Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

What’s the Value of a College Education for Ajax Developers?

Category: Business

The value of a college education in software engineering fields has always been up for debate. While the early days of our profession nearly required some form of academic exposure to so much as interact with a computer, the microcomputer revolution of course changed all that, and people have been debating how to gauge the quality of information workers ever since.

Some of our biggest role models in tech. never finished school (e.g., Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, etc.) but that doesn’t stop many large tech. companies from heavily frowning on applicants who don’t have Comp. Sci. chops; some firms require college diplomas as a prerequisite for consideration.

Sridhar Vembu, CEO of Zoho, weighs in on the debate in a recent blog entry entitled, “How We Recruit – On Formal Credentials vs. Experience-based Education.” While the blog entry is fairly specific to the India talent-pool, it is at least partially of general application. Some highlights:

Based on a few years of observation, we noticed that there was little or no correlation between academic performance, as measured by grades & the type of college a person attended, and their real on-the-job performance. That was a genuine surprise, particularly for me, as I grew up thinking grades really mattered.

He goes on to talk about their efforts to create a sort of technical trade school that feeds into Zoho, much like IBM’s recent efforts at partnering with schools like Neumont University to provide Big Blue-heavy curriculum. From an employers perspective, it doesn’t get any better than that: having a years-long track record of a candidate’s ability to use your stuff when they finally apply for work.

Sridhar is evasive on exactly how Zoho evaluates new job candidates:

One question that comes up often: if you don’t look at formal credentials, what do you actually look at? This is a surprisingly difficult question. In fact, doing full justice to it would take me a series of posts, and take me into some deeply philosophical territory, which I will attempt some other time. At one level, the answer is very simple (”go by gut feel, i.e use your human gift of judgment” – yeah, I know, what a cop-out), but at another, it is exceedingly hard. The difficulty comes from the simple observation: any formal rule-based system involving human beings is very easy to game and will be gamed.

If the CEO can’t easily articulate the hiring philosophy, makes you wonder how the troops manage to apply any kind of consistent benchmark. This pretty accurately reflects the state of confusion around gauging a job applicant’s potential fit in our industry.

What are your opinions on the value of college education in our industry? Do you require it of your potential employees? Do you look down on peers without a degree? How do you identify top talent?

Posted by Ben Galbraith at 7:00 am

4.2 rating from 29 votes


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I’m a college professor.

What’s being forgotten here is the student’s interest. Is it in the student interest to be locked into one technology provider’s approach for their whole education? Let’s say I spend 4 years studying IBM or Zoho, and they don’t select me. Where am I then?

As with any negotiation, students need to the tools to position themselves to play the field and/or adapt to changing market needs. You don’t get that by locking into one technology approach early on.

I’m also led to question whether working at a place like Zoho is a smart choice regardless. If they are not noticing a difference between previous high achievers and low achievers, does that mean that they have, in fact, so deskilled their positions that there is nothing to be gained from them? Maybe it is the positions themselves that are bad, not the students’ previous experience.

Comment by BudGibson — June 17, 2008

The study materials in schools can not keep up with the rapid development of the web anyways. I learned most of my knowledge on the web because collage.. was out of date.

Comment by V1 — June 17, 2008

What can be better than stupid people who can do clever stuff! Say no to academic education!
Academic education does not teach you how to use all buzzy and \\m// stuff, it tries to develop your intellect, does it succeeds, is up to you.

Comment by dienvidbriedis — June 17, 2008

I believe that if you are looking at someone’s degree you must consider What type of school they came from. A student with a degree from a liberal arts school will tend to be able to think critically on their own as they’ve been taught a wide variety of subjects and not just computer science and mathematics. They will also (hopefully) be able to communicate well.

I should qualify all of this by saying that I personally have a Master’s degree and graduated along side some folks who I would never hire because they did not work well, did not communicate well, and could not complete anything without having their hand held through almost all of the process. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – we need all sorts of folks for different jobs – but it seems to me that those who are well rounded and can think/learn/communicate/problem solve well on their own will be the ones who excel in our field.

Comment by relic411 — June 17, 2008

I know it’s easy for older generations to still have that “must have a degree” mentality but that’s just not the case in every industry. I went to school as a comp sci major and struggled heavily and in the end I changed my major before dropping out all togethor. I’ll admit I was a little frustrated and scared that I was going to get an opportunity from a decent employer but that opportunity came and I started out answering phones and entering a lot of content into new sites, 1.5 years later and I am the main programmer and continue to learn and grow in more ways then I would have ever in school.

THe frustrating thing is that, even now, if I want to go to school and take some classes to further my .Net knowledge I dont want to sit through 2 semesters of blackbox and pascal when I am way ahead of that already. There are to many of us out there that learn by doing and not by listening to lectures, and there isnt one school out there that embraces that…unless you want to take your chances at good ol ITT or somewhere.

Comment by fauxhawk — June 17, 2008

All those writing courses and marketing courses teach you how to hype Ajax of course!

Comment by Jordan1 — June 17, 2008

I think the education systems in most countries are not designed well enough to cope with the variety of people in society.

Some people learn better by example, others by reading a lot of theory, some by coaching/ mentoring, others work better locked in a tiny room filled with books, a computer, net connection and a whole lot of caffeine, etc, etc…

Nothing I have seen in the Australian and British (I’m assuming it’s the same or worse for the US) education systems points to a focus on the individual student and how best to help them achieve, based on their different learning abilities. Yet all forms of testing put the focus back on the student as an individual and how well they perform against their peers. This seems to me to be the biggest flaw in the education system; apart from paying teachers so little that the quality of knowledge from the person teaching is questionable. I know teachers who can’t even spell basic words properly, let alone use them in a grammatically correct sentence, and they are “teaching” children, how does that work?

If we spent more on education and nurturing talent in all its forms rather than spending billions upon billions on war… ;^)

There are plusses and minuses to both a university education and a self taught education. It will always come down to the individual and people who are meant to, will usually shine through regardless of what pieces of paper they have hanging on their walls, or not.

Comment by constantology — June 17, 2008

In response to BudGibson: we have not deskilled. We need smart people. What I said is that academic achievement, as measured by grades, correlates weakly with achievement in a real job i.e the “smarts” to do well in a job. This is a fairly easily tested observation in the real world.

Second, we are not a trade school. The specific skills needed to succeed in Zoho (or for that matter any tech company) keep evolving. After all, AJAX was hardly in the picture just 5 years ago – in fact, only recently we added Javascript as a language we teach, not because of AJAX, but because Javascript teaches programming paradigms that are new. So it is in our own interest that our people have a broad exposure, and the ability to think by themselves.

There is a philosophical approach here: (most) people learn better, when contextually it is clear to them why they should learn something. The abstract goal “learn because it is generally good for you to learn” doesn’t motivate all that many people. I have witnessed this in numerous cases personally, for a long time. People I knew to be quite “smart” didn’t do well academically, simply because the “system” didn’t motivate them. I did well academically myself, so there is nothing personal here. At some level, I was aware that I could game the system well.

Finally, to respond to Ben’s observation on “articulate our hiring philosophy”, I can articulate it fine, it is just not a “recipe” someone can follow. We rely on individual manager’s judgment, and it is therefore known to be “inconsistent” across people. Over time, we ask managers to hone their judgment and skill. College admission officers, to the extent they are not merely applying strictly formal rules based on transcripts (which is how college admissions in India work), but actually look at the entire record of a candidate, are doing the same thing. In other words, they are supposed to apply “judgment”. Try to get Stanford to articulate *exactly* how they admit students.

Comment by SridharVembu — June 17, 2008

I spent an entire class period in an “Intro to Programming” course learning how to copy and paste using the mouse and how to load an ASCII-based version of Boggle from a floppy disk — I have never used this in my day-to-day work.

Everything that I use regularly has been absorbed from the Internet or from my peers, and with how quickly various languages and frameworks change there will never be a comparable printed solution.

Comment by MichaelThompson — June 17, 2008

College isn’t just about learning a programming language or math formulas. It’s about learning how to write, how to communicate, work in groups, manage your time, interact with people, negotiate, meet deadlines, follow through, build a network, budget, live on your own, etc. There are a million chances to fail, but if you make it through, it says something about your character. Sure, you can learn all those things on the job or elsewhere, but I believe that’s what 50% of college is about. And that’s very valuable to have when looking for a job.

Comment by Steve — June 17, 2008

While, I do agree that a college education for mere programming is not really required. I have to say that depending on the college or university, it will be the non-programming classes that will help you out. I don’t think I could do the job I do without the background I received in Accounting. I don’t do Accounting but the systems I program deal with a lot of accounting information and without the background, I would be easily only 10% effective. Many of the people I work with also could not have gotten by without their engineering degree. They are programmers, but again without the background in engineering, they could not even begin to program the systems they work on. In summary, a straight CS degree is not required. A degree that gives you some background into what you may be programming, required.

Comment by nblade — June 17, 2008

If education was really matters, we didn’t find facebook, google or microsoft… all founders are college dropouts..

Comment by bollywood — June 17, 2008

Dunno… I’m doing the final exams of my MSc on information engineering… the MSc part really changed how I think of computers, programs, and all, despite programming since I was 8 years old, and already being a paid developer with an own desk in an office while still in highschool…

(No, it wasn’t a relative’s office, it was work)

The thing is, while on the outer ring things often change (Visual Studio 2008 just came, we haven’t even heard of FF3 or Ext 2.x a year before, not to mention a lot of other things a few years ago), in the deep, it’s still the same since the first nilometer was put into the Nile to calculate how much tax should be paid by the Egyptians (the first IT system in my belief:)

When on the MSc we were put through strong expectations, routinely programming in a lot of environments (WinAPI, QT, java/ee, asp.net, js, soap…), reciting all of the gang-o-four design patterns by heart, knowing the theories beneath UML, XML and other stuff, and the thing… just simply got clearer.

Now I can write in a lot of different code styles, I can understand even obfuscated javascripts, debug an erlang module just by reading a fast-lane reference on main features & idioms, and it just simply doesn’t matter, what is the language, what is the industrial field, I can adopt to it, and choose the right tools from the available set.

Our motto was: “There’s nothing more practical than a good theory” – I think by giving us theoretical insight on what we’re doing, our MSc course gave us a really strong base where we could build robust systems, learn new things and adopt to environments… It would be very hard to do along withoout these.
So: for a fill-in-the-function-body-by-specification programmer, an MSc degree isn’t needed: for others, it’s not matter of talent but luck to recognize what happens in the deep without it.

Comment by Adam Nemeth — June 17, 2008

IMHO – Employers are need, not only people who can do clever things on a keyboard, but also people who can explain what they did and why. A Heisman trophy winner doesn’t get that by only practicing passing. Good programmers and employees don’t become that by only coding.

Comment by jkeese — June 17, 2008

What is clear is that a Computer Science degree won’t make you the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. They are entrepreuners and businessmen first and software/hardcore professionals second.

Comment by DavidMcLaughlin — June 17, 2008

Its interesting that this continues to be a point of discussion. Although I find it possible to learn and even excel in this industry without a CS degree it is absolutely not the norm. A degree like @Steve says, prepares students for much more than using a specific language or framework. It also builds a solid foundation on which any language can be used to solve problems. I also find it hard to believe that people can argue that because Steve Jobs or Bill Gates don’t have formal degrees that these guys didn’t work their asses off when they were in college. The fact that each of them got into the schools they dropped out of proves that they had the drive to complete their degrees had their future not come-a-knockin’.

Comment by mikelikesbikes — June 17, 2008

While agreeing with what Steve wrote above, I’ll only say that when it comes to hacking code, college is a waste of time, unless you are hacking code to plot missile trajectories… rocket science math.

And I think it’s sad that so many employers are requiring degress now. I’ve been steadily and successfully employed as a web developer for almost 14 years now — they didnt teach this stuff when i was in college. So I didn’t get my degree — how does that matter? They weren’t even teaching this stuff back then.

Comment by wwwmarty — June 17, 2008

I would have to agree with adam on this. If your eduction is purely “practical” it will be out of date by the time you graduate. But the deep stuff really is the same, or at least close enough that you can pick it up quickly. Around when I graduated with a CS degree I felt extremely annoyed that I did not get much practical experience, and like many other people, I feel like I taught a lot of that to myself using books and the internet. But having worked for a few companies now, and observing the community as a whole, I can tell when others lack some of the theoretical skills and how it holds them back. Whether it be understanding object-orientation, lambda calculus, efficient algorithms, or data structures, there are deeper skills that can take you to the next level. Not everyone will need it, and many people won’t need a degree to get it, but it shouldn’t be ignored. Many people with and without a formal education go into the real world and learn by memorization. Without really understanding how something works, it is much more difficult to transfer skills to something else, whether its a new language, framework or other system.

Comment by genericallyloud — June 17, 2008

Most of the really great programmers I know haven’t even finished High School, much less College…

Comment by polterguy — June 17, 2008

Ohh yeah, almost forgot; If you’re *really* brilliant and don’t have a formal degree and need a great job and aren’t considered at others because of “lack of formal education”, you can follow my signature and apply with us ;)
We think college papers are great for wiping your ###ess with after being to the toilette…

Comment by polterguy — June 17, 2008

I think Steve has it exactly right. I learned nothing but mainframe/COBOL stuff in college, and now have a job in web application design.

Would I give up that college education, though? Of course not — even if I’m not using the programming language I studied for, just the side benefits of being in a professional environment for four years prepared me greatly for a job in IT.

Yes, I’m sure there are people who can work in white-collar world without a degree, but try and find a job that pays well that requires no experience at all. Trust me, they’re far and few between.

Comment by mdmadph — June 17, 2008

This is interesting to me. I’m currently halfway through my junior year for a comp sci degree, however for the past year have had a full time job doing everything from web-development, server management, application programming, to even phone system management. I have learned 100x more in my year working here than in my 3+ years of college. I’m debating whether finishing college is even worth the money at this point, as I have the skills / knowledge required to advanced in the industry already, and the remaining few years will be less beneficial than focusing on my work. Wondering what other people thought about it.

Comment by tj111 — June 17, 2008

I’m a successfully employed college drop out. I’m a bit frustrated by the established standard that you *must* have a 4 year degree to work as a professional for many larger companies. That being said, here are two opposing views on the subject (and I’ve thought about this subject a *lot*):

The educational system in the US is broken. Its become another way for big businesses (the Universities) to make money – they can charge enormous amounts because the students don’t have to worry about paying for it – they just borrow money and worry about it later. For the same reasons the schools often make it difficult to graduate in 4 years. And then people graduate, get a job and spend the next 18 months training.

There are some important things you don’t learn well while “on the job”. My friends who completed their BS did get some useful knowledge. Understanding of design patterns and other “academic” subjects don’t seem practical when you’re in the hustle and bustle of daily work. But what happens is you end up re-inventing the wheel (often poorly).

Is it just me or are the comments to this post rife with spelling and grammar errors? If you’re going to argue against the need for a college degree, at least try to appear literate when you do so.

I think fewer people need a BS degree and more people need a good education.

Comment by newz2000 — June 17, 2008

You don’t study Computer Science to learn how to program. If learning C#, Javascript, or whatever is your main goal then you don’t really need a degree for that.

Programming languages are simply tools that help you learn the concepts.

Comment by i2hsu — June 17, 2008

Ya know, I’m uneducated and having been around the industry for alot of years I kinda regret having not gotten an education. Not so much as a career move, I’ve lead large teams filled with Comp Sci grads who know less than me. Over time I’ve come to realize something, there is a continuum of people, motivated self starters who are sharp can easily in the same 4 years it takes to get a BS educate themselves better than the average Comp Sci student. But the motivated self starter who actually gets his degree, has a real advantage because they are immersed in an environment that puts all the information they need right at the finger tips. I tend to think a Comp Sci degree can turn the average person into a useful tool ( trained monkey ), and give the motivated person a solid foundation to build on. But whether or not a person has a degree, is only something I factor into the hiring process when that degree reads MIT, Stanford, CalTech, or Berkley, but then those guys aren’t often looking for work.

Comment by mojave — June 17, 2008

There are no degrees about Ajax client/server development yet, and there are still too many graduated persons that call JavaScript

Comment by Andrea Giammarchi — June 17, 2008

Java … how can you filter persons using a degree instead of pure and hard technical tests, specially in a constant update sector as IT is?

Furthermore, for its partially cross browser nature, JavaScript is one of the language that requires, absolutely, a lot of experience over the knowledge … but many company still thinks that JS and client/server experience is magically acquired in the “web master degree”, that sounds nearly hilarious in my humble opinion.

So, I think a degree is a good start point for selection, but I think that it does not make sense at all to filter, with a degree selection, people without a partially related degree that use JavaScript since its first implementations.

Finally, I do like the UK way to hire IT employees, using a technical and strictly job related test at first interview instead of look only the CV, while I hated, for about 9 years, the Italian style: at least a university degree, “whatever it is about”, because it doesn’t matter if you do not have a clue about your job and you still think that JavaScript is Java – probably the responsible thinks the same, so you are welcome!

Note: Italy, 38th place for IT … “unexpected”, isn’t it?

my 2 cents for this interesting, yet another one, debate about this topic.

Comment by Andrea Giammarchi — June 17, 2008

Might be that the comments here are spangled with spelling errors, but there are many here in these forums who have English as their second or even third or fourth language…
Yes you are right about that people need education, though there are many ways to get “education”, also about the “boring stuff” who many falsely thinks that all Autodidacts haven’t learned or read about. I have read a lot of the freely available stuff online in addition to reading a *very* long list of very good books about so called “college stuff”. I did Ancient Philosophy and logic when I was 17 because it was _FUN_. I’ve plowed through e.g. Linear Algebra that way due to being obsessed with Game Programming in my late teens and many other “college subjects” and I bet for me and the others in my situation they are ten times more “stuck” then for some poor guy just desperately trying to get a good grade. I studied quite a lot of AI and Neural Networking due to being interested in pattern recognition. Algorithms and Boolean algebra too. Design Patterns quickly became a necessity due to being architect of several really large scale systems quite early. If you enjoy something it’ll probably get far more stuck than if you don’t.
I think there’s a whole slew of other guys out there who have studied things because they like the subjects and then for some reason was unable to finish college. One of my colleagues in fact is tutoring PhDs in System Development several times per year. And sure these are “platform specific courses” like C# or .Net etc, but they hire him because he can mix the platform with exactly; “Design Patterns” and general programming best practices which goes far beyond the platform. This guy has been a teacher at a private IT school (in fact he owned the thing) for several years. And he’s got no more than _9_years_ of “official education”. Though he reads about 2 books every month and in all sorts of subjects you would never expect an average “college guy” to read about. So my point is that YES you NEED _education_, but to think that some passive organization can give you education better then you can give yourself is really unwise. By all means, go to college! It is also a safe way to ensure that you get a job due to so many stupid companies being unable to separate education and knowledge from papers. But if you think that acing all subjects are gonna make you a better professional you seriously need a reality check…
Though you’ll statistically end up working for one of the “college drop outs” at some point if you do get an “official education”…
Henrik Ibsen was one of the best writers at all time and he flunked literature in school and was expelled.
History has got a gazillion samples like this…
Education is GREAT, school is NOT equivalent to education…!

Comment by polterguy — June 17, 2008

School taught me very little on the ‘technical’ side of things. I had a pretty solid background from self-taught and work-experience going into University, and found many of the technically oriented courses to be so basic it was insulting.

However, what I learned outside of the technical aspects of my program have helped me greatly. From learning to manage time better, planning, analysis, working in teams and committing myself to a project, amongst many other things.

I spent my first few years of school thinking I was wasting my time – and took nothing from it (and nearly got kicked out in the process). I pulled myself around for my last two years, started to look at /what else/ I was getting from my education rather than pure technical know-how (since I already had it), ended up enjoying it far more, was more rewarding, and do feel that the skill I picked up along the way have made me a better employee and team player, but not necessarily a better programmer.

Comment by shypht — June 17, 2008

IS there such a thing as an AJAX developer? That’s like saying “I’m a GIF Designer”… :-)

Comment by boodie — June 17, 2008

I’ve met more know-nothing college paper holders who could not do the basic things we needed from them than people who actually demonstrated their abilities with a portfolio, over a resume.

You simply can’t teach passion or drive… though you’d think by the number of ITT-like schools advertising on the radio that basically anyone can be a webmaster. Well I tend to agree… anyone CAN be a “webmaster”… it doesn’t mean that they are good at what they do.

These kids think that all it takes is a degree, or cert saying they know something. Well just because you can cliff-note your way through school doesn’t mean your cut-n-paste methodology and memorization skills will get you by in the real world.

A resume/cert/degree can get your foot in the door of some places, but it won’t keep you there unless your working for one of many mediocre businesses out there that really don’t need someone with better then average computer skills. Its usually Red tape over results, in these corporate environments. It still holds true unfortunately that its not what you know, its whose ass you kiss.

You might even be lucky enough to get paid a real wage while riding the coattails of others but if you’re just looking for an easy going 9-5 … then your mediocrity truly knows no bounds. If your company and your job survives spite your worthlessness, you’ll no doubt someday have a nice life waiting for you in a middle management.

Feel successful? At least you’ll dress the part!

Comment by NullDaddy — June 17, 2008

I think the problem here is the equation “Degree = Education”. There’s a lot of great stuff in university. A lot of it depends on which university you go to. A lot of that great stuff is rapidly disappearing and being replaced with IT vendor sponsorships from companies like Cisco, Microsoft and Sun. Programming courses are being turned into Java and .NET courses. Design courses are being turned into Photoshop and Illustrator courses.

There’s plenty to be said for the general education and the theory you get from a university education, but whether the student got those great things depends on the drive of the student, the quality of the university and not at all on whether that student got a degree, or a good grade. I present as evidence the vast droves of graduates who are utterly incompetent.

Disclaimer: I am a college dropout.

Comment by Breton — June 17, 2008

@boodie – IS there such a thing as an AJAX developer?

Of course there is. You have to know JS (possibly cross browser), a server side language, security problems for both database and XSS and whatever, XML or xHTML, XSL-T or CSS as a plus, charset encoding problems, on both client and server side, asynchronous interaction behaviour, queues, server stress problems, client optimizations, DOM events (deeply) for something that’s not an AHAH interaction, and much more … so, definitively, who can formulate a question like your one, is exactly the person that could have 10 degrees, and zero skill in AJAX development.

So, the question is:
Why there are such persons that do not know a single thing about AJAX development, but could get a job because of some unrelated degree, without experience, skill, and hard real life background?

Comment by Andrea Giammarchi — June 17, 2008

A degree is not necessary. When hiring I’m much more interested in the applicant’s portfolio, and how they get along with others, than with formal education. On the other hand, I liked college. I liked studying things like differential equations and ancient philosophy, even if they are completely impractical in business.

Comment by WillPeavy — June 17, 2008

I’m an art school graduate, but I’m the guy in the company who does all their web app code. When I look at fresh graduates, I always ask about what original material they’ve created (guess that’s my artist training showing there), instead of their grades/awards/recommendations.

While having a college education is not a requirement, I *still* see it as an edge in jobfinding. Gives kids exposure to things they’d never find if they skipped the thing.

Comment by ElCapitan — June 17, 2008

I did a marketing degree, went into sales, hated that, got some bum office jobs, taught self to program, 4 years later am main web developer in mid sized company

I think comp sci stuff would be useful for more enterprisy stuff, and also cutting edge stuff like search algorithms, AI etc.

But for all the PHP / javascript stuff i do with a lot of deadlines, comp sci degree would be near totally useless, in fact probably a hindrance cos i’d waste a lot of time trying to apply too much OOP

Comment by stevesnz — June 17, 2008

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