Now there’s a question.
No, actually it’s kind of simple. Right after I had overcome my initial fear that being an actual student in a physical classroom together with a large number of 20-year-olds would be somewhat awkward at my age (hence I considered distance learning for a short while), it was screamingly obvious to me that I wanted to go to this particular school, and for quite a number of reasons.
In Hamburg (and with my wife having a good job here and our kids being in school and daycare, respectively, there was really no point in moving) there are basically five choices if you want to study CS, and two of these are so out of the way from where we live that we never seriously considered them, while Hamburg University of Technology, or TU Harburg, is widely considered very elitist and besides lies not quite in our neck of the woods either. Which left Hamburg University (UHH) and UAS as the only real candidates.
Now UAS has many obvious advantages over UHH. The CS department here has a reasonably good reputation, particularly with respect to offering an education with a primarily practical orientation. It’s not one of the top five or even top ten schools in Germany, but hey, who needs that, when it’s credibly reported that the software industry in the metropolitan area tries hard to snatch CS students away from UAS before they even graduate. If you watch the recruitment videos of UHH’s CS department, on the other hand, their professors pay brief lip service to applicability in describing their course of studies, but inevitably their next three sentences praise the high standard of research at their department. It’s a university, for Pete’s sake: it’s not called Computer Science for nothing. That you can also get a job with it is purely accidental. Or so it seemed.
Somehow that put me off. I had spent my days in the theoretical spheres of Academia for most of the past 20 years. I wanted to say good-bye to the ivory tower, not re-enter it from the back door. I also thought it would send the wrong signal to a potential employer. Studying at UAS would emphasize that I really wanted to work in a job, not just switch disciplines.
Then I watched some video recordings of introductory CS courses at UHH, and one thing was obvious: You would have to share your professor with about 500 co-students. At UAS, we are about 60 freshmen in Applied CS, and that’s considered a very large semester group (the more usual number being around 45). UHH is one of the largest universities in Germany, with about four times the number of students compared to UAS, and like most universities it’s sadly understaffed. The overall figures for students to teachers for the CS department at UAS, conversely, point to a favorable ratio of about 35 to 1, which means you actually get to talk to your professor when you need to. Two months into our first term, our Programming 101 professor knows most of us by name. In our bi-weekly practical exercises, we get two teachers who have four hours to check the coding work of 8 to 12 students, line by line. That’s fairly intense. I just can’t see that happen with 500 people.
One final point was Math. I have no real problems with Math, in fact I quite enjoyed it at school as long as it didn’t get overly theoretical, and of course we do quite some Math here at UAS at well. But at UHH it seemed predominant in the CS courses of studies. The fundamental difference being that at UHH the CS department grew out of the Math department, which seems the standard genealogy for the discipline, while at UAS it’s a spin-off of the electrical engineering department. And that really tells you all about the priorities in either of the cases: It’s theoretical/top-down vs. practical/bottom-up. If you leave four UAS CS students alone in a room for as many weeks, they will likely come out having built a robot that does something more or less useful, depending on your point of view, or having constructed a new surround sound system, or having done something innovative in the AI field. If you do the same with four UHH CS students, I imagine they will have found a new way to calculate the one-millionth decimal place of the number Pi. And then they will go on to write a doctoral thesis about it.
Just to be sure, I applied at both UHH and UAS, but with UAS as my clear priority. I got accepted into both (with the German system of Wartezeiten, or waiting time, which you accumulate simply as the years since you left school go by, and which increase your chance of being accepted, it was really a foregone conclusion at my age), but didn’t hesitate a moment to choose UAS. So far, I am sure I was right.