When KC Wang started teaching at Washington State University, computers were the size of a small room, ran on vacuum tubes and were mostly used by scientists and engineers, who used punch cards for programming.
The changes in computer science over the last 50 years have been nothing short of transformative. The revolution in information technology has transformed computers and reshaped society through the diffusion of computing power to the general public through PCs, laptops and smartphones.
Wang will be one of two 50-year honorees at the 2019 WSU Employee Recognition Reception. The system-wide celebration will be held Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019.
As he completes 50 years of teaching at WSU, Wang looks back with satisfaction at his role educating generations of computer scientists and programmers who have contributed to the information technology revolution. He is also the author of well-regarded textbooks on operating systems, computer architecture and systems programming, which are taught in classrooms around the world.
“When the Internet emerged in the early 90s, it changed the whole landscape, leading to a democratization of computer usage because PCs became more useful,” he said. This was also the period when enrollment in his classes surged.
“The overall demand for computer scientists and programmers has increased at an exponential rate over the past three decades,” he said.
Wang moved to the United States from his native Taiwan in 1962, with about two hundred dollars borrowed from friends and family, to study electrical engineering. His interest in engineering had started young.
As a boy, he was inquisitive about how things worked and how they were put together. “I was always interested in electronics, taking apart and tinkering with stuff,” said Wang.
Wang received a doctorate in electrical engineering from Northwestern University in 1965. After appointments at the University of North Dakota and Marquette University, he began teaching at WSU in 1969.
Wang, whose parents were both teachers, decided to go into teaching himself because he enjoyed academic life and had a strong desire to pass his knowledge on to the next generation.
“After graduating I had offers from industry, but I didn’t want to work in big cities. And Silicon Valley wasn’t really Silicon Valley yet.”
When he started at WSU, there were about 10 to 12 faculty members teaching electrical engineering, and only about five or six in computer science. From such humble beginnings, Wang has seen the department grow to its present capacity.
“A class of about 30 students used to be considered quite large,” said Wang, pointing out that the largest classes in computer science now have hundreds of students.
Wang remembers the wide open spaces on the WSU campus when he arrived in 1969 and being amazed by the college mascot Butch – then a live cougar who was brought out into the field during football games.
“Pullman was ideal for someone like me who wanted to live in a small college town and liked being close to nature,” he said.
When Wang joined WSU, there was no separate computer science major. Though trained in electrical engineering, Wang picked up computer science knowledge on his own, spending hours experimenting with vacuum tube computers, which fascinated him. Eventually he transitioned to teaching computer science full-time, especially classes on operating systems and embedded systems.
The vastly increased role for computing in society has also led to more need for well-trained computer science professionals who can adapt to a fast-changing technological landscape, said Wang.
“The goal of an undergraduate CS student should not just be to learn specific technologies but to get a solid, broad grasp of the core areas of computer science,” he added.
There are very real dangers to having only superficial knowledge as a CS major, Wang said. For instance, in the late 90s and early 2000s, there was a huge demand for IT professionals, due to the dot-com bubble. Many people simply trained quickly to learn how to set up something like a web server to find a job quickly, without any deep knowledge, said Wang.
When the bubble burst and the market crashed, many such people found themselves lacking the skills to adapt and survive. That is why a solid foundation in all aspects of computer science is crucial, he added.
“When I started teaching back in 1969, students were equally interested in the theoretical and applied aspects of computer science,” he said. Now the focus has shifted to mainly acquiring good programming skills, because of the vastly expanded job market for programmers.
Wang’s proudest moment in academia was when his textbooks on operating systems got published and adopted by a large number of computer science departments. “Every one of them was written for beginners,” said Wang, who wrote the textbooks mainly during breaks – summer, winter and Thanksgiving.
Wang chose to write books on operating systems because of their importance to every CS undergraduate in getting a good grasp on the field. “Though I’ve taught a wide variety of courses from AI to computer graphics, operating systems lie at the heart of it all, enclosing almost every area of computer science,” he said.
Money was not Wang’s motivation for writing the textbooks. He regards them as his academic legacy.
“Look, I worked for so many years on these topics, gathering and producing knowledge,” said Wang. “If I just retire and disappear quietly without leaving something behind, what’s the point?”
Another proud moment for Wang was when his son, who grew up in Pullman and went to the local high school, returned to recruit WSU students for Expedia, a global travel technology company.
When he’s not in class teaching or developing teaching material, Wang likes spending time in nature. “I enjoy fishing and being in the great outdoors,” he said.
To current and future CS students, Wang draws on his long experience to offer the following advice: “Come to college to enrich yourself. Your education must enable you to adapt and contribute to a fast-changing world, not merely to achieve the narrow goal of getting a job.”
Especially in a heavily technical subject like computer science, developing a serious interest and passion for the field is vital to success, said Wang.
What keeps him going, after all these years in teaching and academia? “Knowing that I can help students who come into the class with little prior knowledge, not only with information and skills but to help them apply what they learn, that gives me tremendous satisfaction and motivation to keep teaching.”