Tuesday, January 22, 2008

How I Got My Silver Programmer Certificate

OK, I didn't. It doesn't exist. It won't exist.

There's more than one way to look at the ongoing kerfuffle over whether schools are falling down on the job or not. You can play the hyper-cynical devil's advocate and point out that in a sense, undergraduate computer science degrees are right up there with vo-tech degrees (not that there's anything wrong with that).

a degree is only as meaningful as its scarcity

Which brings us to another way to look at it - we can quit the ball-aching already because the knowledge that colleges are teaching Java instead of Lisp means pretty much fuck-all for us. Seriously. If I'm staffing for a company, I'm not pinning my hopes and dreams for future success on the fact that I've got a few recent computer science graduates working for me, even if they're from an ostensibly top-tier school. I'm hiring the guys with track records for delivering software that can talk the business domain talk (and it's a really awesome bonus if they can talk radix tries too).

College degrees don't prove that you're ready to develop in the real world. Holy shit.

Wait. This is news?

Certificates, whether they're diplomas, training certificates, passing the bar, getting your doctor stethoscope, being a certified engineer, whatever - I read them as signifying one thing only - "this person's certified to prevent me from doing anything immediately catastrophic." The lawyer may be grossly incompetent at what they do, but they'll be able to advise you enough to not land you on death row for your parking tickets. The doctor's not going to prescribe dioxin for that headache. The engineer's not going to say "what the hell, it might work" to your grand plan to replace the steel girder wire on the bridge with Silly Putty. That comp sci grad will probably be able to put something together that compiles.

You're looking for a piece of paper that certifies that the holder is an all-world programmer who's going to fix all your code problems? Sorry, doesn't exist.

Still another takeaway from this - enough already with whatever feedback loop there may be. Businesses think that they need more computer people, so they drive up demand for comp sci graduates, so colleges lower the bar for what it means to be a comp sci graduate so you can get churned out to go work at a conglomerate. I'm a schlub who went this route (or this route found me, your call), so who am I to turn my nose up at it?

This seems to presuppose the notion that there's a supply-side fix to be made here - get businesses to understand just how meaningless the comp sci degrees are and academia will disentangle itself from business and we'll find ourselves in some sort of OK-well-maybe-it-never-existed nirvana where every computer science graduate can knock out a generational garbage collector blindfolded and works on their own system kernel just for kicks; that academia's gotten too caught up in what business needs rather than keeping their heads in the clouds and looking decades down the road.

I don't buy it. I became a programmer because I've got a terrible craving for learning. I think that's the thread that underscores all at least mediocre programmers - we're auto-didacts. It's why I giggle to myself when I see the "how can I teach my son to program" question thrown out there. If they really want to, they'll find a way. If they have to be dragged there, I'm sure they'll find a 9-5 in the cube next to mine some day.

It's why I'm left scratching my head about people bemoaning the death of the comp sci degree. Saying silly things like "you go to school to learn how to learn." Bullshit. You're born knowing how to learn. Some people will learn no matter what, others are content with what they've learned and will figure out how to apply it in new, interesting and sometimes inappropriate ways and still others make me wonder just how fictional Idiocracy was (kidding! (maybe)).

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