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Grinnellians you should know (or know about): W. Blake Creasey ’16

Part of an ongoing series about the folks that inhabit or have inhabited our campus.

In a recent essay, I noted that I would not write essays about individual current students [1]. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t write essays about recent alums. So let’s consider W. Blake Creasey ’16. How do I describe Blake? Maybe I’ll start with something Blake said at the recent panel on CSC 321/22 [2]. Janet asked the panelists what they’d learned from working on the CSC 322 projects. Blake’s response was I’ve been thinking carefully about that. He then followed up with After all, I had to write an essay about that at the end of each semester [3]. Everyone laughed. But I laughed for a different reason; I laughed because I’ve been thinking carefully about that summarizes my experience with Blake. Whenever I talk to Blake about something (or whenever he writes to me about something), I find that he’s thought carefully about that. Blake reflects carefully on his classes, on his travels, on people he grew up with, on himself, on what he learns, and more. As a teacher, it’s wonderful [4] to have a student like that.

Blake came to CS relatively late. I think he took CSC 151 [5] in his third semester at Grinnell. And he discovered he liked it (or at least I think he did). But Blake was ambitious: He wanted to be able to study abroad in Budapest in his fifth semester at Grinnell, and knew that he needed to have completed our three-course introductory sequence by then. So he took CSC 161 [6] in the spring, and found a summer equivalent to CSC 207 [7]. I had enjoyed having Blake as a student until that point, but in his summer course he really started showing me how carefully he paid attention to things. Over the course of the summer, he wrote me a sequence of emails to explain what he found was different in the teaching model of that course and ours, one of which was that we provided more feedback [8].

Then Blake went to Budapest for the AIT program. As had become his wont, Blake sent me a few emails to let me know how his courses were going. Blake’s opinions of CS seemed to change over that time; he was less interested in the thrill of programming and more in the impact that computing could have. His letters were generous in many ways. He wrote about many different things: his classes, his travels, and even what his peers were doing.

In his last three semesters at Grinnell, Blake continued his CS major (thankfully) and thought much more carefully about what he wanted to do. One of the highlights of that time for me was Blake’s presentation on his summer internship working with Watson technology. Blake, better than most students I know, thought carefully about a wide variety of technological implications, focusing not just on the technology, but how it could be used and abused.

I started this essay with CSC 322; it seems reasonable to end it with the same course. This past year, I saw a lot of Blake in CSC 322. Blake’s team in the fall was excellent. He had Zoe, Zhi, David, and Albert; four of my favorite seniors [9]. They had the opportunity to start a new project, and managed to almost complete the project in one semester. In contrast, most of our projects have taken four semesters. They also managed to convince folks that the project could be used beyond our community. Blake was passionate enough about the project that he returned for a second semester. His goal was to get it ready for release, and he and the second team came close, But they got to experience the wonder of working with an external IT department. I appreciate Blake’s thoroughness in trying to push through that; I wish he’d been more successful [10]. But I think he learned a lot. No, I know he learned a lot, because he spoke well about what he’d learned in the panel at reunion.

Blake has now gone on to consulting. I expect his intelligence and his thoughtful approach to thinks will make him an excellent consultant. I’ve left out a lot about the various conversations we’ve had, and we’ve had a lot of them. But I think this essay covers the high points. I’m sure I’ll get a thoughtful reply [14]. I will miss the in-person conversations, but I look forward to the occasional email with his careful reflections. And I can’t wait to hear his reflections in five years when he returns for the next CS reunion, or even just a session of Learning from Alumni.

Whoops! I usually end alumni profiles with a suggestion of why you should contact the alum. This profile seems to be a bit more straight praise. But I think you’d learn a lot from talking to Blake about his trajectory through Grinnell, and I think he might also offer some good tips about how and why to reflect more carefully on what you do. Oh, he’s also a great person to ask about John Stone.

I’m pretty sure he’ll Skype in for Learning from Alumni next year, so that’s one opportunity to hear more. Blake also tells me that he’ll be returning to the College in April for Admitted Student Weekends because Admissions considers him an awesome ambassador for the College [15,16]. In any case, that’s probably also an opportunity to catch a few minutes of his time.

[1] Or should that be current individual students?

[2] CSC 321 is Software Design Principles and Practices. CSC 322 is Team-Based Software Development for Community Organizations.

[3] Blake took CSC 322 twice so that he could finish his project.

[4] And, I will admit, a bit challenging.

[5] Functional problem solving, our first course, which emphasizes the basics of computational thinking, using Scheme. We cover recursion, higher-order procedures, and more.

[6] Imperative problem solving, our second course, which emphasizes memory management and related issues, using C to force students to think more under the hood.

[7] Object-oriented problem solving, our third course, which is a traditional Data Structures and Algorithms course with some OOP sprinkled in.

[8] Stop laughing. While I don’t grade a lot, when I do grade, I provide feedback beyond it works and it doesn’t work. I provide information on style, on algorithm design, and more. I’m pretty sure that everyone in the department does.

[9] Okay, the class of 2016 was an awesome class. Almost all of them fall among my favorite seniors.

[10] The class mentors and I have decided that we should probably try hosting on a PaaS [11] instead of relying on our partners’ IT infrastructures. One partner thinks that’s a great idea. I’m planning a meeting with our other partner over winter break to try to convince them of the benefits of having us host. And I’m trying to get the College to fund it all.

[11] Platform as a Service, like Heroku.

[12] Or ten years, depending on what DAR permits.

[14] I was wrong. The first reply ended with Apologies for the shorter than usual email. I am [on vacation] with my family along with photographic evidence. But I anticipate a longer response later.

[15] Why do I not find that surprising?

[16] My, a lot of words in that sentence started with the letter a.

Version 1.1 of 2016-11-26.