More Ramblings from a Los Angeles Programmer

January 27, 2008

Schools and that jazz

Filed under: coding, technology — Tags: , , , , , , — Josh DeWald @ 7:31 pm

There has been a lot of furor (at least from all the links popping up on proggit) around the “worth” of CS degrees and how bad the programs are.

My personal take is that people are expecting the wrong thing out of it. There is certainly a mechanical/trade aspect to programming. That’s the part that they can teach quite well: syntax, basic algorithms, etc. Strangely, this is the part they only teach in Software “Engineering” courses versus pure “Computer Science.” Most people go into these programs expecting to be able to walk into a typical business programming job and get to work. They really do no want to learn about Big O, Finite State Machines, or Data Structure Implementation. Who wants to know about all that damn math!?

The bit that they do not teach well is the part that actually makes you good at “programming”: critical thinking problem solving skills. Much of your time is spent figuring out how to go from problem to solution and, after doing that, why the apparent solution does not actually solve the problem correctly. You will spend a lot of time debugging software and fixing bugs. That’s just the way it is. Yes, each language makes some aspect of expression easier, but at the end of the day the actual algorithm is exactly the same. There are really only two ways a bit of program can be wrong:

  1. The algorithm is incorrect
  2. The expression of the algorithm is incorrect

I would argue that the analysis of either of these problems requires slightly different skills. One of them is the heart of “computer science” and it is the creation of algorithms that solve problems in faster and more innovative ways that are researched. The majority of us will never come up with a truly new algorithm; rather we will solve a problem that is just being defined in terms of different nouns. So a key skill of any programmer (during the design phase of construction, however short that may be) is recognizing how the problem can be re-phrased in another light and use a known algorithm. The site TopCoder is an excellent way to practice this.

Assuming that the proper algorithm has been chosen, the next step is to actually implement it. Theoretically this is the “easy” part, but it is also where the majority of effort is placed in the real world. An absolutely necessary skill of a software engineer is to be able to follow the logic of code (usually people speak of reading code but I really think you follow the logic of code instead. While I have seen some poetic code before, it really isn’t literary in nature) and trace what it is doing with a particular input. It is this skill (or the lack of) which is why, i believe, people complain about bad Computer Science education. You can whine and moan about Java or C++ being used (instead of “pure” languages like Haskell) but frankly that is a bunch of hogwash. If a person is getting the right education, or has the right innate talent, then they will be able to solve problems in any language given to them.

I have always said to people that one of the most useful classes I ever had in college was my Physics class. The professor was smart and did not allow calculators on the exams. You see, it is not the answer that matters, but how you get there. Your algorithm. The most important lessons in Computer Science (and medicine, and law, and….) is those that teach critical thinking and being methodical about solving a problem.

Ruby will not make you magically a better programmer. Java does not turn you into some brainless idiot. Perl will not turn you into a person incapable of writing clear code. Using RAD tools will not prevent you from learning how your code actually works. It is the person behind the code that matters.

Update: I found this response to the debate by Brian Hurt at Enfranchised Mind to be very good (and much better written than mine) in the sense of mentioning that, effectively, you want a “Developer that knows Java” rather than a “Java Developer”.  The reality, though, even if we don’t want to admit it, is that companies want Java developers. What do they care if the person will be useless 10 or 20 years from now, they’ll just get a developers that are trained up on New Fangled Language X.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] You can whine and moan about Java or C++ being used (instead of ?pure? languages like Haskell) but frankly that is a bunch of hogwash. If a person is getting the right education, or has the right innate talent, then they will be able to … read more […]

    Pingback by Ruby Programming Language « C Programming For The Absolute — January 28, 2008 @ 8:14 am


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