What Every College Computer Science Freshman Should Know

The Clarkson School bridging year progrram class of 2015 graduates

In a few weeks new college freshmen will begin their classes. Some of them will choose to pursue a degree in Computer Science. Over the course of the four years in college they will be surrounded by like minded people who are at least as smart as they are and are just as interested in computers.

When they enter the job market they will compete for the same jobs with colleagues who do not have computer science degrees or any STEM degree at all. This group learned computer programming as a way to advance their careers. Anya Kamenetz of NPR writes1:

Virtually unknown just four years ago, today at least 50 of these programs have sprung up around the country and overseas. Collectively, the sector has taken in an estimated $73 million in tuition since 2011.

And the top programs say they are placing the vast majority of their graduates into jobs earning just under six figures in a rapidly expanding field — filling a need for practical, hands-on skills that traditional college programs, in many cases, don’t.

“The main portion [that attracted me] was the empowerment — being able to create something in terms of technology,” says Frausto, a slight man in a baseball cap with a mustache waxed straight out to sharp points. “That, and obtaining a trade.”

Coder boot camps are poised to get much, much bigger. This past summer, Kaplan, one of the largest education companies, acquired Dev Bootcamp, where Frausto is enrolled. These programs constitute nothing less than a new business model for for-profit vocational education. But their creators believe their greatest innovation may actually be in the realm of learning itself.

Software is so pervasive that every successful professional needs to know how to program. Whether they are an accountant using Excel, a statistician using Python, or a physicist using C, they are all writing software that solves some problem. The vast majority of software is not downloaded by consumers from an App Store, or bundled with a computer as part of the operating system. The vast majority of software solves some mind numbing business problem with no technical complexity that requires a computer science degree. In fact, the vast majority of such software is better off written by a business user who took a programming class. Patrick McKenzie writes2:

Most software is not sold in boxes, available on the Internet, or downloaded from the App Store. Most software is boring one-off applications in corporations, under-girding every imaginable facet of the global economy. It tracks expenses, it optimizes shipping costs, it assists the accounting department in preparing projections, it helps design new widgets, it prices insurance policies, it flags orders for manual review by the fraud department, etc etc. Software solves business problems. Software often solves business problems despite being soul-crushingly boring and of minimal technical complexity.

There is a mismatch3 between the expectations of the business world and those of computer science graduates. Many computer science graduates who expect to end up at Google, Facebook, or Amazon are bound to be disappointed – either because they won’t be able to, or because the actual jobs they are assigned to do will be as pragmatic as anywhere else4.

Ms. Kamenetz writes1 :

Patrick Sarnacke has hired many Dev Bootcamp and other “boot camp” graduates at ThoughtWorks. It’s a global software consultancy headquartered in Chicago, and Sarnacke is head of the associate consultant program.

“Just because someone has a four-year computer science degree doesn’t mean they’re going to be great coders in the business world,” he says. “A lot of traditional programs aren’t teaching the skills people need.”

If someone can become a marketable computer programmer in just a few weeks, why would they go through a four year computer science program that seems like is not preparing them for the real world ? What’s in it for them ? How do they differentiate themselves in the job market ?

The problem is in the definition of the term ‘coder’ and ‘programmer.’ In his visionary work Harry Braverman wrote back in the 1970s5:

A great deal of the work of programming was routine and could be delegated to cheaper employees. Thus the designation of “programmer” has by this time become somewhat ambiguous, and can be applied to expert program analysts who grasp the rationale of the systems they work on, as well as to program coders who take as their materials the pre-digested instructions for the system or subsystem and simply translate them mechanically into specialized terminology.

The training for this latter work occupies no more than a few months, and peak performance is realized within a one-to two-year period. In accordance with the logic of the capitalist division of labor, most programmers have been reduced to this level of work.5

What Braverman is warning us about is that a typical enterprise programmer or coder implements specific requirements and designs given to them. They may be constrained by the IT department in various ways with regards to which tools to use and which platforms to program for. They are likely to deal with an existing system that was built a decade or more ago, their job being to fix bugs and shoehorn new features. They must work within the constraints of strategic direction set by their management and they have little say in it. Their role in the company is under constant scrutiny and comparison with foreign outsourcing companies.

By the time today’s Computer Science freshmen enter the job market every person in the business world will be able to code a computer program. The programming languages and platforms are becoming the great equalizers of skills, allowing any business professional with a few weeks of training to configure their own enterprise apps, and write their own code in a language that makes the most sense to them6. In other words, the profession of a “programmer” as a standalone role will be gone. To become a “programmer” should not be a goal of anyone entering a Computer Science program.

The good news is that there are areas where a Computer Science background is the differentiating factor. By training, Computer Science graduates are better positioned for jobs where a STEM background is valuable3. Their ability to learn and adopt new technologies and cross-polinate ideas from others cannot be learned in a six week program.

At the top of the list of highly lucrative Computer Science opportunities is any sort of financial trading and analytics. Wall Street is continuously seeking ways to make more money, lose less, while doing it faster and more efficiently than their competitors. Wall Street quants can earn mid to upper six figure jobs and they typically come from STEM background. Many of the smaller Wall Street companies also have an atmosphere meant to attract top talent from the tech industry and many also offer services and software to outside customers. Wall Street jobs can be stressful – companies can rise and fall with technology7.

Software companies and startups are also a natural fit for a Computer Science graduate. With very few exceptions the products that they make are in some line of business. The challenge with making business software, however, is that rather than building internal enterprise apps they have to build software that can be used by many customers. That requires a scientific approach to software development, engineering discipline and abstract thinking. A six weeks course in JavaScript does not teach that.

Technology consultancies serve customers who are either not in a position to have their own technology team or who do not have the in-house expertise for a challenging project. In addition to STEM skills these jobs require ability to present ideas to decision makers. A Masters program graduate, for instance, with teaching and publishing experience, is well positioned for a succesful career at a technology consulting firm.

Finally, there has never been a better time to build a software product that a lot of customers will pay for. Whereas in the past to get an enterprise application into a company one had to get past CTOs, CIOs, CEOs, and IT directors, the cloud offers an opportunity to appeal directly to business users. A Salesforce user, for example, does not need permission from their IT department to purchase a 3rd party software that makes them more productive. Likewise, anyone using Google business apps or Microsoft Office365 can do the same. The barrier to entry has been lowered, and now anyone with an idea, a laptop, and a skillset can build a useful product that millions of people will use and pay for.

  1. Twelve Weeks to a Six Figure Job 
  2. Don’t Call Yourself a Programmer 
  3. Attracting STEM Graduates to Traditional Enterprise IT 
  4. I have a personal story of an internship at IBM back in the 1990s. I was really excited to work for IBM, but when I started my job I realized that what I was working on was a boring old internal financial data warehouse and reporting application. I was bored out of my mind for six month but I learned an important lesson: that internal financial application was as important to IBM as any of their customer facing products. 
  5. “Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century” by Harry Braverman, p. 227 
  6. Look no further than SQL, various SAP products, and Salesforce 
  7. Thoughts on Wall St. Technology 

3 thoughts on “What Every College Computer Science Freshman Should Know

  1. As an retired director of IT and following the trend of the profession ; yes you can go and work in the profession as a programmer, network or analyst however the better way is to go into the apps area where you write plug and play apps foe all kinds of functionalities.

  2. Enjoying your articles, but I seem to have had a slightly different experience with your claim regarding having a Computer Science background being a differentiating factor in this one.

    I completely agree that most who engage in a short coding bootcamp will be unlikely to pursue learning and applying algorithms on their own. But that’s not true for all students, regardless of the program, or all programs. Have you looked at Free Code Camp’s list of algorithms they cover? That bootcamp lasts for months from what I understand, so they are an outlier in my opinion.

    The real difference in experience I have had is in your comment “their ability to learn and adopt new technologies and cross-pollinate ideas from others cannot be learned in a six week program.” That statement is likely true.

    However, it assumes the opposite for CS grads. My problem with that is I don’t see CS graduates learning how to do that in their 4-6 yr programs either. I’m not saying there isn’t one, but I have yet to find a CS program that excels at helping their students learn how to learn or develop creative and critical thinking skills, if those are things that can be taught within that time period.

    Those I’ve met who are good at it have either been naturally gifted or well-seasoned and the real differentiating factor I’ve seen in those important areas is the student’s ability to make the best of their training, not the training itself.

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