Meet Ashok Pillai, Head of Computer Science

Born in England and raised in Sweden, Ashok Pillai was educated at Canadian Academy in Kobe, Japan. Following graduation, he earned a B.A. in computer science with honors in mathematics at Williams College, where he was elected to Sigma Xi. He joined the Middlesex faculty in 2007.

You have a very interesting background.  How do you think these experiences have shaped you?

I have grown accustomed to adapting to circumstances as they arise. The public school system in Sweden versus international schools like the one I attended in Japan are drastically different. I grew up being bilingual. In Sweden, I learned in Swedish at school and only spoke Swedish with my friends, and then I came home and spoke only English with my parents. Swedish culture paradoxically is very laid back yet extremely organized, and having grown up in that environment for fourteen years I think I have acquired some of those traits. When I moved to Japan I was now in an even more organized culture, but I was at the disadvantage that I didn’t understand what people were saying around me (or what was written on signs). So in order to get around and explore this new environment I came to rely upon my many Japanese-speaking friends. I think up until that point I had been so confident (to the point of being arrogant) in my own abilities to master everything and conquer the world, that this was a humbling experience. I now don’t hesitate to ask for help from my friends, colleagues, or students – in fact given how busy we are here at Middlesex, I’m not sure how I’d manage everything otherwise. 

I would also like to think my international experiences have made me more tolerant and understanding of differences in background and culture. I attended very small public schools in Sweden (learning in Swedish) where I was one of only two students that were not your typical fair-skinned, blonde, and blue-eyed Swedes. In Japan I attended an international school, making friends with students from Japan, Korea, USA, UK, Germany, France, Holland, Israel, India, China, Canada, and Australia just to name a few. Being exposed to so many nationalities is probably why I was heavily involved with the International Club at Williams when I came stateside.

You joined Middlesex in 2007 as a math and computer science teacher.  The computer science department has grown tremendously in recent years.  What do you think fuels the interest from students?

I think there are a number of factors here. Since I took over as head of the department in 2009, I have actively recruited a more diverse but competent group of Middlesex students to enroll in my courses. The AP Computer Science courses are unique at our school in that they consist of students from all four grades. Additionally, I think there is a strong push to have students exposed to programming both at the National level and internationally, as it is being recognized as valuable skill that intersects a number of professions and is not simply limited to “code-monkeys” that type away at their computers all day long. We had a very successful “Hour of Code” event on campus in December 2013 where over 75% of the student body (as well as several faculty members including our Head of School) participated and were exposed to the fundamental computer science principles in less than an hour. This past fall enrollment in the AP Computer science course increased by over 100% and we had to create an extra session to accommodate everyone. I also think that overall students have a positive experience in the class and encourage their friends to consider it as well. Several of them continue on to the advanced courses and/or pursue Computer Science degrees in college.

What do you enjoy about teaching?  What brought you to teaching in the first place?  

I somewhat stumbled into the profession, and although at first I was not convinced teaching would be my life-long career, I realized quickly that this is what I enjoy the most. My path actually began as a Teaching Assistant in college. Interacting with students one-on-one and feeling like I was actually making a difference when they were able to understand a concept better is what ultimately brings me joy in this job. There is also a level of excitement about the fact that even though I have a lesson planned, I still don’t know what will actually happen when I get to class. There is no monotony of a nine-to-five job when you work at a boarding school! Teaching at a school like MX is great because you form real relationships with your students as you are bound to interact with them outside of the classroom as well. 

You recently became the head coach of Girls’ Varsity Volleyball, which just completed its first season as a varsity team.  How was that experience for you?

It’s been great! We had a very successful first season where we were able to already establish ourselves as competitive team both in the ISL and in the New England prep school league. With only one player graduating this year, we are very optimistic about our potential and future growth. The experience as a whole was a whirlwind. As this was our first year, there was so much to do, but I had terrific support from our Athletic Department, my fellow head coaches of other sports, our captain Rose-Marie Fuchs ‘15, and most of all from my assistant coach Ruth Baldwin. I learned so much about myself as a coach and I am excited to get back on the court next year to continue to build upon the foundation we established. Luckily, I have the opportunity to coach a local club volleyball team from December through May so I can continue to develop as a coach and continue to work with a sport I love. 

You’re an avid futbol fan.  What is your favorite team?

Liverpool FC – a fantastic club with a terrific history. I grew up watching them every weekend in Sweden, and have followed them actively ever since. In fact, when I got my dog last year I named him “Shankly” after the most famous Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly.