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2/9/2015
08:06 AM
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Code Schools: Right Path For Professional Programmers?

For students and CIOs alike, the question is whether code schools offer a ticket into the high-tech world.

meaningful difference in university education versus a programming school certificate -- so why should we pretend a real difference exists?

The same argument over profession versus trade plays out in conversations among programmers themselves. One example is a Slashdot discussion, Does Learning to Code Outweigh a Degree in Computer Science? The conversation revolves around whether university computer science degrees focus on theory to such an extent that they neglect the basic coding skills that business requires. It's dangerous to draw firm conclusions from an online discussion, but the consensus among those participating in this one seems to be that theory is learned at university, practical coding on the job.

It's important to note that this isn't a new discussion. I worked toward (but didn't complete) a master's degree in computer science in the early 1980s and heard the very same debate taking place then. The arguments were the same -- only the programming languages themselves have changed.

Beyond the coding environment

What has changed is the extent to which broader society is participating in the debate, and the implications for different members of the society. In particular, a practical, hands-on approach is seen by many as a way of bringing more women and minority coders into the enterprise programming world.

[ Trying to fuel a young woman's interest in science, technology, engineering or mathematics? Read 12 STEM Resources For Young Women. ]

Building a portfolio that shows the ability to "think like a programmer" can, for many in these non-traditional tech communities, take the place of a GPA and class ranking that comes with a university degree. It's not hard to find to find arguments in favor of this approach -- Theresa Meek wrapped them up well in an article on arguments for (and against) practical computer science classes at smartbear.com. In it, she quotes software engineer Gayle Laakmann McDowell, who said, "There are library books out there; pick up some to learn the basics. Then build something on your own."

The key to success, most agree, is the ability to think computationally about business problems.
(Image source: Geralt via Pixabay)

The key to success, most agree, is the ability to think computationally about business problems.

(Image source: Geralt via Pixabay)

Good magazine, a publication that tends to focus on social, rather than technical, issues, argued, "Expect more companies to start judging applicants by how they spent their post-high school years, not where. Its article Turn On, Code In, Drop Out: Tech Programmers Don't Need College Diplomas noted that hiring managers and developers agree that, ultimately, programming comes down to critical thinking. A non-traditional path for the non-traditional (and even motivated traditional) aspiring programmer is the factor that links all of these approaches to learning how to code. The question is whether anyone in the industry is listening.

Evidence from a couple of different directions indicates that industry is, indeed, paying attention to the non-university approaches to coding education. First, we've seen business activity around some of the non-traditional coding schools, such as the recent purchase of Code School by PluralSight for $36 million. Pluralsight's management has stated that its interest in Code School came from a recognition that the market for new programmers is strong and growing stronger.

Next is the older news that leading tech companies, including Google, no longer require a degree when considering new hires. When an organization with deep university ties and a strong tech reputation moves away from an insistence on a college degree, other companies tend to look at results and pay attention.

Ultimately, nearly everyone in business agrees that success in the field comes down to the ability to think computationally, and the willingness to learn new skills. Programming languages evolve and change, project management frameworks do the same. When individuals are able to adapt to those changes and work productively toward the business goal, it seems that ink on parchment is a technology whose time might well have passed.

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Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio
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Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
2/24/2015 | 5:43:16 PM
Re: Think like a programmer
@kstaron, I think that the people I want to hire don't need a college degree to teach them how to code. A course in coding, perhaps, but they're going to have the basic intellectual tools to hang in and do a decent job as a coder just because that's the way they approach life.

On the other hand, someone who gets the CS degree "because the guidance conselor said the money was good," can get the sheepskin and the credentials and still be someone I want to avoid like the plague when it comes to hiring. Becoming a good programmer is about much more than just knowing the syntax of a language.
kstaron
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kstaron,
User Rank: Ninja
2/24/2015 | 5:11:04 PM
Think like a programmer
Once, when my husband's company was hiring they went through several candidates, none of them being able to work through a fairly basic logical computer problem. He explained the problem to me and I told him how I would do it. He told me I was correct. I took a whopping 1 computer skills class in college. You don't have to have a degree to 'think like a programmer', but having one doesn't mean you have that way of thinking either. I already have a Master's in another field. If I wanted to make a change and head more to the computer coding side of things, I know I wouldn't go back to a traditional school to get the experience I need. Partly is because I already learned how to think like a programmer, now it's just a matter of learning how to code. What's right for you depends on where you are and where you've been. How many people do you know that need the experience of coding but already 'think like a programmer'?
JimC
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JimC,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/11/2015 | 4:49:26 PM
Back To The Future (Same Debate in the '80s)?
Has everyone forgotten the pre-Computer-Science-degree days of the early 1980s and prior?  Programmers doing their jobs using IBM Assembler language and COBOL were usually trained on the job.  Plenty came from two-year (or less) schools like ITT Technical Institute where they learned how to write code.  Insurance companies like John Hancock hired people off the street as COBOL programmers if they had a high school diploma and passed the company's aptitude test.  Former computer operators and some secretaries were given a chance to try their hand at programming.  If it didn't work out, they just went back to their old job.  As a former COBOL programmer myself who took night courses in that language and Assembler and Pascal, I worked with some very sharp people in the '80s, none of whom had a degree in Computer Science and some with no degree at all.  We used compilers; we didn't write the darn things.
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Ninja
2/10/2015 | 5:06:45 PM
Re: Code Schools: Right Path For Professional Programmers?
Learning how to code is all about a person's traits. Some people learn best in a classroom. Others learn by doing. 

Online classes for coding have their place. So do traditional schools. I think there is room for a number of different approaches to getting people learning how to program, and that there is no one size fits all for this sort of thing. 
Technocrati
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Technocrati,
User Rank: Ninja
2/10/2015 | 3:04:21 AM
Re: Code Schools: Right Path For Professional Programmers?

Really interesting arguments for and against Online learning ( in this case coding/programming ).  

My feeling is these are great opportunities to understand the foundations of languages and to digest the concept.

Of course the issue of real world ability raises it's ugly head, but I really believe skills and learning are what you make them.

Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
2/10/2015 | 2:32:22 AM
Re: Code Schools: Right Path For Professional Programmers?
To create good code, you need not only be proficient in programming language but also solid knowledge about data structure, algorithm and so on. It's not tighted to university degree but all in all, you need to be solid and possess systematic knowledge instead of just learning coding itself in school.
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
2/9/2015 | 8:49:45 PM
Re: Code Schools: Right Path For Professional Programmers?
There's nothing special about you just because you have a technical degree.

If I can do the job, it shouldn't matter if I have a technical degree or not.

And so on. If that's going to be the attitude, and it is, why should anyone bother to go university,  give up 4 or 5 years of his or her life and amass $200,000 in debt to get a degree in IT, EE, or physical science? If society won't pay for it, don't expect masses of people to continue to do it.

The Edisons or the world will beat out the Teslas. Thinkers will be replaced by tinkers.

But one of these days, you'll need us, and we won't be there.
zerox203
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zerox203,
User Rank: Ninja
2/9/2015 | 7:44:57 PM
Re: Code Schools: Right Path For Professional Programmers?
The most interesting thing about this debate is that it's sort of gotten all up in our faces before we've really had a chance to sit down and talk about the basics. On one end, we have app makers and game developers who are building their stuff and becoming successes not only without going to school, but without making any inroads into the traditional industry at all. On the other, we have monolithic companies that want to make these innovations, but won't even look at these people for entry-level positions. How did that happen? I was talking with a friend who graduated from a top technical school with a 4-year degree recently, and he suggested that all IT work should be reclassified as a trade. His father, an accomplished carpenter, gave him the idea. In that field, everyone has their specialization to eliminate redundancy and ensure high quality. It wouldn't make sense for them all to go to college.

There are many factors at work here. The ubiquity of high-speed internet is one. You could teach yourself programming in the 90s, but it was quite a bit harder. Digital marketplaces like Google Play and Steam play a role too. I think growth within the industry also went without proper adaptations being made. IT's responsibilities have expanded to include anything and everything technology related - it's no wonder just a handful of degrees can't account for all the job titles and responsibilities. You can't get a 'cloud' degree, but you can certainly be expected to be a cloud specialist. This extends to programmers. Are you UI? UX? just because you're a C++ developer doesn't mean you can develop for every platform C++ code can run on. I wholeheartedly agree that traditional schooling needs to be dropped a peg, and other options need to be moved up, but there's more to it than that.
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