To Degree or not to Degree

I often wonder if I were a young lad of college age today, whether I would have the gumption to forego college and pursue a programming career right out of high school. Ignoring the fact that my parents would have balked at such a plan, I think a bright kid, a promising idea and a 1-3 year window would be sufficient conditions for an experience as rewarding as pursuing a CS degree.

Such a path does not prevent a person from learning the information they would obtain from a CS program. A quick look around the internet and I’m quite certain I could cover most of my CS curriculum through Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare, and Stanford Engineering Everywhere, not to mention other learning resources such as GitHub or Wikipedia. I wasn’t able to find an equivalent resource for the Arthurian Legend course I took one summer, but my knowledge of Sir Lancelot’s and Guinevere’s love trysts never really helped me sling code.

It wasn’t until my first internship that I learned how to develop software in a real-world context. I didn’t even know source control or bug tracking software existed until that point. Opportunities to work in a team at school were contrived and did little to prepare me for real-world collaboration.

I have yet to experience a situation where it was necessary to write a sorting algorithm or implement a data structure from scratch. I must admit that it took a lecture from a professor before the light bulb went off in my head for implementing recursive functions. But though I’m a better programmer for understanding these concepts, couldn’t one just learn them from free online resources?

It will be quite a while before my kids are college-aged and it’s inevitable that the education landscape will be quite different at that point. But should either of my children seek to pursue a career in software, I would consider providing them the essentials for a year or two if they were serious about developing an idea they had. Depending on their potential college choices, such a path could end up being a lot cheaper. If their ideas fail they’re left with plenty of time to pursue other ideas and some real-world experience that many companies value more than academic credentials. If they succeed they can take their company public at $38/share for a cool valuation of a $100 billion and support me in my old age.

Related link: The Thiel Fellowship

Originally published by my former employer, © Art & Logic: To Degree or not to Degree?
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