Updated: Sep 4, 2021
by Otillie Lighte
From the get-go, it is clear to me that Josh Zweig, SEAS ’18, is much more organized than myself, and much busier. Teaching assistant for Advanced Programming and Computers and Society, Josh is a senior caught up in computer science, but, as I learned during our talk, he is also interested in the humanities.
Zweig came to Columbia knowing he would major in Computer Science, but became a teaching assistant for some of the department’s most challenging courses by chance. Modest in admitting that he did not get the job when he first applied, Zweig has now, after four semesters, been TA to over 1000 students, all of whose names he has made great effort to learn. Josh says, “It’s really hard, but I work hard at it. It’s great…students come to office hours and you can have personal interactions with them, you greet them by their name and they’re a little taken aback.” His students are most likely taken aback because they expect to find a TA, who would rather spend hours coding alone in his room, but Josh Zweig confronts them with the complete opposite.
“Whatever the case is, you just smile at people in the elevator, say ‘hello’ and it’s pretty simple. I actually think New York City is like that too, or at least I treat it like that. I smile at people on the street; if you’re just on the subway platform and you say ‘hello’ to someone, you can strike up a conversation with anyone”. This sentiment speaks more to Zweig’s affable nature and desire for engagement than to the fast-paced and solitary nature of coding. “One of the things about CS is that it’s moving so fast that it’s almost hard to keep up to date…you feel like you have to be taking up information.”
Contemplating the similarity between programming and university schedules in which weeks of work seem like a repeated blur, Josh spoke to me about how he appreciates time away from tech. “It’s really nice to be able to go and take a lot of time to think about things—that feels worth it.” The moments in which he is not attached to his phone are the ones he cherishes most, “because that’s what it’s all about. Otherwise you have your phone in your pocket and everything is just different.” When asked how he typically spends time away from his phone, Zweig notes the shower as an easy place to start, and a tried-and-true favorite: “Anywhere you don’t have your phone is a good start.” For as much as Zweig enjoys his work as a teaching assistant and computer science student, time away from technology helps him to slow down and reflect. Speaking to his somewhat paradoxical relationship with CS, Zweig hopes to make technology less immediate, and is, in his own words, “kind of making a career out of it.”
Zweig works at Palantir, on their Civil Liberties team, and he plans to continue in this position full-time after graduation. Zweig focuses on ensuring data is handled in a way that makes companies and citizens comfortable. This job fits Zweig’s interests perfectly because he is “interested more in how computers get used in society rather than building apps.” In a joint SIPA, Columbia Law and Columbia Engineering class, Zweig combatted the challenge of identity theft and the strengthening of social security numbers, by creating an individually-utilized ‘authenticator.’ Similar to the chance encounters he loves having in New York City, Zweig’s machine works to remember human faces in the same way, thus bringing his own personable nature and inclination towards human interaction to the project.
One of his last comments in our interview was on the oddly intangible nature of CS: “It’s ephemeral — you think about it for a few weeks and then, what’s the point?” Zweig answers his own question when he says that engineering and computer science are “not just about building stuff. Because in that [act] there’s this critical inseparable nature of considering the world in which you’re building something into.”