Monday, January 31, 2011

The value of a University Degree in Computing

I got a piece of paper that says I know what I’m doing in computer science and another piece of paper saying that I know math. Today, I want to talk about the value of those pieces of paper as it stands today.

Ultimately, the value of a university experience is multi-dimensional and varies person to person. I’ll discuss multiple vantage points and weight my thoughts on the value.

Computing Resources

Back in the day, you had to be at university to even get access to big computing resources. Now, with cloud computing, you can get more computing power than what I had access to for less than your lunch. So, don’t go to university if you need awesome computing power; you can pay for it with a job. That being said, some universities have ridiculously cool stuff like 3D scanners. However, there is a hacker right now using a kinect and a Markov process to build a precise 3D scanner using their Lego Mindstorms kit. It may be worth going to university for equipment if the equipment is extremely advanced, but otherwise don’t.
  • -1 University
  • +1 Cloud Computing
Exposure to Mathematics/Computing/Material

With the internet, you can get a ton of exposure to mathematics. It’s all there. You don’t need a special library card to get it. That being said, there are some pay-walls for springer/ACM and other places with cutting-edge libraries. It’s worth going to college to be able to SSH in and then wget an article’s text. Otherwise, master Google (or stack overflow).
  • -0.8 University
  • +0.2 Cleverness
  • +1 Internet
Exposure to Breadth

Where do you begin to learn and teach yourself something? How are these seemingly unrelated things connected? University wins big by having a structured series of classes that in theory build on one-another. An ideal university will cover basically everything that is at the foundations and give you a good sense of the field.

However, you can get the same thing by reading their course catalog and degree requirements and having the discipline of going over the material yourself.

  • +1 University
  • +1 Discipline
Mathematical/Engineering Mentorship

Having access to math is one thing, but having the decoder ring is another. As a budding graduate student, I found that listening to a lecturer was valuable in not learning the material but rather how to interpret/construct the material. It is one thing to know that something exists or what something is, but it is entirely different thing to understand how something was constructed. The side-notes/annotations a lecturer gives on how to prove a theorem rather than the formula.

The same was true for a handful of computing courses where you got insight into the design process rather than “here are some facts, now go”. Problematically, this is a very hard thing to teach since this kind of knowledge is usually lost over time.
  • +0.5 University
  • -0.5 Sucky Professors

This is the big win for university. If you don’t work under a professor as an assistant, then you are really missing out. There is a saying “Those that can, do; those that can’t, teach”. And, it is very true for many instructors, but the other half are off in their zone mastering a part of the cosmos that they own. You can learn a lot from these professors, and you should listen to them and have an open mind.

Most students fuck this bit up and claim professors are out of touch, and they ignore the oddities of their professor rather than studying them. If you study them, then you can learn a great deal about smart people.
  • +1 University
  • -1 Closed Minded Students
Peers, Colleagues, and Professors
You write a blog post and no one leaves a comment. Did it get read? Probably not. If you work in a group where people care about their grade, and you control a piece of it; is it going to get read? yes. If you get a paper back with tons of red ink on it, then it got read. If another person wants to put their name on your paper, then it got read and you got feedback.

The nice thing about university is that it provides a feedback mechanism for how you interact with the world. Granted, we are transitioning collectively to a more casual style of writing.
  • +1 University
  • +1 Casual Writing Style

Where else can you get 30 students handed to you and then have the opportunity to teach them something. I went into teaching, so I could break my fear of public speaking. I don’t have that fear anymore.

When you teach a group of students, you learn a few things about what is and is not effective. Mostly though, you learn you can’t force knowledge onto people. Instead, you can only open the door and let them study you as you walk through it.
  • +1 University
  • -1 Students (the poor bastards I iterated on)
“Other Stuff”

Anything outside of your discipline was required to be an “educated” or “civilized” man. I’m referring of course to when women were not allowed in university. Now of days, with the internet; you can get everything you missed in humanities and then some using the internet. Beware of Trolls.
  • -1 University
  • +1 Trolls

Generally speaking, the campus is a dream for extroverts. Introverts are fucked. The nice thing about campus is the ease of access to smart people. You want to bug your professor, go for it. Most of them like it.

Most students fuck this up by not bothering their professors because they are too lazy to get out of bed. I had fairly insane office hours (every day including weekends, 8+ hours) and I welcomed many students. I had a lot of people fail that I never saw. I had 2 people actually take advantage of my hours; I turned one of them from a D student to an A student.
  • +1 Extroverts
  • -1 Introverts
  • -1 Lazy Students
  • +1 Humble Students
Big Finish

Here is the question: Where do you want to be?

I think university can make it easier to get for sure, and it doesn't have to be an ivy league either. However, most students are going to waste their college career because they just don't know how to extract real value from it. It can be a lot of fun, or it can be a growth period.

Do you need it now of days? I don't think so. All you need is an employer that is willing to push you. Keeping in mind of course, the employer is going to push you in a direction that is relevant to the company. Some companies, like Google, know that if they enable the herd to stray, then you can capitalize on that knowledge and let it integrate into across the entire organization. Most companies are not mature enough yet to take this path.

If you are stuck and the company is pushing you in a direction of a cog, then I recommend getting efficient at that direction and explore side projects on your own to bring up your knowledge and skill set.

As a rule of thumb, I don't recommend letting a company control your career. You should be in control, and you need to realize that you are competing in a global work-force. Technology moves fast, and you need to move faster. A college degree is ok, but university is getting efficient at churning out mediocre developers.

I think the four years at university can be replaced with one year of ultra-hardcore mentor-ship. I'm talking 110+ hour week of hard-core work, education, and side projects. When I figure out how to make it legal, I'll announce my program.


  1. Sign me up for that one! 110 hours of hardcore coding, sounds like fun to me. I used to do 96 hour weeks, but 6 months of that burnt me out! I would recommend doing 3 weeks solid work, then a week of respite, say just 60 hours..

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