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»Many people still see computer science as something you do in the IT room with a bag of crisps and a coke«

The Department of Computer Science celebrates its 50th anniversary. In those 50 years, there has been an increase in the number of computers, and a small increase in the number of women. Still, the department has maintained a tightknit, small-scale spirit and has the university's only student-run canteen.

If you expect long corridors with computer rooms when you enter the Department of Computer Science’s building in the Universitetsparken complex in Copenhagen, you will be disappointed. In the student-run canteen, a couple of students sit with folded laptops. One is doing some math while two others are coding with coloured numbers and letters. It smells of food.

There were no laptops when the former student Flemming Sejergaard Olsen started his first year at the department in 1970. This was the same year as the Danish computer pioneer Peter Naur, who is the author of the concept of computer science, founded the department in the basement under the mathematics premises at Universitetsparken.

»We did not each have a computer, by no means. And no screens at all,« Flemming Sejergaard Olsen remembers.

Students wrote their programs on punched cards instead, where data was stored on pieces of cardboard with holes, in intricate and well-thought-out patterns.

»At that time, we could take them down and drop them off at a counter. Then we could, one by one, process our punched card in the one machine that the department had for sharing. It was as big as a refrigerator, stood in a large wardrobe, and would take an hour or two to process the cards before it spat out a printout with the results,« he recalls.

After that, the department moved out of the basement and took over one of the buildings of the medical study programme.

The Silicon Valley idea

There is a just-moved-in vibe at department head Jakob Grue Simonsen’s offfice, with moving boxes stacked up against one of the walls. He stepped in as head of department at the Department of Computer Science (DIKU) in April of 2021, but he has still not completely unpacked.

»My ambition was to empty one box a week. Things are not going so good. But they used to reach the ceiling.«

Computer science is a very exciting place to be these days, he says with enthusiasm. There are huge societal problems that computer science can help solve by using tools that are being developed right now. But he wants more than that.

We should not just use the tools they spit out in the US. We need to create our own.

Head of Department Jakob Grue Simonsen, Computer Science

 

»I would like to help maintain a balance, so that we both engage with the societal problems we face, while at the same time ensuring that we develop computer science, so that it is not just an applied science. I would like someone to do this sensibly, and I have to stand firm in my arrogance and say: I can do this,« he says, and slams his hands on the table.

»We should not just use the tools they spit out in the US, we need to create our own. This is my leading idea.«

Jakob Grue Simonsen’s dream is that the department is a place where the business community goes to develop new products.

»This may sound obvious. But we are competing with loads of state institutions, corporations and international players. If I go out as a company in Silicon Valley, I can go to Stanford or Berkeley and get what I want. We do not yet have this strong collaboration with the business community in Denmark.«

More people called ‘Rasmus’ than there are women

Another vision from the head of the department is to change the gender distribution at the department, which throughout its 50 years has been mostly men.

The first programmer in history was actually a woman. More specifically, the British woman Ada Lovelace, who was a countess in the 19th century and who conceived a simple algorithm that could theoretically run on an early precursor to what we now know as the computer.

»The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves,« the Countess said.

Today, there are significantly more men than women that weave algebraic patterns in the Department of Computer Science. In 2021, 21 per cent of places in the department’s three programmes were offered to women. If you include the department’s two co-operative programmes with other departments, communications and IT, as well as Health and Information, the number is 33 per cent.

Eva Enevoldsen is one of the women. When she started computer science in 2017, she was a part of the only 12 per cent women that were admitted in that year’s cohort.

I would very much like to include more in the concept of diversity. It’s not just women that we need.

Jakob Grue Simonsen, Head of Department, Computer Science

 

»It is still a very male-dominated study programme, but I feel that more space has been made for diversity since I started. There are clearly some conversations about being a woman in computer science that I feel I can take now, which I could not take during my first semester.«

»In the year cohort above me, there were more people called ‘Rasmus’ than there were women,« she states as a matter-of-fact.

The women on the degree programme are, on the other hand, more visible than their male peers. Because they stick out, but also because they are more involved in the social activities at the department, she reckons. She has been active herself in all the things she could. And it hasn’t always been easy.

»I still feel there is a reluctance towards having female leadership in the study programme environment,« she says. An important step towards equality is more female role models. Here the department is heading in the right direction with more new appointments of women.

»The diversity of the study environment at DIKU is improving, but I don’t think we are there yet.«

»There is no way, this is enough.«

Jakob Grue Simonsen agrees with her.

In March 2021, his department head colleague at the Niels Bohr Institute Jan W. Thomsen, launched an ambitious plan to get more women into professorships. In 2030, 35 per cent of associate professors at the Niels Bohr Institute are to be women, and among professors, the proportion should be 30 per cent within the same time frame.

Jakob Grue Sørensen has seen the plan, he says. He has employed more women during his time as head. But the Department of Computer Science should not have a plan like the Niels Bohr Institute. Not now, anyway.

»I would like to have many more women than we have right now. But I would very much like to widen the concept of diversity. We don’t only need more women,« he says, and hesitates for a moment.

»I am not avoiding this issue. But we do already have a number of projects going on, and I have to make sure that I don’t stress my organisation by setting more things in motion right now. But if you ask me if a bit more than 20 per cent female students is enough, then the obvious answer is: There is no way, this is enough. And a process like the one that the Niels Bohr Institute is going through, I see that in the future for DIKU.«

Crisps and coke

Jakob Grue Simonsen believes that part of the problem is due to prejudices about what computer scientists are like.

»Many people still see it as something you do in the IT room with a bag of crisps and a coke That’s not how it is, but it’s our responsibility to go out and say what it is. I think this will increase diversity. And with that, I don’t just mean gender balance. I believe that people from poor backgrounds, or who have other ethnic origins, should also have the chance to see that this is great.«

Compared to a normal university setting, the situation at the Department of Computer Science is a bit strange.

From the article in the Danish newspaper Politiken in 1971.

 

The department supports a number of initiatives to make more people curious about the subject of computer science, including the FemTech initiative, which organises workshops for female secondary school students. And the department is on the way towards a more diverse group of students, according to Jakob Grue Simonsen, who used to study at the department himself.

»When the computers became more popular, the typical student went from being a very science-oriented person to being someone who had seen some cool machines. This is when the computer geek image emerged. For me, it was the fascination with cool machines and playing computer games. And this is completely valid, and is an excellent way to become involved with your subject. What has happened in the course of the past 20 to 30 years is that computer science has won out, throughout the world. This means that many more people have become aware of the cool things you can do, and what kind of problems in the world that you can solve with the help of computer science. The motivation has changed completely,« he says.

»Somewhat strange situation«

There is a photograph of the former student Flemming Sejergaard Olsen. He stands on a lawn with a knitted sweater and 70s style spectacles in front of a tiny camp of tents.

The photo was taken on one of the trips to a remote farm in Sweden for the department’s employees and some student representatives during the first few years. When the first students came to the department, the degree programme was not fully prepared, and they had to help shape it themselves.

»It was a fantastic collaboration between instructors and students. Many of us had worked in business sector, and I had worked for two years as a programmer. So the teachers were interested in our input for the courses,« Flemming Sejergaard Olsen recounts.

In 1971 he was elected as the first, and last, student head of department. The Danish newspaper daily Politiken wrote:

»The situation at the Department of Computer Science is a bit strange compared to the normal university situation. Students and teachers work together, and have done so since the start of the department a couple of years ago.«

The ministry changed the regulations shortly afterwards so students could no longer be ‘department managers’ — which was the job title at the time.

Its own thing

According to student Jakob Lui Abramson it was »a bit DIKU-like« to appoint a student as head of department.

»DIKU is one of a kind, we do our own thing,« he says. He is studying on the bachelor’s degree programme in Machine Learning and Data Science and is on the academic council.

The close collaboration between students and the department has been revived with the new head of department, he says.

»Ever since I got here, I’ve tried to have our toilet signage changed. Our toilets are unisex, but there is still a pictogram of a man and a pictogram of a woman. I don’t think there is any reason for this when it’s potentially making someone sad, so I really wanted to change that. I was sent around in circles until Jakob Grue Simonsen started a dialogue forum with us students, and it has now been done. It’s great to be active here, because people hear you, and you can really get things done.«

Jakob Lui Abramson used to study at Cambridge, but the prestigious university doesn’t measure up in terms of study environment compared to its Copenhagen counterpart.

»You can go into the canteen and say ‘I got a 4’ and people say, ‘great dude, you passed the exam’. No one is focussed on grades. There are no sharp elbows. It’s an extremely relaxed study environment, and it’s really nice.«

Department head Jakob Grue Simonsen can hardly imagine what things will look like when you go into the Department of Computer Science in 50 years time.

»If you were to extrapolate from the developments that the field has gone through in the past 50 years, then computer science will include much, much more 50 years from now. It’s going to be a part of a host of other sciences. The type of things that you can do with machines will really take off, I think. Nobody can tell what things will be like. I imagine all computer science departments throughout the world will be five times bigger.«

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