What’s The Value of College?

CNN: Surging College Tuition

CNN: Surging college costs price out middle class

Not long ago I found myself working alongside a brilliant college dropout–A young junior programmer who was just plain gifted when it came to software development. I was very surprised that he hadn’t completed a degree of any kind. It made me wonder why I had, without much consideration, put such high value on a four-year degree.

A recent InfoWorld article, 15 hot programming trends — and 15 going cold, touches on the issue of rising tuition costs and the questionable value that they bring.

I attended Ball State University — a place hardly known for being an engineering college. It was a nearby school with a Computer Science program that did not cost as much as IU or Purdue. For someone like me, it was attainable. While I enjoyed my time at Ball State, and I learned much, very little of my Computer Science education turned out to be directly applicable to my career. Sure, I learned formal concepts, design practices and perhaps a little about requirements gathering and QA (very little). Some of what I thought I knew had to be unlearned, as I came to realize that things operate differently in the “real world.”

Ultimately, as someone with an inherent interest in writing software, I suspect that everything I really needed to know could have been learned in a year of dedicated study. The rest comes from workplace experience.

The problem, of course, is that if I hadn’t gone the college route, spending 4+ years working on a Bachelor’s degree, I would never have been able to land my first job interview. And it was that first job where I really learned how all this stuff that I knew really came together in a real business environment on a project of significant size.

Through the years, I’ve met great, good and awful software engineers with varying backgrounds and educations. Many of the best software developers attended college, but graduated with a degree in something unrelated (History, Art, New Testament Studies, English, to name a few). These people gravitated to Software Engineering and Development through various means, some of them going on to pursue certifications and other training.

My experience hardly reflects any kind of comprehensive analysis, but I don’t hesitate to say that most of the software engineers with undergraduate degrees in non-CS fields are among those that I consider excellent.

There was a time, not all that long ago, when droves of students gravitated to Computer Science because they heard that it was a great career to pursue. While I happen to agree that it is a great career, I don’t think it is a career for just anyone. It requires a certain type of interest and motivation. Perhaps it is because some folks enter Computer Science undergraduate programs for the wrong reasons, but I have observed all ranges of skill level from those with CS backgrounds. I’ve found myself shocked (more than a few times) by the poor quality of code created by developers with formal CS educations. I once was asked to help debug some code written by a colleague that had compilation problems. It didn’t take long to find the problme: A 2,000+ lines-of-code function that caused the compiler to choke.

Doctors, Teachers, Lawyers, Accountants–These are all people who require specific degrees and certifications. I know that I don’t want to have my eyes checked by a self-trained Optometrist. In software fields it is different. After a software engineer has some experience, it seems that his or her degree becomes afterthought. Unless the subject of college comes up during a lunch conversation, rarely do I actually know the formal education or degree of a colleague. What I do know is that person’s quality and volume of work. Don’t get me wrong–there are things that may be taught in a Computer Science department that are absolutely necessary. Knowledge of algorithms and design patterns is important. It should be noted, however, that knowledge and application are different beasts.

I wonder–If college costs keep rising at such a staggering rate, at what point does the return on investment lose its worth? With companies hard pressed to find good software engineers, and with a greater percentage of the population unable to afford a 4 year degree at even a semi-respected university, when will the traditional model change? There are so many options–from certifications to local technical schools that are available at a fraction of the cost. At some point it seems that a college degree becomes more of a social status symbol than a true reflection of one’s talent or ability.

We’ll have to begin to ask ourselves: Which candidate is right for the job? Is it the one fresh out of college with a CS degree and a 3.8 GPA who lacks experience working with others on a project of scale, or is it the non-college-route self-taught programmer who has proven talent that can be seen by way of open-source contributions?

Occasionally I have seen job postings for software engineers which claim to require a Master’s Degree in Computer Science. I have to wonder: What does the hiring manager believe he or she might get from the engineer with a Master’s Degree that differs from the engineer with a lowly Bachelor’s Degree? In my experience, most Master’s Programs a little more than the same programs that undergraduates complete… The only difference is that the students in the program have already completed a four-year degree (and that degree could be anything).

This isn’t to demean formal education. If I had it to do over, I wouldn’t change my time at Ball State University. No way! I was fortunate, however. When I went to Ball State, college was merely ridiculously expensive. Today it is insanely expensive. In 10 years, it will be unattainably expensive. When that happens, where will the software engineers come from?

Coding Horror/The Software Career

LadderI don’t like to just post links to another blog or article. Anyone can do that, and there are far too many blogs out there that create no original content. So I try to write original thoughts and articles. That said, sometimes this is a rule worth breaking. Jeff Atwood has a great post over at Coding Horror titled So You Don’t Want to be a Programmer After All.

Atwood asks the question, “What career options are available to programmers who no longer want to program?” This is converse to a subject I’d like to write about soon (still gathering my thoughts: What career options are their for programmers who wish to move up in their career, perhaps into management, while never losing the ability to actually write code?”

Unfortunately, it seems to me that in this field the general career path goes something like this:

Junior Programmer->Senior Programmer->Super Senior Programmer->Awesome Amazing Programmer->Manager (stop writing software)

I know of at least one person who got into management, didn’t like it, and gave it up to move back into a full-time developer role. What about the programmer who wishes to do both? And why do we assume that software management means an end to coding in the role? Sure, this isn’t always the case, but in general I think it is. It strikes me that many of the best developers move into management, thereby eventually losing their hands-on skills. That seems unfortunate.

Mistakes

soupThe other day my daughter wanted to heat up some soup in the microwave. She insisted on doing it herself. The lid of the Campbell’s Soup can the type with a tab that can be opened without a can opener. She stood in front of her mother as she attempted to open the can, wrestling with it a little. “Lift the tap up, and then pull on it,” her mother instructed. She added, “I really think you should open it in the kitchen over the sink.”

My daughter struggled with the lid, but still didn’t want help–she wanted to prove to us and to herself that she was capable. Soon enough Campbell’s Double Noodles were spilled all over the floor and her mother. Oops.

Did we get mad? No way! How could we? We knew the possible outcomes, but we also knew that we had to allow our daughter to figure this out. My daughter learned a few things in this situation:

  1. How to open a can of soup.
  2. What can go wrong if you tip the can sideways while opening.
  3. Why she should have done it over the sink.

Continue reading

Do Not Flounder (Stay Un-bored)

The following is an article that I am working on for a yet-to-be-determined publication. Having done this before, I will say that getting an article published in a journal/magazine isn’t as difficult as one may think (as long as you have something to say). This hasn’t been proofed, so please forgive any typos or errors. This article is not about the role of management. I would like to follow up on that subject, because I do think management can and should help to produce great software engineers. I’ve seen otherwise good programmers flounder under lacking management. It happens. This article is about the role of the developer, the individual contributor, in making sure that his or her career starts of right and continues to grow.
One ore note: The original version of this post was written in about 2 hours and was full of errors. I’ve applied a number of corrections, but it will likely be further edited before publication.

I have no idea whether or not most developers using Agile have actually read the “Agile Manifesto.” Here it is:

We are uncovering better ways of developing
software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on
the right, we value the items on the left more.

This post is more about career growth than Agile, but somehow I think the Agile approach is relevant here. Agile, as we know it, is an approach to software design. It can also be an approach to managing one’s own career.

Floundering

A friend of mine recently said this: “Your attitude determines your altitude.” Although he was speaking in a general sense, I couldn’t help but think of the application of this motivational advice in relation to software engineering. It is relevant because as software engineers, our career growth is in our hands—perhaps to a greater degree than in any other field. Continue reading

Java “Losing its Mojo?” I Think Not!

Wired has an article titled Is Java Losing Its Mojo? While the article seems to contradict itself in some ways, I have to take issue with the general theme. As someone who pays attention, I simply haven’t seen this happening. On the contrary–It seems to me that Java continues to grow. Just peruse the job boards. Continue reading

Success as a Technical Lead – Article

I stumbled upon this article today. Its a little dated (from 2008), but still relevant. I don’t think the list is comprehensive, and I certainly think other technical leads would have varying opinions on things. All of the points listed are good, but there are a some points that really stand out:

6. Be part in the design of everything
This does not mean do the whole design. You want to empower team members. But your job is to understand and influence each significant subsystem in order to maintain architectural integrity.

7. Get your hands dirty and code
Yes you should take parts of the code and implement them. Even the least glamorous parts. This will help you not getting stuck alone between management and the team. It will also help you gain respect in the team.

20. Don’t blame anybody publicly for anything
In fact as a tech lead you cannot blame anybody but yourself for anything. The moment you blame a team member in public is the moment when the team starts to die. Internal problems have to be solved internally and preferably privately.

24. Mentor people
It is your job to raise the education level of your team. By doing this you can build relationships at a more personal level and this will gel the team faster and harder. It is very effective with more junior people in the team but there are ways to approach even more senior members, just try not to behave like a teacher.

25. Listen to and learn from people
Even if you are the most experienced developer on the team you can always find new things and learn form others. Nobody is a specialist in everything and some of your team members can be domain specialists who can teach you a lot.

28. Be sure you get requirements and not architecture/design masked as requirements
Sometimes business people fancy themselves architects, sometimes they just speak in examples. They can ask for technology XYZ to be used when what they really mean is they want some degree of scalability. Be sure to avoid hurting feelings but be firm and re-word everything that seems like implied architecture. Get real requirements. To be able to do this you have to understand the business.

36. React to surprises with calm and with documented answers
Never get carried away with refuses or promises when confronted with surprises. Ask for time to think and document/justify your answers. It will make you look better and it will get you out of ugly situations.

A theme throughout the list, and throughout a number of similar books and articles with such advice, is that a good technical lead appreciates and values the various talent and particular skills of the team. A great technical leader isn’t necessarily the “know it all” of the group. He or she should certainly be skilled and eager to maintain that skill–and even be a great developer. But smartest person in the room? Maybe. Maybe not. Personally, I like working around people who are smarter than me. This is the best way to learn.

And there’s a flip side to number 20: Don’t blame people publicly for problems, but be quick to praise people for successes, major and minor. A sense of recognition for one’s diligence is tremendous motivator. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t appreciate kudos. Most parents realize that their children respond better to positive reinforcement than negative… This doesn’t change when one reaches a certain age. I’m not suggesting that a team member not be confronted for problems. Of course he or she should (and must).

Very recently a company-wide email spoke of a major success of mine (successful deployment of a year long project), and mentioned me by name. It felt great, and it made me want to continue with even more success (and it was a great confidence boost). Simple put, its good to know that the folks at the top of the organization are aware and appreciative of the work of those in the trenches!

This all may sound like a lot of feel-good fluff. It isn’t.

Little Tutorials: 36 Steps to Success as a Technical Lead

Version Control/Wiki Control

I FIRMLY believe that documents related to a project should be managed in the same version repository as the source code. This gives us a snapshot in time of all items related to a project. The problem with this comes when using a wiki (and I love using wikis, so don’t get me wrong). There is no way, if we are using a wiki page for specs, requirements, etc., to link a wiki instance in time to a Subversion (Git, Mercurial, whatever) instance in time.

And I don’t think we would want such a feature anyway. A wiki covers many projects and many team needs, not just the needs of a small group of programmers on a single project. I can’t imagine “rolling back” an entire wiki to a given snapshot.

I wonder if there are any clever ideas out there for handling a need such as this. I can see the possibility of pre-commit hooks being used to label wiki pages, but this seems cumbersome (if not entirely unmanageable). The other solution is to rely on the wiki only for collaboration and not for official documentation of any kind. This approach, unfortunately, cripples much of the power of using a wiki.

I am open to ideas.