News & Politics

Learn a Trade: Learn to Code!

I am by training a computer scientist and software engineer, which means I’m somewhere in the vague nether world among mathematicians and logicians, computer programmers and writers. (A lot of computer science students are shocked and appalled at how much of their real work is writing for people to read rather than just for a computer to execute.)

Now, I think the things I learned in grad school are both very useful to a working software engineer and are beautiful and rewarding in themselves. But I spend a lot of my time now tutoring computer science students, and I’ve come to realize there is a whole body of knowledge that isn’t necessarily mathematical (even though it is built on mathematics) and that isn’t learned through multiple choice exams. It’s not what programming is based on, it’s what programmers do. It’s a skill. It’s a craft.

Like plumbing and welding, it’s a trade.

I don’t think a lot of people recognize this. Computer Science departments dare not: why, then they’d stop being an academic topic, they’d be a trade school. Shame too great to be borne. (And, in fact, one of my Duke professors, a brilliant man, honestly, didn’t program computers at all, and in fact, he needed a grad student to help him with his email.)

Of course, the (relatively) new phenomenon is programming “boot camps.” Like Thinkful and RefactorU (RIP) where I’ve taught in the past, a bootcamp is a concentrated program that takes people from other backgrounds and teaches them to code well enough to take an entry-level job in just a few weeks.

Now, that doesn’t make them computer scientists or even finished software engineers, but it makes them good coders. Good enough that I’m seeing increasing numbers of graduates of computer science and electrical engineering departments who then go to a bootcamp so they can actually learn to code.

Which raises a question in my mind. It’s an admission against interest, I suppose, since I make a substantial part of my income by helping college students who can pass the multiple choice tests but haven’t learned to write programs, but — well, what are college students in college for? Snazzy dorms and hookup culture, sure, and I would have loved that when I was an undergrad. But my total tuition and fees and room and board in 1973 at the University of Colorado was $1000. Total. (That’s about $5700 in 2019 dollars.)

In-state tuition and fees alone are over $11,000 this year; out of state, $34,125.

That’s $130,000 for a four-year degree.

So that’s the question I keep asking myself. Now, I really liked college — I must have, I did a total of something like 13 years in college. But I was able to pay for it myself, either working as a programmer or later with graduate assistantships.

When you are paying $40,000 to $130,000 for a bachelor’s degree and you still need a bootcamp to learn to be a working programmer, is a computer science degree worth the money?

Is any degree?