Is It A Good Thing That Computer Science Is 'Cool Again'?

from the maybe-not dept

Computer science is cool again. At least, that's what the headline at Network World says. Apparently, CS enrollments are up for the first time in six years, driven by "teens' excitement about social media and mobile technologies." I'm a CS grad student, so you might expect me to be excited about this development, but I'm not actually sure it's such a good sign. It's great that there are more people considering careers in the IT industry, but I worry about people going into computer science for the wrong reasons. In my experience, if your brain works a certain way, you'll love programming and will have a successful career in the software industry. If it doesn't, there probably isn't much you can do to change that. So I'd love to see more kids explore CS, but if, after taking a couple of classes, they're not sure if CS is the right major for them, then frankly it probably isn't. If you don't enjoy programming, you're almost certainly not going to be a good programmer, and you're not going to be either successful or happy in that career. The fact that you like Facebook or your iPhone definitely isn't enough reason to be a CS major.

I think it would be better if colleges focused on expanding the computer training that non-CS majors receive. Almost every technical field involves manipulating large datasets, and so the ability to write basic computer programs will be a big productivity boost in a wide variety of fields, from economics to biology. Most people aren't cut out to be full-time programmers, but lots of people could benefit from a 1-semester course that focuses on practical data manipulation skills with a high-level scripting language like Perl or Python.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    JMG, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 1:03pm

    Couldn't agree more

    Most people aren't cut out to be full-time programmers, but lots of people could benefit from a 1-semester course that focuses on practical data manipulation skills with a high-level scripting language like Perl or Python.

    I wish this was something some colleges/universities did. After learning Perl, I saw on just how much I was missing out on. Now, I'd argue I can get by generating, examining, and data mining large data sets (both numeric and text) with a text editor and interpreter alone.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    SteveD, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 1:06pm

    CS is the new Media Studies, then?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    porkster, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 1:18pm


    After teaching software for many years, more than 80% of people passed the software exams and projects, but only 20% are any good i.e. have the logical thought process and enjoy what they were doing. They were easy to spot as marking their assignments was a pleasure. Others got through by determination or whatever drives students to succeed.

    Software writing is all in the approach to the package and has very little to do with the actual coding. Those who sat at a computer and started typing code as soon as an assignment was given were mediocre to average at best.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    Killer_Tofu (profile), Mar 25th, 2009 @ 1:27pm

    Re: Agreed

    Those who sat at a computer and started typing code as soon as an assignment was given were mediocre to average at best.
    My friend and I would always do that right after class.
    But it was a always a friendly little competition to see who could get done first. We really enjoyed it.
    I do enjoy the coding process and problem solving.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    BillDivX, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 1:49pm


    I came through CS with just about the last group of the original "CS is cool" wave, right about the time that the tech bubble burst. All the decent schools were so crowded that you had to have a perfect GPA and perfect test scores to get into the CS major, and if you did, all the classes were so crowded.

    During orientation, we were told to expect that our four year bachelor degree would take five and a half years, mostly because you could never get the classes you wanted such that you could fit the whole program into four years. At least, not without doubling or tripling up the hard classes, which is just foolish to attempt in CS.

    I would say that a good 80-90% of those people had no talent at all. They were constantly lost, had no sense of efficient logic, no sense of code readability, no creative problem solving skills, and otherwise just got by on sheer perseverance alone. Most of them end up as "implementors". They are told exactly what to make and how it should work, and the push through it.

    They are a far cry from the few of us capable of actually designing, building, and debugging systems which are complex and still efficent.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 1:56pm

    Network World? Tim. Come on, man.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    Leigh Beadon (profile), Mar 25th, 2009 @ 1:57pm

    Look to math performance

    Math is a great indicator of someone's potential as a programmer. If you hate working your way through a new algebra problem (I'm talking early high school algebra), you are probably going to hate writing code. If, on the other hand, you love the way numbers yield to logical manipulation, and you feel a sense of satisfaction upon figuring out the value of x or whatnot, then programming will be a joyous discovery for you.

    At least that's how I've always felt, but maybe I'm wrong. Anyone out there hate math, but love programming?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Weird Harold's former #5 fan, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 2:07pm

    if, after taking a couple of classes, they're not sure if CS is the right major for them, then frankly it probably isn't.

    I agree completely, except for the "probably" at the end.

    The kids who will do good in programming will take CS whether it's "cool" or not. They're the ones who will teach themselves to program on this new "Turbo Pascal 1.0" from some startup called "Borland" after convincing their parents to shell out $2k for a new Kaypro II. They'll ace the AP Computer Science exam without ever taking a programming class in high school. And later on in life, they'll have a wife that gets upset that they spend too much time in the evenings working on their hobby coding projects. :)

    From the first time I ever used a computer (an old Osborne "portable" that probably weighed 30 pounds), I simply *knew* that that's what I wanted to do with my life - to the point that I never had (and still don't have) a Plan B.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Weird Harold's former #5 fan, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 2:12pm

    Re: Look to math performance

    At least that's how I've always felt, but maybe I'm wrong.

    Speaking as someone who was the only junior in his high school's Calculus II class, I think you're spot on. You don't have to be a math genius to be a good programmer, but I don't think you can be a good programmer if you hate math - there are too many similarities between the two, as you've pointed out

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Leigh, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 2:14pm

    This entry just sounds like you want to keep CS majors contained in the same exclusive "geek" group. I find this article to be a huge disappointment coming from techdirt.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Washii, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 2:15pm

    What About Actual Computer Skills?

    While I think more people getting into CS is good to some extent, I would love to see more people that can actually build standard desktops and install Windows without hand-holding get into the field.

    Oh, and passable spelling would be great, too.

    Most of my friends in the major could barely write reports, let alone somewhat readable comments. Those same friends also tended not to have a clue how to snap together a desktop computer (because it seriously isn't that hard, so long as your motherboard manufacturer gave you a good header pin-out, of course!)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Joel Coehoorn, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 2:19pm

    Not for everyone

    Another CS grad here.

    My time in college and since has shown me four groups of people:

    A lot of people, many of them very smart individuals, just don't have the ability to put themselves in the place of the computer (or system) in the manner required to be able to build good programs. A partial CS eduction might still benefit this group for a career in technical writing or even IT management.

    Other people (again, many of them very smart) just switch their brains off when they sit down in front of a keyboard and monitor. These people are the stuff of tech support nightmares. They can use a computer, but only if the programs and hardware they rely on extremely well put together. Thankfully, as computers become more and more a part of daily life this group is getting smaller. That also indicates that if you bang them over the head with it hard enough, there just might be hope for them.

    Then there are normal people. Yes, they do exist. With hard work and study, these people can make it through a CS program and come out the other side as productive graduates that would be a great addition to almost any team. It is a lot of work, though. For many of them, the rewards just aren't worth the costs.

    Finally, you have the born programmers. A person from this group just 'gets it' from day one. They understand how a program is put together and why, and know how to assemble code that accomplishes the task. Often these are very smart people, but some of them are pretty dumb, too.

    The main thing is that it's the manner in which you think that is important, not necessarily good you are at thinking.

    Now, finally, to the point. I don't think it's a bad thing that more people are applying to CS programs. The things I've described above are not new, and over the years schools have become pretty good at weeding out those who are not well-suited to the discipline. Those who shouldn't become programmers normally learn this pretty quick.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Sneeje, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 2:24pm

    Confused... why is a CS degree only good for coding?

    I have an undergrad CS and an MBA. I help government agencies develop and implement enterprise systems. The CS degree was instrumental in helping me understand the technical implications of business decisions. So, to me, coding apps is really just one aspect of the broader IT career environment.

    And was I a great coder? No, but I think I was pretty good. But I would probably agree that only a small percent of the CS grads are really good coders. However,only a small percentage of English majors are good writers so, I don't really see the point here.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Software Developer, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 2:27pm

    Re: Look to math performance

    I hate math. I'm good at it, but I find it very boring and I hate having to do all the homework.

    I have three programs I want to make in my free time though, one of which is to help me study in a non-CS related class.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. icon
    kirillian (profile), Mar 25th, 2009 @ 2:34pm

    Re: Agreed...

    I agree as well...I can remember well my CS classes. There were probably 2-3 other people in the room who actually understood the material or even seemed to grasp the problem solving aspects of programming.

    Honestly, I'm pretty much self-taught. I just read the text book in about two days, messed around with stuff and taught myself. Early on, I had a tendency to try and bite off more than I could chew. I would try and use the fanciest concepts that I could dream up, stumbling upon capsulization pretty much just from learning about functions (man, I thought function pointers in C/C++ were the most amazing things ever for a while...I still think so, but I like the abstraction placed on them in some higher-level languages). I always would get hung up trying to debug my program because of those 100,000 extra lines of code that I was writing where I was just over the horizon of grasping the concepts.

    Experience has helped me get over that, but I still look back and wonder how many of my classmates actually have become good programmers...some of them couldn't code unless, as BillDivX mentioned, someone tells them what to do. I have a co-worker like that. He's good enough after that, but he's not gonna figure out anything on his own.

    Personally, I feel that I'm gifted at algorithms, but I have a job as a code-monkey for now. I kinda hate the idea, but it's definitely changed my coding habits for good and given me more discipline. Breaking into a graphics algorithms field will have to come with time. Besides, landing a job your Senior year in college is hard enough. I'd say that I was really lucky to get anything (Nebraska is not really a technological epicenter of the world - it's the corn-husker state...what can you expect? I guess I could move back home to Texas).

    My point is that I do agree with BillDivX, but I think that the ranks get quite mixed in the real-world...I think plenty of those "untalented" people end up in the jobs that others of us have (or at least, think we have) the talent for and would love to have ourselves. O well, time and patience may remedy that...or at least help ease the pain of it all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. icon
    kirillian (profile), Mar 25th, 2009 @ 2:38pm

    Re: Look to math performance

    True, but I think that the best software designers and debuggers are actually artistic persons who are also gifted at math. The math-oriented people are exceptionally gifted at applying solutions to problems, but it's usually the creative ones that come up with GOOD solutions...also on that don't have to draw, sing, paint, or act to be creative. I've known plenty of good mathematically gifted people who had creative solutions to math problems or were just good at finding a solution that may or may not have been textbook, but they found it. I'd say there's a lot of creativity in that too - it's just combining the stuff you already know with new knowledge to come up with something else.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    Charles, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 2:39pm

    Have to agree with Sneeje. I am cs grad but didn't care for the coding. I got the ideas behind it but it just wasn't for me. It seems everyone is taking about programing instead of cs as a whole. I like getting a new script that helps me with some networking but i don't think it would be what i want to do full time. Those freshman VB classes definitely weren't my favs but it at least game me and idea of how it worked. It also help other switch there major so something more to there liking ;)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 3:09pm

    15 years ago this happened... and it wasn't about "excitement about social media and mobile technologies"... it was about dollars... and it led to a decade of 'real' IT professionals fighting for jobs with McAdmins... eventually, the number of letters after your name stopped being a default measure of your IT worth...

    By comparison, I much prefer people actually interested in technology getting into the field.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. icon
    mike42 (profile), Mar 25th, 2009 @ 3:19pm

    Re: Look to math performance

    Here's one! I always screw up if I'm just manually going through steps in a meaningless, abstract algebraic equation, but I love word problems and geometric proofs. It's not numbers that make you a good coder, it's logic, and the ability to set up equations. If you are going to judge CS ability by math tests, make sure the tests are all word problems.

    That said, I've been coding for 25 years, professionally for 11, and I love the crap out of it!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    KeillRandor, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 3:50pm


    Being a programmer was probably always the second option for me, behind being a musician.

    Unfortunately for the former, I never really had much in the way of resources to use for too long - (the only computers I had for a long time were various kinds of Sinclair Spectrum) - and it was only in the past 5 years that I even got a PC. (I had a couple of Amiga's in between). (And I got that for music instead).

    I remember learning Sinclair basic and finding it pretty easy, but never had any luck in finding some good guides for using machine code programs at the time. Later on I took a basic programming course in C, which was enough for me to decide I could do it if I really wanted to, but since I didn't have a computer at the time, I left it alone and haven't bothered with it since... Now I'm just waiting for a better computer (again) for my music...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Lawrence D'Oliveiro, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 4:23pm

    Work With Real Code

    As a Computer Science undergrad, half of my learning took place outside the lecture halls anyway. I'm not sure what it's like nowadays, but in my time (around 1980), there was a definite disconnect between what some of the lecturers were teaching and how the computer systems actually worked. The theory was useful, even essential, but it didn't really make any sense until you could put it into practice.

    Nowadays, you can learn so much about programming by looking at real, working code written by other people. Put a Linux distribution on your PC, and have a play with it. Find a program you like? Go look at its source code. Maybe it's buggy, or doesn't quite have the features you want? Why not try fixing the bugs, or adding the features? It's a whole lot less effort than writing your own program from scratch. Plus you get the satisfaction of other people using stuff you've written.

    Not a bad thing to have on a resumé, either.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Zaven, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 4:35pm

    So Wrong

    This is so wrong. Just because someone doesn't like programming does not mean they can't have a successful career in the CS field. I recently graduated from the University of Maryland with a Computer Engineering degree and some of my best friends there hate coding. However they've gotten some pretty good jobs in other aspects of CS. It's a great background to have simply if you want to go into management and oversee programming projects.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 25th, 2009 @ 7:36pm

    It's a good point, but I'd say the same goes for all professions; how many doctors are there that were forced into the profession by over-achieving parents?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 26th, 2009 @ 12:04am

    Also agree, I got all crazy happy because I could use the command line on linux....I can do basic stuff to get by. The CS classes were murder for me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    mobiGeek, Mar 26th, 2009 @ 6:52am

    Re: Re: Look to math performance

    Arithmetic is to mathematics what spelling is to writing. There are many, many authors (and journalists) out there whose spelling is weak.

    You are right, logic and problem solving skills (breaking a large problem into consumable chunks) are key to being a good programmer. It just so happens that most people start developing those skills in "math" classes which, in middle and early high school, are actually "advanced arithmetic" classes.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. identicon
    mobiGeek, Mar 26th, 2009 @ 7:00am

    Re: What About Actual Computer Skills?

    Why have people build "standard desktops" and (worse) "install Windows"??

    Personally, I'd rather the people who take up CS write OSes and software that don't need users "to install without hand-holding".

    These are (artificial) thinking machines. They should adapt to our skillsets. These are the first tools we've developed that should know how to work for the user, rather than force the user to understand the tool.

    IMO, it makes no sense that people should learn how to put together a machine that can be mass manufactured for under $200.

    Should some people learn those skills? Sure, those people who are going to create and repair hardware should. And those going into programming should have a decent understanding of the environment where their softwares will run.

    But I see no benefit from having everyone learn the internals of computers. This would be akin to having everyone learn how to repair a car engine. It would be a massive inefficiency for everyone to learn the exact same skills.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. icon
    Nethos (profile), Mar 26th, 2009 @ 7:28am

    Following the money...

    Lately I've noticed that a lot of kids are getting into Computer Science for two main reasons: 1. They like to play video games, so they figure they'd enjoy going to one of these "video game programming" schools that are popping up everywhere, or 2. many of today's top-paying jobs are in the technology field. However, a lot of kids just aren't really programmers at heart. Personally, my brain works so much like a computer that computer programming just comes naturally to me, however a lot of kids sign up for these courses thinking they'll just be playing video games all day or be taking the easy ride to being rich, neither of which are true.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. identicon
    mohsin, Apr 14th, 2009 @ 3:38am

    i want to ask how we can use the computer

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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