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Guntis Arnicāns: Our greatest value is our people
Guntis Arnicāns: Our greatest value is our people

Why IT-specialists are compared to cats? Interview with Professor Guntis Arnicāns
By Antra Sprēde

Professor Guntis Arnicāns, the new Dean of the UL’s Faculty of Computing (FC), finds the greatest treasure of the faculty in its people – students and academic staff. In this interview, the new Dean explains how computer science has become the most valued by employers and one of the most desirable among students, and why IT-specialists are compared to cats.

Plenty of funding but no students

Your bachelor programme Computer Science is the most recommended by employers in 2017. This year it is also one of the most popular programmes in the unified admission. How did you achieve that?

There were no significant changes this year – everything is about the same. But we can look at the popularity of the programme from different perspectives. I usually say that there are three big players in the area of information technologies: University of Latvia, Riga Technical University (RTU), and Transport and Telecommunication Institute (TTI). Comparing the number of students, we hold the third place in Latvia. We have smaller capacity but offer more opportunities and higher quality of education, thus there is a bigger competition among prospective students.

Perhaps many people apply to FC knowing that here students get state-funded places and later on find a well-paid job. Of course, there are those who really want to study, but most do not make it through the first year. For many years, we have had an indirect pressure from the industry to enroll more students, but our position is that we currently are not able to admit more students because of the current conditions. We need more lecturers who can work with larger student audiences. And where will we find those students? Even state-funded places are not filled entirely. Moreover, if students tend to drop out, what is the point in admitting more of them? Therefore, we have kept our stance and do not try to be the first or the second in this regard.

How many students do you enroll?

We enroll 220 students in the bachelor’s programme and 40 students in the first level professional programme Programming and Computer Network Administrators. The first two years of these programmes are combined – students are studying together regardless of their choice. Those who graduate from college receive a diploma and can continue their studies in the third and fourth year. Therefore, it is safe to say that we enroll 260 students in total.

In addition to Computer Science, you also offer the programme Teacher of Natural Sciences and Information Technology. Is there a high demand for it?

The programme is managed by the Faculty of Chemistry and gives two specializations to future teachers, for example: mathematics and IT, mathematics and biology, or mathematics and chemistry. Nearly all students, depending on their choice, receive an individual package of courses that they attend here and in other faculties.

With the new accreditation, we will run a sub-programme Didactics that would prepare IT teachers. Upon graduation, a student will receive bachelor’s degree in Computer Science with a specialization in Didactics. It does not give the right to work at school but you can become a teacher after attending one semester of mandatory courses or completing a different study program here at the UL or any other university that awards a diploma in pedagogy.

There are debates at the University about the best practice of training teachers. I believe it is possible to train a good teacher by first teaching them pedagogy and then adding a particular specialisation. First, they become teachers and then learn something else. Another scenario is for a professional computer specialist and mathematician to acquire additional knowledge and skills to work at school. I believe both of these options are viable and should be supported. Even if only a small number of people choose the Didactics sub-program, it will still be better than nothing as there is a shortage of IT teachers.

People – the greatest of all treasures

In July, you were elected the Dean of the Faculty of Computing. What are you committed to and what do you aim for in your new position?

The goals are various. What I will do for the faculty is one thing, and what I will do individually is another. The amount of work increased significantly, at least this autumn – I have not managed to decrease the number of my lectures.

So there is a lack of teaching staff at the Faculty of Computing?

We cannot find new lecturers instantly. This issue will become more pressing when it approaches its critical level. But most of our lecturers are enthusiasts – they have not left to work in the industry. Often even first year students tell us, ‘As a professor you receive much less than I do at the company.’

What do you say to them?

That’s the reality – experts and lecturers can teach and work somewhere else at the same time or leave for the industry right away. Teacher’s salary in Latvia cannot compete with one offered by companies. Therefore, people – both professors and students – are of the most value to us. I like the words of the former Dean, Juris Borzovs, about the nature of universities. In the beginning, it was a group of people – teachers and their students. Then, with time, the first universities have grown in different directions: you had an elite club: professors and their apprentices, and, after a while, new experts or scientists emerged; and there was another group: students or corporations that hired teachers for themselves. Primarily, students hiring scholars that could teach them something. In either case, university means a community – and that’s of a great value.

From this point of view, lecturers and students are important to us, too. This means that we cannot lose the lecturers we have. It is necessary to create the best possible conditions so that they would not leave. I’ve been working here for 20 years and noticed that it is enough to have even a tiniest problem at the University for a person to quit ‘engaging charity’ and leave for the industry thinking that they might return later but usually it does not happen.

Do you want to raise the question of salaries?

The work environment is not limited to salaries. Many are ready to work for less money but in better working conditions – offices, microclimate. Good colleagues may be worth more than working in a bad team for a higher pay. If we can’t influence salaries, other conditions must not suffer. However, it is important to understand what is going on with salaries. If the number of students is at its current level and we are left with the same, that is, the state probably will not increase the funding per student in the near future, new sources of income might be necessary. For example, from research projects where we cannot compete with foreigners because our educators have more duties than their colleagues abroad. There, most professors have several assistants who work in labs, read student works and so on. We cannot provide the same at the UL. I have to read all student worksmyself and that is time-consuming. If I don’t do it, I’ll get paid less and will have to start thinking about moving into business, there will be no point in struggling here. Therefore, we have to look for additional projects and funding.

I will also try to find a way of minimizing the number of dropout students as much as possible. We will search for other forms of study, try to ‘pamper our clients’ more.

Perhaps, the reason for dropouts is the intensity of studies.

That is true for most students, but we currently do not know the exact circumstances, because capable ones leave as well. Many think: ‘What will I learn here? I already know a lot and earn money for it.’ Yes, you can earn something with your current knowledge and skill, but things change fast, and after five or ten years it will be impossible to build intellectual systems of the future with such skills. Looking at it in a long term, one should finish a degree after all. We have people who had dropped out, but after some time returned and said, yes, now I understand that I have to learn. We should try to look for solutions: even if a person completes one year of studies instead of two that is important as well, because it makes them a better professional.

Programmers are… cats

You mentioned that the location and environment is an important factor in keeping people. What kind of prospects does the Faculty see in the Academic Center at Torņakalns?

The current discussions within the Faculty mostly contradict the University’s official stand. We don’t want to move. My biggest fear is that the Faculty could collapse.

Why so?

You need more resources to get to Torņakalns. Our lecturers simply will quit. Here they can combine jobs, so moving there is not an optimal solution because we might lose them. As I mentioned, many students have jobs. Teachers often work with students individually – they agree to meet during lunch breaks or after work at 8 or 9 p.m. Many work in the area of VEF factory. Brīvības iela is the main street and everything here moves fast.

Of course, many are also delighted, especially first year students. Yes, it is more interesting there, a fresh environment – until the moment when you get a job. At the point when the majority of students are already employed and have to rush to lectures, the primary question will be – how to get there fast. Moreover, if studies start to get in the way of work, then good-bye education! There are many such arguments. The move is quite a risk for us – it has its pros and cons.

Who will win in this debate?

Common sense – when we manage to find a ‘now everyone’s happy’ solution. We need some kind of compromise. Of course, we could order everyone to relocate, but the IT crowd, programmers, are often likened to cats. You cannot tame a cat; it is a creature that is almost impossible to control. Books often say that it is problematic to manage IT specialists and programmers, who, as they say, are like cats. There is even a book titled How to Herd Cats [1], in fact it is a guide on how to manage IT projects, because programmers, just like artists, are uncontrollable beings. It is hard for them to force themselves to be at work at 9 a.m., it is a norm for them to come at 11 or 12 a.m.

If we could easily find educators and scientists ready to join us, there would be no problems. Those who want to move, will move, those who don’t – won’t. It might sound too simple – most will leave, the rest are happy – but everything can change.

The goal: to become more attractive internationally

Do you have goals other than increasing the staff?

On the one hand, we are being praised a lot – good faculty, good programmes, No. 1 for employers, we easily get accreditation. By the way, there is a high chance that in a few months our faculty will again receive the European Quality Label for the next five years. We will be among the few ones who get a full term accreditation automatically. We were the first ones in Europe who were accredited for five years on the first try.

Everything is great, but, on the other hand, we know that there is more to be done. As Dean, I am committed to getting funding for new scientific projects. Mr. Andris Ambainis is strong in quantum computing, but it would be good to make other disciplines more visible and dynamic.

Which goals has the Faculty set in the area of research?

It is important to become recognizable globally in other disciplines, too. We have scarce human resources – a few dozens of lecturers who mainly work here half time or even less. Reducing them to a dozen of actives will leave us with scientific capacity of less than 20 people per month. A plan has been created that there should be a full-time equivalent of some 20 or 25 people, i.e. our total scientific capacity. It will be a great challenge because this capacity should include professors and scientific assistants, researchers, who only begin their career. It is impossible to set many goals in various disciplines with only 20 people. And, let's be realistic, those specialists will not appear suddenly out of nowhere.

Additionally, from the viewpoint of development, it is important to attract more foreign students to undergraduate programmes. Currently, we have relatively few students from abroad, and they study in Latvian. During their first year, they study in English, learn Latvian and then continue their studies in Latvian. They are allowed to do exams in English, but nobody guarantees lectures in English. We would like to find funding for human resources in order to launch a sub-programme next September, teaching it in English throughout all four years and, thus, becoming more attractive for international students. The foreigners are hugely interested already but after finding out that they will have to study in Latvian for three years they lose interest.

Attracting foreign students is a main problem of all faculties, isn’t it?

It is something we should work on. The number we have to reach is enormous – more than 100 international students, and currently our faculty has only 80 graduates with bachelor’s degree in total. I think that such requirement is unjustified – the number is unachievable. However, we will do our best to attract new students.

If more students were paying tuition fees, the faculty would gain additional funding to attract more human resources for teaching and scientific work. In this case, we would possibly have enough money to invite international lecturers. It is extremely difficult to attract resources from abroad with the current funding from the Latvian state. If international lecturers were paid as much as they earn abroad, it would be unfair to local staff. Why should international lecturers be paid three or four times more than our staff for the same amount and quality of work? Therefore, not having international lecturers is best for the microclimate.

Do you have international lecturers?

We have some guest lecturers that are more or less connected to Latvia – born here but currently living abroad. They are willing to come from to time and read lectures. However, financially, they lose more than they earn.

Two marathons

Another important event this year was the international programming competition in the USA where the UL team took the 20th place – quite an achievement. You mentioned that luck was not on your side. Were you that close to medals?

Luck is always welcome, especially in sports. Good results cannot be achieved without luck. When we were on our way to the competition, I thought that if conditions were good, we would maybe take the 30th place, which is also all right. As the results turned out to be higher, I must say that luck was on our side indeed, but we would have gotten medals with a bit more of it.

What didour boys have to do?

Each team consists of three students. They are given 10 to 12 tasks, and they have to be solved within five hours. It is not a sprint anymore; five intense hours are like two marathons. And another thing – they have only one computer. The team must be able to understand which tasks should be solved, how to divide works – who will think, who will have to program, which one will look for mistakes, who will come up with test cases, and how to test the program. Each program must be done correctly; therefore, even if in only one test case the result is not correct or it does not work fast enough, or stops working, this task will not be counted. If you make an error, you can fix up the program and re-send it, but, if the task has been accepted later on, you get a 20 minutes penalty (added to your result) for each incorrect submission. The winner is the team with the most solved tasks; if there is more than one team with the exact number of tasks solved, then the team that spent less time (penalty minutes including) wins.

You must be able to tell which task can be solved faster. Imagine if you have more than ten tasks, each on many pages in English, and you have to understand immediately what is said there and where to begin.

How to enter this competition?

It is held annually with more than 46 thousand s participantsfrom about 3000 universities representing more than 100 countries. It has many rounds, including selection stage and regional quarterfinals. We were in regionals in Minsk together with Belarus, the Baltic States and Kaliningrad region of Russia. In semis, we were in the module for North Eastern Europe. This is one of the strongest semi-final modules in the world, and it is much harder to get to the finals. But if you do get there, even at the last place, you are guaranteed to be in the world’s top 50. A team rarely drops out – only when they have a rough start. It is easier to drop out in other semis. There are many of them around the globe – a couple in North America, South America, Europa, Asia, Africa, and Australia. For the last couple of years, there had been 100-130 teams in the finals. The number of participants is constantly growing and this year has reached 130 teams – a new record.

Has the 20th place been the best achievement so far?

We were 18th in 2012, but I think that this team was better and stronger and their result is of higher value.

Such competition is considered as a good entry in CV.

If you have participated in Russia’s semi-finals, it is already a proof of high standard, and big, serious companies would want you. This year we won against Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – one of the world’s leading universities in IT.

How long have you been teaching at the University?

Back then, we were just a Department of Computing within the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics. I started teaching in 1993, when I was without a degree, which I got only in 1994. In those turbulent times, there were only three staff members left. I became a lecturer after Prof. Bicevskis gathered us, several students, and said, ‘Computing in Latvia is in danger – we simply don’t have anyone who can teach. I firmly and politely ask you, even though you are students, to start teaching’. He divided courses among us and we were set to start. Those were the times. I know what it means when there are no people to do the job – everything can come tumbling down any second. People are the true resource.

Do you have any annual traditions at the Faculty? I know that you celebrate its birthday…

Most certainly, it is one of many events – with birthday cake and weeklong celebrations. There is also Programmer Day that pre-dates the establishment of the Faculty. I believe it is a 30-year long tradition transformed from the small event at the UL into a nationwide celebration. This year it was organized by the Latvian Information and Communications Technology Association (LIKTA) and was hosted by Riga Technical University (RTU). But, previously, there were dance nights at the Faculty with regular performances by a music band Pērkons.

I think that FC has the best Student Council. There are many events. The previous Dean had a very good connection with the Council. We have contacts in the industry and many lectures take place outside of study curriculum with the best IT professionals giving lectures in the evenings. In recent years, students have taken initiative themselves: they find what interests them the most, set up various self-help classes in various courses, in the evenings seniors help other students with their courses.  Last year, the UL started a mentoring movement, but we have had this movement since the birth of the Faculty, and the UL is adapting quite a lot of what our Council created here.

Some say that deans are just human beings. What keeps the dean of the Faculty of Computing tick when he is not at work?

I practice orienteering on amateur level and participate in competitions. Unfortunately, I do not have enough time to compete in the whole series. It is an achievement if I manage to show up there once a year. Usually I enter straight Latvian Cup competitions or championships. Last year I competed in the classic distance at the World Masters Orienteering Championships. Despite finishing 26th out of more than 100 participants, I could have done much better. If luck had been on my side, I could have finished somewhere between 10th and 15th in standings, but my leg was injured and I was not that well prepared. It was raining, my glasses were fogging up; therefore I was not able to see the map properly.

Could you say that your faculty is the best in the whole University?

It is almost impossible to look at oneself objectively – you should ask other people. If a significant number of people started to rate all faculties, then we could get to some kind of average rate. But in that case – what are the criteria that determine whether or not you are good? In some fields we might be the best, in others – we are not. Maybe, we are the best when it comes to computing. Most probably, we should be better than most. But there are other fields where we, probably, lose. Mathematicians and programmers are mostly introvert people, so we should be losing out to extraverts or other types of people in the areas where these characteristics are required more.

[1] ‘How to Herd Cats - Leading a Team of Independent Thinkers’ by Simon Hartley