July 2010

Volume 25 Number 07

Editor's Note - Over-Educated, Yet Under-Qualified?

By Keith Ward | July 2010

Keith WardAs we get going on the latest mini-bounce-back on what looks like an extremely long road to economic recovery, there is some good news: It looks like the tech sector may have a quicker—and higher— bounce than other industries. We’re finally getting some news that shows solid, sustained job growth in all areas of IT, including software development.

But as Adrian Monk, my favorite TV detective, would say, “Here’s the thing …” Is this great news for you if you’re hiring coders but can’t pay them a lot yet, which might mean plucking fresh fruit off the college tree? Because I’ve been reading some worrisome stuff about the quality of education computer science grads are getting, and the heartburn it’s causing both the grads and potential employers.

My concern was piqued by an article I saw on the InfoWorld Web site, “The sad standards of computer-related college degrees”. A concerned father wrote in about his daughter’s lack of preparedness for the world of real work. He writes: “Imagine my surprise (and, as it turned out, her relief) that she could get a four-year undergraduate degree in “data processing” without having to write a single program in any language!

“This seems to be a trend,” the writer continues. “In an effort to widen and deepen my own skill set, I have had occasion to examine computer science course material available online from a number of top-tier colleges and some from the lower rungs. In most instances, what I remember from my nearly 40-year-old computer science education still places me far ahead of what they are now teaching.” And he concludes: “We’ve had trouble finding qualified U.S. job applicants who want to do the work we need done. I wonder if there’s a connection.”

The comments from readers accompanying the article support the writer’s contention, for the most part. Here’s a sampling:

From “rsr,” who claims to be a former computer science professor: “Computer Science (and related computer program) enrollments have greatly declined, and schools are trying to reverse the trend. This includes making the programs easier so there will be fewer dropouts and it will be more attractive to students who don’t want to work hard but still get a degree.”

“Woking,” a manager at a “Fortune 500 company,” is similarly unimpressed. “I have never interviewed a candidate right out of college who I would hire. No recent graduate that I have interviewed has had sufficient understanding of real-world problems to be useful to me, at least for the salary that the interviewees were expecting.”

Woking gives a specific example: “Several years ago I interviewed candidates for an open position as a data modeler. None of the recent college graduates who had even covered Entity Relationship Diagramming in their programs had created a data model with more than five entities.” Woking says that they have better success hiring candidates with three to five years work experience, even if the applicant lacks a college degree. That’s a pretty damning statement.

“Beney,” with 20-plus years experience and no IT degree, puts it succinctly: “Maybe if IT students had to actually write code rather than manipulate IDEs, they’d at least be able to handle the real world when they get out into the job market.”

Pretty discouraging stuff. What I’d like to do is use the power of the MSDN network to help determine if we’re facing a crisis when it comes to teaching college kids proper software development skills. If you’re a computer science professor, recent computer science graduate, hiring manager or anyone else with insight into this issue, let me know your thoughts at mmeditor@microsoft.com. If you agree that this is a general failing of the education system, explain how you’d change things: What are the top two or three things you’d do? I’m looking forward to reading your responses. After all, if there’s a job to be filled, it makes sense that it be filled with a developer who can actually do that job.