I was planning to get back into blogging either with a nice crunchy “metrics in F# with Suave and Logary” post or a book review of Camille Fournier’s The Manager’s Path (tl;dr: Yes, you should buy it and read it), but apparently we’re doing the key fundamentals vs. credentialist signaling thing on the Twitters lately so here’s what finally bubbled to the top.
tl;dr me, should I do a CS degree?
That’s a hard maybe.
Back up, buckaroo; what makes you an expert?
To start with, I have a Ph.D. in computing science. I spent about a dozen years in school. My parents also have Ph.D.s, so I’m maybe a bit more steeped in academic culture than most industry developers.
Oh yeah, I’m also an industry developer. Not just that, I’ve been managing and hiring industry developers for the last year or so. I have a great dev on my team with a Master’s degree in CS, and another great dev with a certificate from a tech college. They both perform at about the same level (“high”).
I also, uh, know of some people with CS degrees who stopped learning as soon as they could manage and consequently don’t add a hell of a lot of value.
So, what’s so great about doing a CS degree?
Well, from my own experience, I got exposed to a lot of theory. I don’t draw on it much, except to occasionally tell people they shouldn’t use regexes for that thing, but it built a strong foundation in my mind that programming can and does have a basis in theory. It’s not just an ad-hoc, learn-the-SOLID-principles then debug until the tests go green exercise; there are deep foundational truths you can use to build better software.
I also got exposed to a fair amount of math. Again, I don’t draw on it much (which is a shame, I like linear algebra and graph theory), but again it gave me some basic tools to learn the math I do use on the fly. (Which, if you’re wondering, is mostly set, ring, and group algebra. I snuck in a bit of products-and-coproducts category theory today, but didn’t call it that.)
But what about coding?
Oh yeah, I wrote a bunch of code, especially in grad school. I’m not sure how much it helped, though; outside of my intro Software Engineering course nobody really gave half a fuck whether my code was any good as long as it shat out the results the TA was expecting.
Even so, spending a full semester in a team of four people building a compiler was a pretty good exercise, and writing up honest-to-goodness New Shit in grad school was exciting.
So what’s not great about doing a CS degree?
Well, it’s expensive. Between TAing and a 16-month internship I came out of my B.Sc. pretty much even, but doing a Ph.D. is a fantastically effective way to blow away probably seven figures of lifetime income. I spent eight years earning $18k and came out the other side looking at, if I was lucky, the top quartile of “junior developer”. Things would be even worse if I’d stayed in the “academic pipeline” of never-ending postdocs and adjunct positions.
This is in Canada, mind you. I scraped by without student loans, although I’m still not quite sure how I managed. Taking on debt, especially for a grad degree, and expecting to convert that into future earnings looks to me like a gamble with a massively negative expected payoff.
Okay, it’s expensive. But you’re a better developer, right?
When I was taught the fundamentals of software dev, I was taught that code reuse was the holy grail and the best way to do it was inheriting implementation code into subclasses. When I was taught databases, it was assumed that any competent organization would have one single integrated database managed by an aloof clique of demigods called DBAs. When I was taught networking, it was assumed that the code on the other end of the socket would pick up.
When I got to grad school and started to build out a set of libraries to support my research, I’d just picked up Kent Beck’s TDD By Example, so I wanted to write myself a test suite. I was told it was a stupid waste of time. (I did it anyway, at least to start with, but didn’t stick with it.) A year or two later, a labmate and I got interested in pair programming… you can fill in the rest, right? We didn’t stick with it.
But where else are you going to learn crucial skills?
My team runs a couple of 24/7 back-end services. We deploy, I dunno, half a dozen times a week. The people who do well are good at:
- Understanding why we’re working on the tickets we’re developing; even if they aren’t talking to stakeholders there’s some sense of a customer who wants this thing
- Test-driving their work
- Giving and receiving code reviews that’re educational to both parties
- Building, running, and monitoring systems at scale that integrate with rather a lot of other systems
I have never run across a candidate who learned any of those skills in a CS programme. Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to learn either on your own, or (if you’re working for a company that isn’t terrible) on the job. A CS degree might give you better context for learning as you go, but it won’t substitute for learning as you go.
So should I do a CS degree?
I mean, if you want, it’s certainly not going to hurt. It’s probably going to help. Aside from the “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” benefits of internship/co-op programmes and hanging out with a bunch of people who’re at least hypothetically motivated to build systems, it’ll give you plenty of practice at writing fairly nontrivial code and learning difficult technical topics. Just don’t expect it to teach you all, or even most, of what you’ll need to know.
It also gives you some opportunities to do things that’ll serve you in good stead down the road. Work as a teaching assistant for your favourite professor; volunteer (I mean, ideally get paid, but colleges gonna college) at the help desk; do programming contests; go out drinking with grad students and pick their brains about the neat shit they’re into.
But if you can’t afford a CS degree, either in time or in cash money dollars, that lack shouldn’t keep you out of the industry. You’ll probably have a harder time than you should getting in the front door – credentialism is a favourite cop-out of lazy recruiters and hiring managers – but you’re probably also bringing other skills to the table that help you work as part of a team. And even if you’re not, we learn a lot on the job as we go.
Either way, probably don’t do grad school.
Appendix: Am I more hireable if I have a CS degree?
I can only speak for myself here, but… not really. Again, probably there are a lot of HR turds and recruiters who substitute pattern-matching on credentials for actually reading resumes for comprehension, so in that sense, yeah. How much do you want to work for those folks.
When I read a resume, or linkedin profile, or github repo, I look for skill fit first. For me, for the jobs I’ve been hiring into, that’s basically this shit:
- Some reasonably modern back-end experience, ideally more than just a single language or stack
- TDD experience, or at least familiarity with unit testing
- Continuous integration and delivery
- Running a system at scale, particularly something horizontally-scaled and 24/7 available
After that, I look for things that make you stand out. Five years’ experience bartending? Hey, maybe you have social skills. Spent a few years teaching grade school? Teaching ain’t easy. Master’s degree? I have some idea of what that entails and brings to the table.
A four-year B.Sc. in computing science does not stand out, unless it’s from a really hot-shit school (in which case you’re probably not applying here). Lack of a four-year B.Sc. doesn’t really stand out, either.