Office Hours with David J. Malan

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The popularity index of David J. Malan ’99, the lecturer of the hugely popular but also notoriously brutal Computer Science (CS) 50 course at Harvard College, skyrocketed after Harvard Thinks Big, a recent collaborative effort between the CEB, HUTV and the UC that assembled a team of 10 Harvard professors, each of who gave a 10-minute presentation on any topic that they are passionate about.

In that all-star lineup of captivating thinkers and speakers, Malan stood out with his energetic pitch for CS50, complete with an impassioned ripping of a phonebook to demonstrate binary search. He is the youngest speaker, with a statuesque figure and a sleek sense of style, and that definitely did not hurt.

Unsurprisingly, in the evening that shortly precedes Valentine’s Day, Malan emerged as the latest HarvardFML and ISawYouHarvard (ISYH) sensation, inspiring hordes of sexually frustrated posts that ranged from desperate pleas “Be my Valentine!” to sincere compliments of his attractiveness and charisma.

“The Guy Who Never Left”

Sitting in his office on the third floor of Maxwell Dworkin, Malan seems quintessentially “Harvard.” Seemingly plain and terse in his blue jeans and conservative blue sweater, Malan actually packs a boxful of pleasant surprises. Hailing from Connecticut, he spent his undergraduate years at Harvard, three of which in Mather House ­–“The best house!” he declares– went on to Harvard graduate schools for his Master and Doctorate in Computer Science, and is now lecturing in the College and the Extension School. He is, in his own words, “the guy who never left.”

“Almost,” he quickly appends, explaining that he left Harvard for three years, moving to Philadelphia for one of them for a startup, taught at Tufts for half a year, then continued to moonlight there for the summer.

“So I kind of left,” Malan says. “But I always came back.”

The Beginning

It is very hard not to be captivated by Malan. He has an interesting story. Originally a Government concentrator, he took CS50 during his second year at Harvard, and as they say, the rest is history. What started out as a whirlwind romance with an elective transformed over the years into a longstanding and committed relationship. It was love at the first p-set.

“It was the first time that, quite literally, homework was fun,” he says. “On the very last possible day, I changed from Pass/Fail to Graded status, and at the end of the semester, I re-declared my concentration as computer science.”

The event that sparked off Malan’s journey towards becoming a lecturer was, interestingly enough, his failed bid for the UC presidency in his junior year. You learn from your failures, and what Malan took away from this “miserable” lost was the realization that he needed to polish up his public speaking skills.

He joined the Harvard Computer Society (HCS), he said, with the intention of taking over their seminars program and the occasional classes that were offered to students on campus.

The HCS stint then led to a paid job as a Teaching Fellow at the Extension School, and finally the golden opportunity to lecture for the same course when its original lecturer unexpectedly stepped down. Malan, then a senior in his final semester of college, found himself lecturing for an audience of about 100 students, with his five or six friends as TFs.

“We all had a great time,” he reminisces.

He clearly did, because barely eight years later, Malan came full circle and took the lecture stand at the College, for the very same course that ignited his passion for computers in the first place.

It is the classic story of how a student arrives at Harvard with a preconceived notion of how his path at school and life will proceed, takes an unexpected turn, and never looks back. It is the story that you probably embody yourself, but amazes you all the same once you hear it directly from another.

Computers, Computers, Computers

Somehow, computers always find their way back into our conversation, leaving nary a tinge of doubt where Malan’s passion in life lies. He can talk about computers for hours, with a glint in his eyes as he savors the opportunity to engage in the one topic he loves the most.

I try to stealthily veer the conversation into more Voice-y territories, probing him about his social life and his experience at Harvard. Malan answers my inconsequential questions dutifully and thoughtfully, but I could tell he was dying to get back to speaking about programming and web applications.

During his time at the College, Malan was a User’s Assistance on campus and for three years, ran the Frosh IM program with his Mather roommate. It was during this period of time that he wrote one of the first programs for campus, which was to replace the piece of paper used at the time for registration with a website. That was when Malan taught himself how to make Website.

A typical day in his life now revolves around Harvard-specific application and coding projects like Shuttleboy, Harvard maps, Harvard tweets, Harvard news, etc., which are all hosted on CS50.net.

One gets the feeling that Malan treats and treasures these projects like a father would his kids–with much attention and pride. And in a way, they are his children. He excitedly broke the news to me that Shuttleboy –the application that allows users to access the shuttle schedule easily via text messages–received over 2,000 texts in the course of the past week.

When asked what he thinks a computer-less world would be like, he pauses before finally answering, “Both less stressful and less fun.”

What strikes me the most about Malan, besides his palpable love for the “geeky” branch of science, was that he evoked the rare sense of security that can only be found in someone so consumed in his passion that he remains oblivious in seeing his own allure.

“Dorky”, “boring”, and “very boring” are but some of the less-than-flattering terms he uses to describe his collegiate self at Harvard years ago.

Malan has a problem with CS50’s reputation as a “monster” course that undeniably prevents many students, including himself in his freshman year, from taking it. He called the concern valid but unfortunate.

“More than 70 percent of the class had never taken CS before, so its absolutely not the case that most students of the course had taken AP CS or were geeks in high school and knew everything there was to know about programming,” Malan clarifies. “It’s very much the opposite.”

“Finals Clubs or Fraternities?” I encourage Malan to answer one last question before walking out of his office, even though I already know the answer.

“Neither. That was never my scene. Though I was actually invited to dine at The Spee last night. I was finally cool enough to eat at a finals club.”

He finishes the sentence with a gentle smile that in many ways encapsulated perfectly who Malan is: kind, unpretentious, and almost unsettlingly inspiring.

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