do you really need college to code?

Just because you can write an app without going to college, don’t discount the value of a degree if you decide to seriously pursue computer science.

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Every summer, there’s always something in my inbox about going to college or back to it for an undergraduate degree in computer science. Lots of people want to become programmers. It’s one of the few in-demand fields that keeps growing and growing with few limits, where a starting salary allows for comfortable student loan repayments and a quick path to savings, and you’re often creating something new, which keeps things fun and exciting. Working in IT when you left college and live alone can be a very rewarding experience. Hell, if I did it all over again, I’d have gone to grad school sooner, but it’s true that I’m rather biased. When the work starts getting too stale or repetitive, there’s the luxury of just taking your skill set elsewhere after calling recruiters and telling them that you need a change of scenery, and there are so many people working on new projects that you can always get involved in building something from scratch. Of course all this comes with a catch. Computer science is notoriously hard to study and competitive. Most of the people who take first year classes will fail them and never earn a degree.

Although, some are saying nowadays, do you really even need a degree? Programming is a lot like art. If you have a degree in fine arts, have a deep grasp of history, and can debate the pros and cons of particular techniques that’s fantastic. But if you’re just really good at making art that sells with very little to no formal training, are you any less of an artist than someone with a B.A. or an M.A. with a focus on the art you’re creating? You might not know what Medieval artisans might have called your approach back in the day, or what steps you’re missing, but frankly, who gives a damn if the result is in demand and the whole thing just works? This idea underpins the efforts of tech investors who go out of their way to court teenagers into trying to create startups in the Bay Area, telling them that college is for chumps who can’t run a company, betting what seems like a lot of money to teens right out of high school that one of their projects will become the next Facebook, or Uber, or Google. It’s a pure numbers game in which those whose money is burning a hole in their pockets are looking for lower risk to achieve higher returns, and these talented teens needs a lot less startup cash than experienced adults.

This isn’t outright exploitation; the young programmers will definitely get something out of all of this, and were this an apprenticeship program, it would be a damn good one. However, the sad truth is that less than 1 out of 10 of their ideas will succeed and this success will typically involve a sale to one of the larger companies in the Bay rather than a corporate behemoth they control. In the next few years, nearly all of them will work in typical jobs or consult, and it’s there when a lack of formalism they could only really get in college is going to be felt more acutely. You could learn everything about programming and software architecture on your own, true. But a college will help you but pointing out what you don’t even know you don’t yet know but should. Getting solid guidance in how to flesh out your understanding of computing is definitely worth the tuition and the money they’ll make now can go a long way towards paying it. Understanding only basic scalability, how to keep prototypes working for real life customers, and quick deployment limits them to fairly rare IT organizations which go into and out of business at breakneck pace.

Here’s the point of all this. If you’re considering a career in computer science and see features about teenagers supposedly becoming millionaires writing apps and not bothering with college, and decide that if they can do it, you can too, don’t. These are talented kids given opportunities few will have in a very exclusive programming enclave in which they will spend many years. If a line of code looks like gibberish to you, you need college, and the majority of the jobs what will be available to you will require it as a prerequisite to even get an interview. Despite what you’re often told in tech headlines, most successful tech companies are ran by people in their 30s and 40s rather than ambitious college dropouts for whom all of Silicon Valley opened their wallets to great fanfare, and when those companies do B2B sales, you’re going to need some architects with graduate degrees and seasoned leadership with a lot of experience in their clients’ industry to create a stable business. Just like theater students dream of Hollywood, programmers often dream of the Valley. Both dreams have very similar outcomes.

# tech // coding / computer science / programming / silicon valley


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