Russian calendar image from 1919

ArsDigita University, Five Years Later


Ever been a part of something special? Something unique? Something groundbreaking? I was a part of something like that, when I read the following words off a webpage in spring of 2000:

"Our goal is to offer the world's best computer science education, at an undergraduate level, to people who are currently unable to obtain it."

Five years ago, Arsdigita University graduated its first and only class of 27 individuals. I was one of them. The program was the brainchild of Philip Greenspun, founder of Arsdigita Corporation, and was meant to be a new experiment in education, both online and in the classroom. Five years later, we've all split and gone our seperate ways, but the website it still up and serving the lectures and materials.

It's been a long road since then, but hey, it was a long road during too. What follows is a brief history of me, and my life, in Arsdigita University.

My Career: Pre-Arsdigita Days

I first found Philip Greenspun's site in Ukraine around 1999. I had just gotten a new computer and was able to start using things like the browser and email. I had used email for work for three years prior to that, but we only had a 386 laptop with command-line UUCP programs to connect, grab email and disconnect. In the world of the Web, I was a definitely a late bloomer.

It wasn't always this way; thanks to my father's career at IBM for thirty-odd years, we had a computer around the house since 1980. My first computer was an IBM PC jr (!!!), and I did pretty well in the computer math courses that were in high school that taught me Pascal. However, going into university I felt at the time that I wanted a well-rounded and liberal arts education. I majored in English, and switched ro russian after spending a year in St. Petersburg.

So, in a nutshell, I wandered off the math-and-hard-science road that most computer science majors take. I graudated, got a job, had many life-enriching experiences, but found out that I wanted a better career, something that I had some experience in. Returning to Texas in 1999, I wanted to go back to school and earn a second degree, this time in Computer Science.

The problem was, it would take four semesters. Wait, eight semesters. Well, maybe only six and a half semesters. Those were the answers that the undergraduate Computer Science department of the University of Texas kept telling me, anyway. Since the curriculum was a long list of courses based on prerequisites, I couldn't take many of them in parallel, and would have to go through the same chute-and-ladder route that all the college freshmen were taking, the route that usually takes four to five years to complete.

So, in the fall of 1999, I enrolled in a few courses and got a job. I was hopeful that something else would come along before I had to complete four more years of coursework, studying alongside students who were ten years younger than I was.

Luckily, I clicked back onto Philip's site in spring of 2000, and found a link stating "me and my friends are starting a new university." Intrigued, I clicked further.

The Future's So Bright...Well Not Really

I had read most of Philip's online book before 2000, and while I didn't absorb any of the SQL or Oracle tips at that time, I did absorb most of the stories about the creation of Arsdigita Corporation. The salaries, the attitude that Philip had about treating engineers, the sports car that was driven by the employee with the most referrals that month...well, it was all part and parcel of the spirit of the times, I guess. Spirit or not, it was intoxicating. So to hear that Philip was starting up his own university where a select few would learn everything about computer science from MIT lecturers in the space of eleven months and P.S. it's for free, well, heck, where do I sign up?

So, I filled out an online application. The application was pretty streamlined, compared with other online college applications I had filled out at the time, and after a while I got a message requesting an interview.

The first interview was with Rajeev and Luis, both Arsdigita employees who later went on to teach at the University. The interview was mostly problem-solving questions, and while they did not rely on a lot of math or stats, they did elicit how people work problems out. The second interview was a one-on-one phone conversation with the Man In the Black T-shirt Himself, Philip Greenspun. I remember gushing a little, since I had already read his book, seen his photos, and thought I grokked a lot about the geek wunderkind. Gushing a little? Okay, maybe I couldn't shut my trap. But the end result was that I got an email that said I was in, so my wife and I packed up everything and moved to Boston in August of 2000.

No Shorts Until Databases

Through all of the copy that was written before, during and after our time at Arsdigita University, only Michael Yoon hit the nail square on the head about living in Boston and going to Arsdigita University:

"To attend ArsDigita University, you didn't have to pay tuition. (Of course, you did need enough money to live in Cambridge, MA for 10 1/2 months while attending classes full-time.)"

My wife and I had actually been shrewd enough to go ahead of time in July of 2000, and start to look at a few places before the big move. This was still in the last days of the Internet gold rush, and places were hard to get. We phoned everywhere, saw about ten places, and picked one in Beacon Hill. Others weren't so lucky, and many had to show up in August and grab an apartment over the phone, sight unseen.

Moved-in or not, things got underway at beginning of September, and we got to know the rest of our classmates, professors, and Arsdigita Foundation staff. We also got to settle into what we called the 'Ivory Basement'; a large, communal office that had all of our workstations, complete with Aeron chairs and free coffee, juice and soda.

The first month got everyone going; Mathematics for Computer Science was a course that combined calculus and linear algebra in four weeks. Every Sunday the exams were given out, which set the pace for the rest of the year. It turns out that taking classes at UT was not such a bad thing, since that allowed me to feel confident in the material..for about the first two weeks, anyway.

After the first course came Scheme and SICP, then Discrete Math, then How Computers Work. By then, those of us who were not from Massachusetts originally got to get a feel of the winter months, and one of the students wrote on the whiteboards, 'No shorts until Databases', referring of course to our Database class in June. We also got used to a couple of odd things that were taking place around us:

We would see Philip rarely, if at all. This did not seem like a bad thing at the time, since we all knew that Philip was a busy CEO of a company that had just gotten funding from venture capitalists. More on this later.

We did not expect to be alone in the Ivory Basement, but that was how it turned out. Arsdigita was actually renting the entire basement and first floor of a building in downtown Cambridge, with the expectation that Arsdigita Corporation workers would soon be joining us after they outgrew their lavish digs on Prospect Street. They never showed up.

There was no sink, and no bathroom to speak of. A water main got cut off during construction, we were told, and so the entire basement didn't really have plumbing. We were content to use the bathroom on the first floor, but in an office with free drinks and no place to pour out the old drinks...well, you get the idea. Several of us volunteered to carry up a vase that quickly became the 'spitoon' of the office, to empty up on the first floor.

Christmas came and went, as did the Java class during the month of January. Algorithms was next, which was a tough month for many of us. March would be the Systems course, and then April would be Philip's own Software Engineering for the Web course, which many of us had come specifically to attend. So far, things were good.

March, then April

howl at your display
super Seth mojo is on
you've no where to hide

Quake players can't hide
from the burning gaze of Shai
grade rune: incomplete

I won't try to hide it. For the Systems course, I got a big fat C. Part of this was due to my huge Quake addiction, which the haikus above can attest to. Professor Luis, to his credit, did a fine job with the Systems course. However, it was also a rough month for a number of reasons.

People had been generally upbeat for most of the time at Arsdigita University because we were in a free and easy academic environment. Nobody had really asked too many harsh questions of the leadership like Will this program actually be certified and How will future years of the program be different and How will the Foundation pay for the next year of the program because we were busy studying and enjoying the time spent learning. Most of us chalked that up to the work of the Arsdigita Foundation staff, who had been working in the very next office next to the Ivory Basement.

The straw that broke that camel's back apparently was our not being invited to the Arsdigita Pi Day, on March 14th. I didn't really care, but apparently there was free food and a chance to socialize with the Arsdigita Corp workers, which we didn't often get to do. Some people were a little miffed, going so far as to say that they just don't think anything of us over there.

A few days later, all the Arsdigita Foundation staff were let go. So I guess somebody over there thought something of us after all. We had an all-hands meeting with Tracey Adams and got her to at least agree that everyone would finish this year. By the end of the month, Arsdigita had announced to the rest of the world that their funding was cut and that there would be no second class.

It also sunk in that Arsdigita University's program would never be certified as an official degree, and we would all have to find jobs in July, in the middle of the tech bust, with a certificate that was interesting but meant nothing.

This was the kind of funk that Philip Greenspun came to in April to teach his course.

Software Engineering for the Web, Kind Of

Before April 2001, we had been talking about Philip's course, and a few general statements had been made about it that we thought we knew for certain. Design superstar Edward Tufte was supposed to come visit. The course was based on the all-Linux courses that Philip had been teaching in the past. The course was based on Philip's glossy book which everyone had read and knew very well.

Well, one of the above sentences was true anyway.

At the end of March, we were told that thirty-two Microsoft computers were on their way to our campus, and that the course would have a .NET component. We had been faithfully working away on Linux boxen all this time, and hadn't been near a Windows product in the lab since we began in September. Oh yes, and no Edward Tufte.

We got the Dell boxen right on time for the course, and after a marathon session of cutting and crimping, set up a second network on top of the first, so that we had wireless Linux and a wired Windows 2000 box on each desk. Then, the hacking began.

Philip wanted to teach out of a new book he was writing at the time called Software Internet Engineering Workbook. We formed teams and were all given a choice to pick any platform we wanted to work on. Four teams picked the .NET platform, since it was provided by Microsoft free of charge for us to use. Microsoft also supported several new TAs to come to the class and help us learn the new technology.

Many of us, however, stuck with Linux and picked one of several technology stacks. Many chose the tried and true stack of Oracle + Tcl + Aolserver, which had been taught in previous courses. One team in particular chose to work on Postgres + Ruby + Apache, and produced something that looked a lot like Ruby on Rails. I was in a team that chose to use Postgres + Python + Aolserver. Only one team chose the J2EE + Tomcat + Linux stack, and if I knew then what I knew now (that is, I would be architecting large OSS projects in J2EE/Java EE for Akaza Research) that would have been the platform I would have chosen too.

In the end, it was much like any project; we were overworked, the client wanted more, and we worked up until the last hour to get the project done. It was a great experience, even with all the last minute changes and new curriculum. The presentation day came, but Philip was not there to judge our final products. We found this annoying but took it in stride, more or less. What we didn't know was that on presentation day, Philip was being deposed in the case of Greenspun v. Shaheen in Delaware.

Many of you who are reading this far have probably already read Philip's From Start-up to Bust-up, Eve Andersson's Diary of a Start-up, and Michael Yoon's Arsdigita: An Alternate Perspective. What's more interesting reading are all the court documents for the Greenspun v. Shaheen case, which were posted to this site during the trial. The redacted statements of the plaintiffs are surreal, and the creation of the Foundation seems to figure significantly in the document, even though most of the details were removed.

Even working with Philip during the month of April, we didn't get to see a lot of him, or hear a lot about the case. Many of us followed the entire affair online, just like the rest of the planet. Together with the rest of you, we also found a blank screen at Philip's site one day, telling us that he had settled amicably with Arsdigita Corp but could never comment on it again.

The rest of the year seemed to flash by after the end of April. The high point academically after that was a week that we spent with Patrick Winston from the AI lab, which was a real boost for most of us. Aside from lecturing in the morning, he took some time in the afternoon to reflect on the AI 'business of software' and was very enlightening. I started interviewing in some places, but nothing concrete ever materialized. None of us had any illusions about working for Arsdigita Corp after the end of the program.

And so, on the 15th of July 2001, thirty-two people came together and were awarded certificates of participation in Arsdigita University, all signed by Shai Simonson. Philip was there, as was Eve and Alex. The last time I talked with Philip was later that summer when he was working for Orange. As everyone knows, Arsdigita Corporation shuttered its doors about six months later when it was sold to Red Hat in February 2002.

As far as I know, no one rented the Ivory Basement after we moved out. That bit about no running water probably had something to do with it.

Where We've Been, What We're Doing

Since then, we all went our seperate ways and did seperate things. Some of us had kids. Some of us cut an album. (Some of us even had both the kid and the album.) Many of us moved back to where we came from and many of us got jobs in new places and moved there instead.

At the beginning of this year, I asked around and compiled a short list of past, current and future employers of Arsdigita University alumni. They are the following:

The International Finance Corporation
The Inter-American Development Bank
Akaza Research
Speechworks (now Scansoft, er, Nuance)
Voxiva, Inc.
GCAS, Inc.
Ineoquest Technologies
Latham and Watkins
The New York Times
Reed College
Bentley College
Vertex Pharmaceuticals

Our TAs also went on to get jobs in the following firms:

Bluefin Robotics
Breakaway Imaging

We also went back to school, believe it or not. Arsdigita alumni have gone on to study at the following places:

Bentley College's MS in Information Technology program
The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University
Tufts University's MS in Computer Science program
Yale University's Social Robotics Lab
NYU School of Law
University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business
University of Michigan's MS in Information

A Not-so-brief Note of Thanks

If you're read this far down, you're really dedicated and I owe you a beer or something. This has not tried to be a scandalous tell-all about life in the VC-controlled Arsdigita Corporation, nor has it tried to be a starry-eyed memoriam to Arsdigita University. We worked hard, we went on to get jobs, and in many ways the University helped us in our next careers.

We all have Philip Greenspun to thank for that. Philip generated a spectacular idea that propelled the idea of online education forward for the entire Internet. Let me explain that last sentence a bit.

MIT did not create OpenCourseWare until Arsdigita University completed its second month. Other universities followed suit by creating their own program that provided content online, and now it's hard to find a university without a alternate-learning/distance-learning program on the Internet today. Even a social-science institution like the Fletcher School now has the GMAP program, intended to reach a global audience and allow for them to meet twice a year and learn in their own countries the rest of the time.

Since Arsdigita, other universities have elected to create computer science programs for degreed students that are intensive in nature, like the Arsdigita experience; Southern Methodist University's Guildhall 18-month program comes to mind. Few or none of these programs were around, or they were not of the quality that Arsdigita proposed to us five years ago. (None of these, however, have been for free. Arsdigita University is still unique in that sense.)

What Philip imagined, ADUni Director Shai Simonson put into place and made it run. I think everyone at the University will agree with me that we owe Shai a deep, deep debt of gratitude for keeping the University running, even after the Foundation staff were sacked and the University was threatened with early closure.

We also have each other to thank. The only reason we didn't crash and burn as an entire class was because we were able to work together as a team, and study in an intense environment for ten and a half months. We made Philip's dream a reality just as much as Philip or Shai did. In the graudate programs I have been in since ADUni, a lot of the students have had their eyes on the prize of a certified piece of paper, and have been more interested in furthering their own academic records than helping each other solve the vexing problems of coursework and computer science and learn something. if we had graduated and all started a company together in 2001, it would have been great fun.

In my current job at Akaza Research, I sit about a block and a half away from the site of ADUni. If you never had an Internet connection, you would never know that Arsdigita Corporation ever existed--the HQ is now a permenant wing of Cambridge College, and as I mentioned before, the basement has been vacant ever since 2001. The lectures we videotaped, however, and have been downloaded and enjoyed for the entire time since then, and have served as a lasting resource for the public Internet.

This post has turned from a short article into a personal history, but I think it captures a little bit of the spirit and challenge of ADUni. I also hope that this gives future employers an idea of what the entire experience was about. Sometimes, I miss it a little. Then I remember that we had to work on Sundays, and I still miss it.

In short, thanks for everything. It was great fun.

Originally posted on July 3, 2006. Comments can be posted here.