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What Does a Degree Mean?

So, I'm pondering the value of a comp. sci. degree today. Sue me: it's Sunday morning, my wife's still asleep, Meet the Press isn't on yet. :-p

With perhaps the exception of some of the very finest comp. sci. schools (and maybe not even then), it certainly doesn't mean you know what it takes to be a professional programmer. Most education is using outdated tools and teaching a lot of things you're not likely to run into on a day-to-day basis, while virtually excluding the idea of teaching formalized teamwork and planning. ("fail to plan, plan to fail" and all that)

So then I thought maybe what it means is what I've heard rumored: that it means that you can stick with something that sucks, even when you know it's going to be long term. Okay, I'm not sure that _that's_ a good thing, either. I sorta want people who aren't afraid to take a stand for themselves and challenge the status quo.

So I'm stumped. Tell me again why I'm supposed to be impressed that someone finishes a comp. sci. degree? I honestly want to know!

Brad Wilson (
Sunday, June 22, 2003

Go check out the thread on leaving a job. It seems a lot of people seem to put value on the idea that a job candidate can stick with something for longer than six months.

It's also an indicator that you have some kind of rudimentary ability to communicate, pursue tasking, complete assignments on time, etc, etc.

While I'd always thought that a CS degree indicated a knowledge of pointers, sorting, lists, algorithms, etc, a recent post by an interviewer seems to indicate this is no longer a safe assumption.

Finally, a degree is a completely legitimized method of "whack-a-mole" resume elimination.


Sunday, June 22, 2003

There is no reason to be. I've met with dozens of people in the last few months (see my Finding People thread) and have found a CS degree means little when it comes to skill, talent, or drive.

What gets me is the lack of methodology exposer. Isn't this the one time in their career were they can take the time to learn about XP and other strategies of development?

My cynical opinion is that ever computer science department in the US has only one agenda; hate Microsoft.

Ok, so maybe I'm exaggerating that a bit. But there seem s to be a massive number of professors who are nothing more than embittered CP/M fanatics who still have a rod up their ass because IBM choose DOS.

"Damn you big blue! DAMN YOU!"

Sunday, June 22, 2003

I think a college degree gets "your foot  in the door." It also shows that you can take a long-term project and bring it to conclusion.

Chi Lambda
Sunday, June 22, 2003

I've said this before, and I'll say it again: the only use of ANY university degree is problem solving techniques. Yes, someone with a CompSci degree will have experience in C and Java, but not a lot of it. Someone with an English degree who has been hobby programming since they were a kid is likely just as (or more) qualified for a position.

My policy on hiring is that a degree is nice, but it doesn't outweigh my own interview testing (writing code on the spot, problem solving and design questions), nor does it bias me unless I have two perfectly equal candidates in every way (which never happens - one person always stands out).

I look for intelligence, talent and charisma (in that order) in my hires. Degrees are further down the list.

Tim Sullivan
Sunday, June 22, 2003

Personally, I'd wake the wife and not think about such things on a Sunday morning.

You either need to stay in bed longer, or get out more.

Simon Lucy
Sunday, June 22, 2003

I think there's a push to encourage everyone to "get a degree" as if a degree is some magic piece of paper that will better your life.  This is a big fallacy in my opinion.  Currently people with bachelors and masters degrees are taking jobs at McDonalds because they can't find work and have to pay for that piece of paper.  A degree no longer guarantees a job or a "better" job.  Too many people have degrees.  Maybe the government should pay for everyone coming out of high school to get a bachelors degree so they can work on the assembly line at the local plant and say they have a degree, that is until their job shifts overseas due to NAFTA and other stupid political moves.      The job market is flooded, everyone wants in and there's only so much room.  Dear Mr. Bush, In case you haven't noticed decent jobs in the US are about as rare as WMD in Iraq.

I also have something to say about the difference in degrees.  I currently have an Associates Degree.  Now some places will only accept a piece of paper with the word bachelor on it.  What's up with that.  Should I spend money to get a bachelors degree.  I would if I knew it would help me get a job but what are the odds of finding work?

Sunday, June 22, 2003

"...get out more" -- so what are you doing here then? :-p

Duncan Smart
Sunday, June 22, 2003

Ahh but I'm at least 5 hours ahead, if not 8.  I've had a full and energetic (for me) day.

Simon Lucy
Sunday, June 22, 2003

What it means to me:  This person probably knows data structures and algorithms. 

Not that not having a degree means you don't know them, or that necessarily having a degree means you do know them.

And the importance is:  Too many people using grossly inefficient techniques or reinventing the wheel very poorly. 

This may not apply in all fields.  I used to work for a data processing type company and it was important there.  Now I work for an internet startup and it's not important at all.  Everything here is very high level.

Sunday, June 22, 2003

I own a small software company - we have 10 employees and make our own products (we are not consulting).

When hiring, I simply don't look at the degrees.

I don't care about degrees, because I know that the mechanical engineer who is in love with computers may be a lot better than some slacker with a CS degree.

I don't imply that CS people are slackers. I hold a CS degree myself.

What I am saying is that I'd rather hire a very good programmer without any degree, than an average programmer with a degree.

After selecting about 20 of the best resumes, I send e-mail them a few programming "exercises" to solve. Usually I select these "exercises" from real work.

Funny thing - out of 20 people, only about 2-3 send in a solution, and usually only one, or no solution is correct.

If somebody solves the problem, then I interview them, ask them to solve a few more problems in front of me (to make sure they were not cheating by asking somebody else to solve the problems) and hire them.

It's as simply as that. :)

> While I'd always thought that a CS degree indicated
> a knowledge of pointers, sorting, lists, algorithms,
> etc, a recent post by an interviewer seems to indicate
> this is no longer a safe assumption.

My best employee is a mechanical engineer. Belive me that this guy has a real passion, and knows a lot more about algorithms and data structures than CS guys. It's just that he discovered computers while he was in college already, and in my country, you are not allowed to switch degrees.

Sunday, June 22, 2003

"people with bachelors and masters degrees are taking jobs at McDonalds because they can't find work and have to pay for that piece of paper."

Do you have anything more than anecdotal evidence to support this ridiculous claim?

Warren Henning
Sunday, June 22, 2003

You don't have to be impressed with a degree if you won't want to be.  You don't have to make degrees an absolute requirement for hiring.  Think of it in terms of statistical correlation.

Over my own career I have noticed that people with a degree tend to be stronger in the fundamentals.  They finish things better.  They are more disciplined in their work.  They handle pressure better.

Yet all of these are generalizations, and I know exceptions to each one.  I've known some very fine developers who lack a degree, and I've known some lousy developers with very fine degrees.

The degree itself is probably not a positive -- it merely correlates well with some other positive factors.  If you prefer to ignore degrees and focus on the actual factors, that'll work too.

Eric W. Sink
Sunday, June 22, 2003

dear Grrr:

NAFTA is the North American Free Trade Agreement.  If you really close your eyes and thing hard, you will see that it cannot shift jobs overseas.

Erik Lickerman
Sunday, June 22, 2003

My view of degrees is that they'll certainly allow you to get your foot in more doors, but these often aren't the kind of doors I want to get in.  You'll get rejected by clueless HR departments, but do you really want to work for companies with clueless HR departments?  And if they're that clueless in their hiring practices, do you think they're really going to be better in terms of general management issues and things like promotions and bonuses?

Judging from my experience in the field, there is absolutely zero correlation between an individual's level of education and their ability to develop software.  I know guys with Masters in CS who are absolutely clueless in every way imaginable.  I know others with no degrees or with degrees from places that aren't "real colleges" who are great programmers. 

Take a look at this chart from Visual Studio Magazines recent salary survey:

Keep in mind that the numbers for those with only a high school diploma or a 2 year degree don't take into account the expensive loans that most of those with BS's or higher have.

I can speak from personal experience that I, as someone without a BS, am making more money, by far, than others that I know who are the same age, in the same position, with the same level of experience in terms of time, who have degrees.  I know people with BS's whose annual income is literally the same amount that I pay in taxes.  Maybe not having my degree will hurt my ability to move into higher paid management positions, but I'm on track to have my own company by then where that won't be an issue (and where I'll be making loads more money and having a heck of lot more job satisfaction than those in management positions).

Sunday, June 22, 2003

I should add that I don't have a problem with degrees.  I might end up getting one someday myself if I find the time to fit the classes in.  What I'm getting at is that a crappy programmer is going to be a crappy programmer whether they have a degree or not, and most crappy programmers do.  A degree these days isn't an indication of an ability to do much beyond drinking and partying.  Most people getting into things like Computer Science do so because they heard that CS is where the money is at, rather than because they have a love for the field or any special talent.

Sunday, June 22, 2003

I think a lot of popular thinking about degrees is way out of date.

Fifty years ago, going to a university and getting a degree was the only way to learn certain disciplines. That's not the case anymore. Society has not yet adapted to this.

Secondly, the idea that having a degree is some binary good / not good makes no sense if you analyse it. Does having a degree from 1975 make someone superior to someone without a degree but who spent the last 10 years designing software? Of course it doesn't.

Similarly, many lecturers and professors, especially the older ones, didn't learn their computer science with degrees. They got engineering, math or science degrees and TAUGHT THEMSELVES about computer science.

Sunday, June 22, 2003

Degrees are like cash. Seriously devalued over time. Remember what 100.000$ meant to you 30 years ago? Whoa! Nowadays you say "only 100.000?".
Pretty soon everybody will be a millionaire. You'll have to be to get the basics.
Same with degrees. Used to be pretty special and proof to you passed some pretty rigourous selection. Nowadays ...

Just me (Sir to you)
Monday, June 23, 2003

Everyone seems to be asking "Does a degree help me get a job?"

I think we need to look it at this way:

"Does not having a degree hurt my job chances?"

It's a tough job market out there. Why wouldn't you want to have every possible advantage?

I'm 33 years old and although I have tons of college in 3 billion different majors, I never got a degree. I've been in this industry for 10 years and my lack of degree has never been a problem.


Times are changing. I recognize that my next job hunt is going to be a lot tougher than it has been. Therefore, I want to stack the deck in my favor and that is why I've gone back to school.

Does it make me a better programmer? Who knows. But all that really matters is if my next employer thinks it makes me a better programmer.

Mark Hoffman
Monday, June 23, 2003

I thought this dead horse was decoratively laid to rest many moons ago by another poster.

The best programmers are a mix of those with degrees in Computer Science, other subjects (Philosophy seemed to make the best programmers of all, CS included) and a smaller number of self-taught programmers. This mix went all the way down the hierarchy except that no CS graduate was to be found in the bottom 20-30% (whiere Business Studies graduates appeared to be greatly overrepresented).

Stephen Jones
Monday, June 23, 2003

I was asking from the point of being a hiring person, not a person seeking a job, but this comment struck me as interesting:

"It's a tough job market out there. Why wouldn't you want to have every possible advantage?"

You don't gamble much, right? Because it's not like you can buy a degree for $100 out of the back of a magazine. We're talking serious commitment, here: years of your life and tens of thousands of dollars, even perhaps a hundred thousand dollars.

All because of a temporary down-turn in the market?

Brad Wilson (
Monday, June 23, 2003

Dear Brad,
                The reason you get a degree is because it comes at the end of studying, which is an end in itself.

                You don't expect to get your investment back when you blow a few hundred dollars on crack and hookers for a good weekend, or tens of thousands of dollars to climb Mount Everest so you can be photographed with frostbite, so why do you expect to get it back when you spend three years doing really interesting things in a congenial environment with interesting people?

                In my experience people who take a degree because they think it will get them a better job, often don't finish, are normally lousy professionals, and not uncommonly don't get thier investment back either.

Stephen Jones
Monday, June 23, 2003

If you want a glance into the mind of the average CS undergrad in the UK...

To be quite honest - we are all just here for money.  Believe me most of my fellow students couldn't tell you what an iterator or visitor-pattern was if you paid them.

Many studying CS+Biz are kind'a proud of their ignorance, after all they're aiming to "tell other ppl what to write" *sigh*

Nevermind, at least I know a lot more maths now :-)

A N Other Student
Monday, June 23, 2003

I don't know if it's your blog but this quote is a beaut.

```"The state of the IT industry today is that of a large number of programmers who don't need a lot of understanding [aka CodeMonkeys], doing work for a small number of people who have none [aka pointy-haired ones]. "------

You're right about the decline in the quality of undergraduates, though. One-and-a-half bottles of champers and he's pissed. In my day we'd have half-a-dozen each for breakfast!

Stephen Jones
Monday, June 23, 2003

And another great quote from the site I just can't resist.

---"Definition of Science

Proper science:

    * Physics
    * Chemistry
    * Biology
    * Psychology

Bad science:

    * Sports Science
    * Social Science
    * Management Science
    * Computer Science

Never do a subject that feels the need to validate itself."------

Stephen Jones
Monday, June 23, 2003

I seem to be in the minority on this one.

I believe in the value of a degree. There are many areas of computer science that are basic fundamentals that I don't believe that people who don't go to school tend to learn.
(More on the theory side, you may not use it every day but it does come in handy from time to time).

Also, if someone does not have the discipline to go to school I wonder about their discipline at work. The hackers (ie completely self taught) sw developers that I have worked with have had exceptional skill and some of the worst programming practices I have ever seen. In the end, they were not a positive contributor to the organization.
(But that's just one example)

As someone earlier mentioned, this is simply a statistical corelation, a degree for me simply makes me think that by probability there is an n% better chance that you will be good.

Obviously any particular individuals performance is not necessarily reflected in what I assume to be the general trend.

Troy English
Monday, June 23, 2003


My degree will pay dividends over the course of my career. It's not just in response to an economic downturn.

It really depends on your age....

I've got about another 30 years in my career. Over the course of those 30 years, how often is my lack of a degree going to be an issue? I'd be a fool to suggest that it won't ever be an issue just because that it hasn't been in the past.

My past employment and salary has been largely affected by the dot com boom. Only the most optimistic would suggest that our industry will ever return to what it was 2-3 years ago. Downturn you say? Perhaps, but if your waiting for the late 90's to return, then......

Bottom line for me: My skills and experience are my most important assets. However, over the course of my career (30+ years) there are bound to be many times when not having a degree will hurt my chances of advancing.

And no...I don't gamble. But if I did, I would certainly hedge my bets. And that is what getting a degree does.

Mark Hoffman
Monday, June 23, 2003

A $100k hedge. Ouch. Glad it's your money, not mine.

When I talk about downturn, I'm not talking about reduced salaries, I'm talking about reduced employment. The argument that "you shouldn't WANT to work somewhere that refuses to hire you without a degree" really resonate with me.

Brad Wilson (
Monday, June 23, 2003

"I believe in the value of a degree. There are many areas of computer science that are basic fundamentals that I don't believe that people who don't go to school tend to learn."

I don't believe that having a degree necessarily means you can assume that those basic fundamentals were not only learned, but absorbed and understood. You still have to test for that. Given that you're testing for that with your potential employees, why even bother filtering for degrees? Are you saying that your experience has been that the only really grounded developers are ones with degrees? My experience has been more or less opposite: the more "formal" education someone has, the less likely they are to be good developers. But 2 data points does not a statistic make...

Brad Wilson (
Monday, June 23, 2003


Where do get this 100K figure? Sure, if you're going to go to school full time at an Ivy League college and require money to live on, then yeah, perhaps. But I attend the University of Texas system (while I work) and my total bill won't even come close to 100K.

I'm not sure why you bothered starting this thread. Was it to seek honest opinions, or do you just want everyone to agree with you that degrees are unnecessary?
OK..degrees are worthless...You'll never need one. It won't ever matter. There ya go. Now you've got consensus. Good luck in your career.

Mark Hoffman
Monday, June 23, 2003

Personally, I think a degree can be quite valuable.

However, it doesn't necessarily have to be a computer science degree. My undergrad is actually in Electrical Engineering. At the time I went for the bachelor's, I figured I didn't want to ruin a perfectly good hobby (programming) by going for the CS degree.

The EE degree was tough, but I learned a LOT about problem solving along the way. That experience was very valuable in my later career, despite the fact that I haven't touched a transistor in 10 years.

I later got a Master's in CS in an attempt to pick up on some of the topics I would have hit if I'd done CS undergrad. In my case (and many others) the Master's was essentially free - my empolyer(s) paid for the tuition, and I did the degree while working.

If you've got such a benefit, USE IT! A free masters degree is worth doing, if nothing else as a networking tool. You never know where a classmate's going to show up.

Chris Tavares
Monday, June 23, 2003

It's a group blog with some of my friends.  It was actually started by Andy.  Thanks for picking out my entries for the quotes :-)

I wouldn't say my course was a useless waste of time.  But the basics that we are taught could easily fit into a single year.  A lot of it is filler classes.

Ex. This year I spent an insane amount of time trying to learn Z formal spec language:
Z is 1) V.over-complex (4 meanings for one symbol!)
      2) Partly written by the professor in question
Entertaingly, the formal proof of programs (the reason entre) was tucked away at the end of the module, so I never actually got around to learning it :D

I also had my tick-box list of design "issues" HCI course, as mandated by the BCA, my introduction to Bluetooth and infini-band server storage [due to IBM sponsorship].

On the upside, I have got a pretty good idea of concurrency, data structures, efficiency, functional languages (which rock!), etc.  But like I said, its the minority of the course that's useful, and a lot of things like design patterns are missed out.

A N Other Student
Monday, June 23, 2003

Well, is there anyone here who got a degree and _regretted_ it?  I haven't met many people that have.  Of course not everyone has the money, and every degree is different.  But in general, I would say that getting a degree is a good thing.  Things that you have learned through experience will probably come together in certain ways with a theoretical foundation.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Rule no 1 of choosing somewhere to study CS is never to choose somewhere the lecturer has developed a special language for teaching the basic concepts.

Life's just too short, and if they guy was good enough to make something better than C or Lisp or Unix then he wouldn't be teaching undergraduates.

There's a guy at the University of Canterbury that does this. Pisses people off no end

Stephen Jones
Tuesday, June 24, 2003

I regret staying in school to get my degree. Utterly useless on the job, aside from the philosophy courses I took. However, I could have just read the books. Years of life and thousands of dollars, wasted.  I could have spent the $40K travelling, buying shares in ebay, putting a down payment on a house, etc.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003


Perhaps you shouldn't have majored in Political Science, huh?

Mark Hoffman
Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Actually it was psychology. At least there were a lot of easy chicks in the classes. Be sure to keep us posted on how your continuing education CS degree from the University of Texas opens doors when you turn 35.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003


Considering you are a JOS'er, it's probably safe to assume that you are employed in the software/IT/IS industry.

So you didn't find your psychology degree useful on the job? Wow. Big shocker there, bud.

And how does this relate to someone who is in this industry asking about the usefulness of a CS degree?

Many of the software/computer jobs that I have seen that require a degree normally require some type of bachelor of science in computer science, electrical engineering, software engineering, etc.

So saying that your psychology degree didn't help you on the job isn't very useful to this discussion....

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

oh. i should have prefixed with a sarcasm tag. i started to major in computer science, but it was intellectually moribund, so i switched to a double major in applied math and economics. the lisp AI course, the compiler course and the hardware organization course I took were all useful. the other courses in the CS curriculum were not useful or interesting. In retrospect if I would been "thinking outside the box" a little bit more, i could have done something interesting with my youth other than wasting it in school.

  mark made a stupid comment about political science, so i replied with a stupid comment. an intersting point to consider is my friends who majored in political science went on to law school and make a lot more money than most programmers. but anyway, to each his own. if you think school is cool, i can't help you.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Well you probably would have been better served going to a school that would haved challenged your enormous intellect.  Or one that would have taught you not to make generalizations about an entire social institution from your individual experience with one individual school.


Tuesday, June 24, 2003

"I'm not sure why you bothered starting this thread. Was it to seek honest opinions, or do you just want everyone to agree with you that degrees are unnecessary?"

Because I couldn't think of any reason why it should be a consideration for rational people, and I was wondering if anybody could offer any logically sound counter-point.

So because I asked the question, I don't get to enter the debate?

Brad Wilson (
Tuesday, June 24, 2003

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