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Udacity contest winners visit Silicon Valley

From July 7-10, Udacity hosted the four winners of our Intro to Computer Science contest. Below, Conner Mendenhall, one of the winners, writes about his experience visiting Udacity’s offices, recording studios, and other landmarks of the Silicon Valley, including Google and the California Academy of Sciences.

Intro to Computer Science winners (from left to right): Jag Talon, Conner Mendenhall, Sascha Coenen, Liang Sun

“Don’t worry,” Peter Chapman, Assistant Instructor at Udacity, reassures me as I come out of the recording booth.

“Everyone thinks they were awful the first time they record. The editors will make you look good.”

I hope he’s right. I’ve just spent 35 minutes in one of the closet-sized, soundproof rooms where Udacity instructors record their video lectures, and I emerged exhausted and exasperated. My assignment was simple: record a short demonstration of DaveDaveFind, the basic search engine I built using the skills I learned in Udacity’s Intro to Computer Science. After fumbling around, trying to make my pen color green, scrawling and erasing an indecipherable diagram I intended would represent a search index, and stumbling through a halting explanation of Python web frameworks, I have a new found appreciation for the concise explanations that Udacity instructors record for their own courses.

It’s only after I unclip my microphone and take a deep breath that an extraordinary thing hits me: this video could be seen by hundreds of thousands of students all over the world. I really hope Peter is right about those editors.

Working to deliver university-level education designed for the web to students everywhere is a tough problem and an enormous opportunity. As a winner in Udacity’s Intro to Computer Science contest, I had a chance to visit the Udacity offices and see their solution to the higher-education problem for myself: put lots of smart people in the same room and work really, really hard. As a Udacity student, programmer, and real-world graduate, I learned a lot from my visit.

My fellow contest winners came from all over the world, reflecting the global makeup of the Udacity student body. Liang, from Beijing, built an apartment search application. Sascha, from Hamburg, built a video search and visualization tool. Jag, from Maryland by way of the Philippines, wrote an all-in-one command line search program. All of us took Intro to Computer Science, but came from different backgrounds; from complete novices to experienced programmers.

Part of our visit included seeing the sites in Silicon Valley and nearby San Francisco. Walking through the indoor rainforest at the California Academy of Sciences, seeing the AI labs at Stanford, and eating lunch in the enormous Googleplex cafeteria was a lot of fun.

But the most rewarding part of the trip was meeting the Udacity staff — all of whom were eager to talk about programming and hear feedback about the website and course content.

Meeting my instructors offline was a surreal highlight of the trip. Though we’d never met in person, I felt like I already knew Sebastian, Dave, and Peter (they’re as friendly in person as they seem online — and as excited about changing higher education).

As a Udacity student, the visit left me excited for the upcoming courses that Udacity is hard at work preparing (sorry, no spoilers!), and happy that the instructors and engineers think hard about how users like me interact with the site. Unlike earlier experiments with online education, Udacity classes feel like they belong on the web.

During my visit, I learned that this is no coincidence — it’s the result of lots of decisions by engineers, instructors, and designers. It’s nice to know that there are people paying fanatical attention to how well I’m learning and what they can do to improve the experience.

As a programmer, I had a chance to see how much I’ve already learned. For example, my contest entry runs on Google App Engine, which also powers the Udacity site. Even though I’m still pretty new to programming, I learned a lot from Udacity’s engineers and assistant instructors about building and revising a big web application. My visit also showed me how far I have to go, and some of the projects, problems and opportunities that might come from learning more computer science and programming.

As a recent graduate, the trip was a great chance to see a hardworking startup company in action. Working at a startup means long hours and demanding projects, but also the opportunity to work with talented people, solve interesting problems, and create useful things every day. It’s also an environment where skills really matter — not just the degree on your wall. That’s a worthy trade-off, and it encouraged me to add my resume to my Udacity profile and think about working at a startup or tech company myself. I just hope that video turns out well.