Harvard Extension's ALM in Software Engineering

Aug 5, 2017


A few years ago, I finished my B.S. in Computer Science through UMUC, mostly online and while traveling in Germany as a Consultant for Red Hat. When I moved back to the US, I knew I wanted to use the remainder of my GI Bill entitlement on a Master’s degree. These days, there’s a lot of options for online programs - for example, Georgia Tech’s online MSCS program. My coworker did a nice write up of his experience so far.

I decided to opt for a local program, and narrowed down my choices between Tuft’s part-time M.S. in Computer Science, and Harvard Extension’s awkwardly named Master of Liberal Arts in extension studies, field: Software Engineering.

There’s a difference between computer science and software engineering, of course, but the Harvard ALM was flexible enough that I could include the theoretical stuff I wanted and it was easier to get to Harvard on public transportation.

The degrees from the extension school seem to be awkwardly named to differentiate the Extension school from the other more traditional schools at Harvard, lest someone be confused that my degree came from SEAS. Still, I don’t get why it’s a Master of Liberal Arts, that’s not really reflective of the coursework, and there’s been some effort to change that, although I doubt I’ll ever see it as I’m nearly done.

I’ve mostly taken one course at a time, but this year my awesome employer graciously let me take a leave of absence to study full time to wrap things up quickly as my GI Bill benefits expire soon.

Courses

CSCI E-97: Software Design Patterns

This class was a deep dive into software design patterns. It taught most of the key patterns from the “Gang of Four.” It was also a heavy deep dive into UML.

I thought the class was useful, but the material was dry. It is a required part of the ALM.

CSCI E-93: Computer Architecture

This and the following two classes (CSCI E-95, and E-92) were my best experience at Harvard so far. I used this class as my “theoretical foundations” requirement for the 3 admissions courses.

In this class, I built a computer processor from scratch. I designed an instruction set, wrote an assembler, an emulator, and then finally implemented the processor using VHDL that ran on a physical piece of hardware (an FPGA development board from Altera). My final project video is on YouTube.

This and the other 2 classes are designed such that if you work through each of the problem sets, you’ll get a working thing in the end. Out of all 3 classes, this one had more freedom as you could really design any kind of processor you wanted. Some people tried more adventurous things like stack machines or getting pipelining working, but this was my first experience at this layer so I ended up doing a 16-bit, mostly MIPS-like architecture. My final project’s special feature was an LFSR. Many students opt for interrupts or hardware multipliers as theirs.

If you end up taking this, go to section. It’s extremely useful and a lot of implementation suggestions are given.

If you want to take it with me, I’m a TA for the Fall 2017 class! It’s available as an online option, too.

CSCI E-95: Compiler Design

I wrote a compiler for a large subset of C using C along with classic compiler tools (Flex and Bison). Whereas many other universities teach classes where you only learn theory, or only implement a “simple” language - this class stood out in that you literally write a compiler for C and have to understand all of its quirks.

It’s essentially C89 minus structs, unions, and function pointers. The final project is implementing an optimization stage in the compiler, mostly adding simpler peephole optimizations on basic blocks. Many students also work on more advanced register allocation strategies like graph coloring.

My final project video is here.

It’s worth noting, I didn’t know even know C when I started the class, but I knew it pretty well by the end.

CSCI E-92: Operating Systems

In this class, we learned the important operating system concepts, and then implemented an OS on a Freescale K70 Tower. You start out writing a small shell, your own implementation of malloc, various system calls in the OS, and towards the end of the class everything comes together when you write own scheduler and get multitasking working.

My final project was a rather complete POSIX-like permissions system, and interrupt-based Semaphores. I also got multiple serial ports working on the device, which made the demos a little more interesting.

My final project video is here.

CSCI E-28: Unix Programming

This class dives into the details of how POSIX systems programming works (and more specifically, the class touches on a lot of Linux-specific things). I took this concurrently with CSCI E-92, which it was a nice complement for. I’d reccomend taking this first, or also concurrently, to see how real operating systems design their system calls.

During this class, I wrote a shell (a bit more complex than the one I wrote for CSCI E-92), a pong game using curses, as well as a multithreaded web server for my final project. I wouldn’t say this is a particularly demanding course if you’re already familiar with Unix-like operating systems and know C. Most of the problem sets come with significant starter code.

The class is taught by the author of Understanding UNIX/LINUX Programming.

STAT E-100: Intro to Statistics

This class was underwhelming. I was hoping for a deeper dive into R, but it was much more using R as a REPL with 99% of the R code given to us. It provided a good introduction to statistical concepts, but was rather shallow in the depth of the topics that were covered.

I also took this as an online-only class, as it was the only stat class that’d fit into my schedule. The video lectures were really great, however the problem sets were not very challenging and mostly multiple choice. I expected it to be a little harder, and was disappointed I blew one of my elective slots on this class considering I could’ve got this out of Khan Academy on my own.

There’s a few other statistics classes at Harvard Extension (100, 102, 110, etc), offered by a number of different instructors. Perhaps some are better than others.

PHYS S-123: Laboratory Electronics: Analog and Digital Circuit Design

This was an 8-credit (2 course) summer program that ran Monday through Thursday, 9 to 1pm (officially) over seven weeks. On days with labs, the time was more realistically 2:30 or 3pm. Add on homework and study time, I was getting home in the evening nearly every day.

Typically, this is taught as two separate classes: a semester on analog electronics and a semester on digital electronics. This summer school version is intense - covering this amount of material in 7 weeks is daunting, and for the summer course some of the more interesting things are removed. Instead of the “big board” path where you build up your own computer on breadboards, we worked with a SiLabs microcontroller that had most everything built-in.

Still, it was a great experience and I’m glad I took this class. The analog section starts off covering voltage, current, and resistance and building passive circuits. It moves on to transistors, both BJT and MOSFETs, and you go on to build an op amp from discrete parts to understand what’s inside. It goes on to cover op amps in detail covering usages of positive and negative feedback, and on the final day of the analog part of the course, we designed and built a group project that transmitted and received an audio signal using infrared light.

The digital part of the class starts off with boolean logic, HDLs, and logic gates. CSCI E-93 covered a lot of this, but the electronics were abstracted away from us in VHDL. In this course, you look at what’s actually inside both TTL and CMOS logic gates, build analog-to-digital or digital-to-analog converters from parts, design and build state machines using flip flops, etc. The final week of the class is working with the SiLabs microcontroller, and writing assembly programs for it.

The text book we used is The Art of Electronics, along with the accompanying student lab manual.

What’s left?

So the above is everything I’ve taken so far. For Fall 2017, I’m taking my final three classes before I take the capstone:

  • CSCI E-134: Networks - Explores game theory, social networks, etc at the intersection of economics and computer science. This one is run concurrently with the Harvard College version of the class.

  • CSCI E-15: Dynamic Web Design - A web design class is required, I wish I could’ve swapped this out for a more interesting elective. The class itself looks well put together.

  • CSCI E-55: Java and Hadoop - another required class, this meets the “Cloud” requirement. It’s a Java for programmers class. I already know Java, but it looks like the latter half the class covers Hadoop and the functional programming features of Java 8 which should be interesting.

And in Spring 2018, I only have to take the capstone course, which is the final course in the Master’s program. It involves a group project.

Alternative to the capstone is a thesis track. I still wonder if I should switch to it, but it’d delay my graduation by about a year. I still have a few months to make a final decision and get a proposal ready if I decided to go that route.

If you want to know anything else, let me know!