Do geeks need to go to college?

Bill Gates didn't graduate. And many Web workers today feel they don't need a technology degree to succeed.

Published April 12, 1999 2:04PM (EDT)

When Brad Scott of Clear Ink has to devise the information architecture for a new Web site, he just asks himself where the site's bathrooms will be.

Scott, a onetime interior design major turned information architect, is speaking only metaphorically, of course. But he says learning about "critical adjacencies of space" -- such as putting restrooms near conference rooms so that meeting attendees can quickly duck in and out -- carries over to Web design, where the "critical adjacencies" are of information.

Scott's migration from architecture into the technology industry isn't atypical: Talk to a group of tech workers, and you may find that the majority of them drifted into the industry from a completely different discipline.

The Web industry is creating jobs at a clip, and many of those jobs are going to college graduates without academic computing experience -- and people who skipped college altogether. No one has taken a formal count of these two groups, but they haven't gone unnoticed. And their success raises the question of whether a computer science education, or even any higher education, is a prerequisite to competing in the high-tech job market.

The relevance of higher education to high-tech jobs is under scrutiny, thanks to the rising number of success stories featuring someone who majored in a right-brained specialty, bypassed college or dropped out -- the most famous example being Harvard dropout Bill Gates. In December, Forbes asked if investing in a college education was a smart way to spend time investing in a career. Among the numbers the article cited: Close to 15 percent of the Forbes 400 either dropped out of college or avoided it altogether, and those executives boast an average net worth of
$4.8 billion. A few weeks later, U.S. News and World Report ran a related article: More boys are opting out of college to pursue jobs in a booming economy.

There is ample incentive to trade higher education for high-salaried, high-tech jobs. Forbes noted that a college degree costing $120,000 might actually be worth more as a mutual fund with a 5 percent interest rate; if a teenager's parents sink the $30,000 they would have spent on the first year's tuition into a mutual fund for their child, he'll have $500,000 by the time he turns 50. Many college graduates, especially those who spend their early postgraduate years paying off student loans, will never see that much in the bank. The article also contends that colleges are unable to keep up with the proliferation of programming languages and technologies driving today's job market, and thus do not
outfit their students with the necessary job skills. Is it any wonder would-be tech tyros rethink college?

The |bergeek news portal Slashdot posted a link to the Forbes article and found itself hosting a 300-plus-message argument on the merits of education in relation to high-tech jobs. The respondents were evenly split: Some younger programmers argued that their practical experience and high salaries offset the disadvantages of lacking a degree, while others argued that a formal
education leads to a higher caliber of technical work later in life.

But does that formal education even have to be in engineering, or will any old degree do? Scott is joined by Web producer Satya Kuner and Jason Monberg, the CTO of Sparks, in believing that their non-technical degrees have enhanced their work in the tech industry.

Kuner contends that her background as a dance major improved her job performance when she was charged with doing technical support for Unix, C and Perl programming. As part of her job, she had to walk users through solutions to thorny code errors, then log the events in a database for other workers. She credits the improvements she made to the company's database to the communication skills she learned in college, saying, "Lots of geeks I know can't provide clear instructions, because they can't fathom that someone
couldn't know something."

Humanities-based skills can also improve the traditional code-writing process. According to Kuner, artists bring a novel perspective to code composition, allowing them to extend the uses to which a programming language is put. Monberg, who holds a degree in sociology, has noticed that coding and engineering groups that include people trained outside the
discipline are more open to innovation. "It opens the door to a more engaging cross-pollinating environment," he says. "Individual contributors are not completely locked into thinking only about their specific task."

Nor are individuals locked into one set of job skills: Scott, Kuner and Monberg all acquired specific technical skills on a compressed schedule in response to job demands, and they believe that their college education helped flatten the learning curve -- even if the connections between Unix and dancing, interior design or sociology aren't readily apparent.

College provided a mental model for learning subsequent skills, which complements the one constant in high tech: the need to keep learning. Any high-tech worker, regardless of academic background, must stay abreast of new skills to keep up in the field.

Perhaps, as those Slashdot posters argued, the learning can take place on site at a $60,000 programming job. But judging by the posts complaining, "if only Bill Gates took an OS class,"
there are also unarguable merits to a technical university education for engineers. Monberg himself admits that there are times when a computer science education would have come in handy: "When you get down to it, earning a CS degree provides one with some very basic practical experience."

At the heart of the higher-education debate lies the question: Do high-tech workers miss out on some crucial educational event if they skip college? There's no denying that high-tech offers something few other disciplines do -- the ability to enter and move up in an industry based on applicable
skills and experience, instead of requiring a degree to even enter the arena. But having a degree doesn't prevent high-tech workers from picking up experience elsewhere. The
learning skills one uses to pick up programming languages and systems operations are highly individual, and can be acquired from disciplines as diverse as music or biology. They can also be picked up through a combination of time spent on a computer and a curiosity to learn more: Kuner, Monberg and Scott all honed their technical chops through self-teaching.

What can't be picked up through hard programming experience is the discipline-specific experience that any college graduate possesses. To a biology major like me, object-oriented programming didn't make much sense when it was explained in terms of classes and constructors. But when I could map the general ideas to familiar ground -- the immune system's different types of cells and the chemical signals they send to each other are similar to classes of code objects and the embedded functional signals they each have -- I picked up the programming concept, and expanded on it in ways my computer-engineering co-workers hadn't pondered yet.

As more graduates combine their intellectual experience with practical technical skills, observers may recast the higher-education question. Instead of wondering whether college
is relevant, we may ask what kind of degrees will allow
high-tech workers and companies to stay fresh and keep innovating.

By Lisa Schmeiser

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