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Learning curve: Computer whiz discovers
by Barbara A. Melville
hances are you boot up your PC or Mac and travel the wired world from AOL to Zip disk, never pausing to wonder how it all actually works. After all, you don’t need to, as computer-science major Andrew Cencini ’01 points out. “Most people come in, flip on the computer, and read their e-mail.”
Computer-science major Andrew Cencini ’01 feels right at home with Skidmore’s central network of wires and workstations.
But, says Cencini, “I wanted to know what’s behind it.” In his quest to understand computing from the inside out, he decided to create his own version of a little-known piece of software called a compiler, which translates programming languages—like Java and C++ (or, in ancient times, Fortran and Cobol)—into “machine language” that actually drives your computer. It was an ambitious project, especially for an undergraduate at a liberal-arts college rather than a technical institution.
To get guidance and academic credit for the project, Cencini helped custom-design his own sophomore-level course of independent research, an academic option usually reserved for juniors and seniors. Created through Skidmore’s Honors Forum (of which he’s a charter member), the course allowed Cencini to delve into source code, lexical analyzers, code generators, the VPC platform, and more—everything he needed to learn in order to create his compiler.
“It won’t hit the market anytime soon, but it was a great learning experience,” says Cencini, who is something of an expert on the subject of learning experiences. He first discovered the joy of learning as a toddler, when his mother painted alphabet letters on small rocks and moved them around to make words. It tickled him so much, he says, that “I learned to read and write before I went to school. Learning was fun.” Grade school was “very easy for me.”
But when he moved into high school, the boy who loved learning hit a snag. “I nosedived, right to the bottom of the class,” he recalls. “And in high school, you get tracked and categorized. That can blow your expectations of yourself.” That’s when “I found out I had ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and learning disabilities, including some in math.” At a learning center just outside his hometown of Boston, Cencini received specialized remediation and learned to slow down, concentrate, and simplify his efforts in math. And at Skidmore he was granted additional time and alternative locations for test taking, accommodations that he especially appreciated early on but has been able to do without recently. Along with benefiting simply from the maturing process, he says, “I’ve also found my classes so engaging that any internal distraction dissipates on arrival.”
For Cencini, the enthusiasm for computers started early. “My parents bought me my first computer. I’ve built my own since then,” he says. “I played with them and made all the mistakes. I’d break one and figure out how to fix it.” At Skidmore, he quickly landed a student job with the Center for Information Technology Services (CITS); in the summer after his freshman year, he helped monitor and operate the central computer cluster that serves the campus’s every electronic need, from course registration to employee records to charging a burger and fries at the Spa snack bar. “I’d write utilities and programs to do some of the routine data-storage and maintenance,” he explains. “And I checked up on the servers regularly. They all have names, and they sort of have personalities.”
Cencini also helped CITS with a major upgrade of the IBM server that handles a campus ID-and-credit card system for charging meals, photocopies, and Skidmore Shop purchases. For that project, Cencini worked closely with an IBM technician to install new hardware and to update the software—“very exceptional work for someone so early in his academic career,” says Leo Geoffrion, director of Skidmore’s academic computing and user services. “He’s an expert on Unix and PCs,” says another of Cencini’s CITS supervisors. “He picks up new technology like a magnet, and he alerts us to new security issues or problems on our servers—he loves this stuff!”
But that’s not the only stuff he loves. Cencini, who hopes to earn an M.B.A. and a master’s in computer management and become a consultant, originally came to Skidmore to study theater design. He’s also a classics minor, and he says he loved Liberal Studies 1, the wide-ranging freshman survey course. He admits that he even bought many of the books that were excerpted for LS 1 readings. The next year, he served as one of the course’s sophomore peer tutors: “I wish I could be an LS 1 tutor every year.”
So it should come as no surprise that Cencini is also into a whirl of cocurricular activities. “My parents always encouraged me to see and do as many diverse things as possible. Their attitude was infectious,” he grins, equally infectiously. So far the “diverse things” he’s done include writing and editing for the Skidmore News, sitting on a Student Government Association committee, tutoring math and computer science, tucking into what he calls the “intellectual buffet” of Honors Forum, and much, much more. “So many events, so much free knowledge, how can you lose?” he says with another big grin. “Take every single little opportunity you get, do as much as possible, and get the most you can out of it. In college, any challenge is worth it.”
When staff writer Barbara Melville has computer trouble, she allows herself a moment of “impotent rage” before politely phoning the CITS help desk.