Daily Archives: January 24, 2014

If The Degree Is Doomed, So Is America!

The HBR blog has a lot of thought-provoking content, which is good, but also has a lot of philosophical content which, if misunderstood, or interpreted as more than a thought-experiment, could lead to very, very bad consequences. Take the recent post on The Degree is Doomed by Michael Stanton which ends with the value of a college degree has been in question since the Great Recession, but there have yet to emerge clear alternatives for the public to rally the around. There are plenty of contenders, though, and it won’t be long before one of them crystalizes the idea for the masses that the traditional degree is increasingly irrelevant in a world with immediate access to evaluative information.

Anyone who takes this literally, including the idiot software CEO I spoke with recently [who] said he avoids job candidates with advanced software engineering degrees mentioned in the post, is setting themselves, and the rest of us, up for massive failure. While I will be the first to admit that there are lots of relatively useless degrees in Academia from an industry perspective, not all degrees are useless and the mandate of a University is not to train you for a job — it’s to prepare you to think critically, solve problems, and improve yourself. This, in turn, allows you to learn the specific skills required for a job related to your field of study quickly and easily.

But this isn’t the point I want to make in this post. And while I agree with the author that the value of paper degrees lies in a common agreement to accept them as a proxy for competence and status, and that agreement is less rock solid than the higher education
establishment would like to believe
as many want to promise you a job in return for the considerable amount of dollars you need to fork over to get your degree, this doesn’t mean that the following notions presented in the post are true:

  1. On sites such as GitHub, user profiles contain work samples and provide community generated indicators of status and skill,
  2. Employers have never before had such easy access to specific and current information pertaining to a candidates’ potential, and
  3. The traditional degree is increasingly irrelevant in a world with immediate access to evaluative information.

SI has to disagree with all of these statements. Let’s take them one by one.

  1. Code samples a candidate presents to you through an online portfolio are not necessarily indicative of status and skill. The code samples could be someone else’s, stolen or paid for. The quality of the code could be the result of pure luck. I’ve seen developers struggle with a problem, copy fragments of code from various projects, and, through a lack of understanding of the depth of the problem, end up with a quick and dirty solution that just happens to work well in the real world, like Quicksort, due to the peculiarities of the data set. (Quicksort’s average performance as a sorting algorithm is on the same order of magnitude as its best case performance but it’s worst case is exponentially slower than it’s best case, compared to a merge or heap sort with a worst case that is essentially no worse than its best case.) And even if the code is the candidate’s and the quality is not due to pure luck, it could be based on someone else’s understanding of the problem. (A big part of development is problem solving — it’s much easier to translate an algorithm into code than to come up with one.) Plus, a single person can only do so much so there is no way to tell if the person can function well in large software projects or has the background to architect for such projects. And, to use a real-world metaphor that everyone understands, just because you can put up a shed using a do-it-yourself kit, doesn’t mean you can build an apartment building. Just because you can code a little utility library doesn’t mean you have what it takes to write scalable, reliable, adaptable, and responsive Enterprise Software.
  2. A few specific pieces of work product do not paint a full picture of a candidate’s potential. For starters, in addition to being able to create a good work product, a candidate has to work well with others, adapt to changing job requirements, learn on the job, and create new and different work products from the one he has already produced. A few static pieces of content are nowhere near sufficient to judge whether or not the candidate has anywhere close to the IQ and EQ that you need.
  3. Given our comments to 1 and 2 above, at the present time, the traditional degree is becoming increasingly relevant in a world with too much access to incomplete, non-illuminative, and unverifiable information. Provided it’s an accredited degree from an accredited institution known for high standards, it’s often the only way to judge if a candidate possesses the basic knowledge, skills, and EQ foundation that she will need to excel on the job today and tomorrow. While it is generally the case that an academic program will not teach a candidate everything she needs to know to do your job, it is the only program that will give her the foundation she needs to learn what she needs to know to do your job. You might have to give her some training, but you can be confident with the right training, she will get the job done.

I know Aerosmith told us to Dream On, but I really don’t think what the author presented in the HBR blog post is what they meant. 😉