-dot.com enrollment crash the order came from on high that Scheme was to be terminated with extreme prejudice in the basic undergraduate curriculum.

6.170 switched from clu to java not the compiler course 6.035.

The OCW versions that captured Fall 2002 (http://dspace.mit.edu/handle/1721.1/35804) with a MIPS target and Fall 2005 (http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/electrical-engineering-and-comput...) with a x86_64 target are in Java.

I'm just surprised that Buzz seems to have taken the place of FriendFeed.

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