I was looking at the programs being offered by the community college today and the course description for Computer Information Systems Diploma caught my eye. The college had linked to news articles (like this), exclaiming: “If you can code, you can get work.” The problem is, the diploma they’re offering doesn’t include very much coding. First you have to muddle through courses on technical writing, circuit boards and understanding an operating system. When you finally get to write code (in your second year), it’s going to be in Sharepoint.

Kids, taking these courses will not get you a better job.  I’m not against education, I’m against bad education; especially when it promises career advancement. What we need is education that connects with what’s happening right now. Plus, we need to do it as efficiently as possible. Why would we waste a student’s time teaching them about circuit boards, when what they really want to do is code for the web?

The main red flag I’d like to raise here is the courses being offered by this particular college are outdated. Let’s talk specifically about programming. Right now the web and mobile markets are desperate for developers. What’s sad is that so many colleges aren’t meeting this need: they’re preparing kids for yesterday’s jobs. Every software company I know is hiring Ruby on Rails developers, and yet few local colleges teach it.

When I compare the description for Computer Information Systems Diploma (from the community college) with the description for Web App Development (from a school in Chicago called the Starter League) the difference is striking:

  • The college’s program will take you 2 years to finish (Startup League’s will take you 3 months).
  • The college’s program will cost you nearly $10,000 in total (Starter League’s will cost you $8,000).
  • The college’s program is riddled with outdated requirements, and teaching them on outdated IDEs (Starter League is focused on current, in-demand languages and frameworks like Ruby on Rails)
  • The college’s program is a pre-requisite for other programming courses (more money + more time) (the Starter League gets you coding you right away).

My advice to anyone considering going to school: if you’re hoping to get a better job, make sure you consider the potential ROI. How much is it going to cost, and what’s the potential pay-off? To find out, you’ll need to do some footwork. Want to be a programmer? Go and talk to your dream software company, and ask them what education you’ll need. Show them the course descriptions for the programs you’re thinking of taking, and ask them if it’s what they’re looking for. 

If you’re specifically looking to become a web developer, these are some educational options that could give you a good start, at a fraction of the cost:

  • Treehouse – learn to design and develop for the web, and for iOS (starts at $25/month)
  • Code Academy – learn to code, online, for free
  • Starter League – physical school in Chicago, offering intense 3 month courses for Ruby on Rails (3 month course is $8,000)
  • Ruby Weekend – weekend crash course in Las Vegas where you’ll learn the basics of Ruby and Rails ($100)

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Related links and quotes:

  • Is a Computer Science degree worth it?
  • “Most of the really top-notch developers I know became passionate about computing in high school or earlier. Unfortunately, for many of them it was in spite of the schools they attended, not because of them.” (Source)
  • “I actually got half a comp sci degree (my bachelor was in biz admin/comp sci), but that wasn’t where I truly learned to program.” – DHH, How do I learn to program?
  • “My university experience did nothing to make me a better programmer, just a better theoretician.” – Jamis Buck
  • Four Tips for Learning How To Program.
  • Is college a lousy investment?
  • Advice on How to Become a Programmer: “College is great for high-level theory, but work experience trounces it when it comes to learning software development.”
  • Learning on the Battlefield: “For a fast-moving field like computer science, the work you’re doing is far more relevant than any classes you’re taking. If you must choose between formal schooling and work experience, always choose work. If you’re in school, aggressively pursue real-world experience that compliments your schoolwork.”

Post-script: I’m wondering if anyone else in Vernon, BC (or the Okanagan) would be interested in something similar to Ruby Weekend. If so, sign-up here: Startup Vernon.

7 thoughts on “Is college the best way to get career skills?

  1. Here is a comment from Lloyed Lobo on LinkedIn: “This is a great post. Amazes me how things still haven’t changed. Would love to do something similar at Startup Calgary.”

  2. Wow! Great post. I think more educators need to read this. Especially those in the IT field. I tell people all the time that my degree was a waste of money, and time. When I got my programming degree, I had to take a law enforcement class where I had to write an essay about the Riverside California County Sheriff. I also had to take some economics, and humanities, and history classes. For IT, I did how to use a computer, and how to make an Access Database. For Programming, I did Visual Basic.NET. My first programming job was as a Ruby dev. I had no clue what I was doing. My degree didn’t help me get a job, it just made me waste my GI Bill money :(

  3. Two other things I think potential programmers should be taught, or learn is how to Google compiler errors, and, how to use StackOverflow. It seems counter-intuitive but learning about how to solve problems using solutions other people developed actually teaches you a lot too.

    I’m always surprised at how many questions I get from my juniors about problems when they could have found the problem by looking at the call stack and/or running a Google search.

  4. Yes! I think this also speaks to the importance of teaching students to be a part of a community.

    For developers, communities like Stack Overflow, GitHub, and local meetup groups (like #YEGRUBY in Edmonton) can be really helpful.

  5. Been meaning to hit up Code Academy for a while now and never got around to it, but you convinced me. Spent about 90 minutes last night brushing up on some skills and will likely do a heck of a lot more.  Thanks for the butt kicking!

    Also wondering what you’re doing in Vernon now!?

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