Despite the fact that it was only a year or two ago that I was blubbering about how rich Windows GUI clients were the wave of the future, college students nonetheless do occasionally email me asking for career advice, and since it’s recruiting season, I thought I’d write up my standard advice which they can read, laugh at, and ignore.
Most college students, fortunately, are brash enough never to bother asking their elders for advice, which, in the field of computer science, is a good thing, because their elders are apt to say goofy, antediluvian things like “the demand for keypunch operators will exceed 100,000,000 by the year 2010” and “lisp careers are really very hot right now.”
I, too, have no idea what I’m talking about when I give advice to college students. I’m so hopelessly out of date that I can’t really figure out AIM and still use (horrors!) this quaint old thing called “email” which was popular in the days when music came on flat round plates called “CDs.”
So you’d be better off ignoring what I’m saying here and instead building some kind of online software thing that lets other students find people to go out on dates with.
If you enjoy programming computers, count your blessings: you are in a very fortunate minority of people who can make a great living doing work they enjoy. Most people aren’t so lucky. The very idea that you can “love your job” is a modern concept. Work is supposed to be something unpleasant you do to get money to do the things you actually like doing, when you’re 65 and can finally retire, if you can afford it, and if you’re not too old and infirm to do those things, and if those things don’t require reliable knees, good eyes, and the ability to walk twenty feet without being out of breath, etc.
What was I talking about? Oh yeah. Advice.
Without further ado, then, here are Joel’s Seven Pieces of Free Advice for Computer Science College Students (worth what you paid for them):
- Learn how to write before graduating.
- Learn C before graduating.
- Learn microeconomics before graduating.
- Don’t blow off non-CS classes just because they’re boring.
- Take programming-intensive courses.
- Stop worrying about all the jobs going to India.
- No matter what you do, get a good summer internship.
Now for the explanations, unless you’re gullible enough to do all that stuff just because I tell you to, in which case add: 8. Seek professional help for that self-esteem thing.
Learn how to write before graduating.
Would Linux have succeeded if Linus Torvalds hadn’t evangelized it? As brilliant a hacker as he is, it was Linus’s ability to convey his ideas in written English via email and mailing lists that made Linux attract a worldwide brigade of volunteers.
Have you heard of the latest fad, Extreme Programming? Well, without getting into what I think about XP, the reason you’ve heard of it is because it is being promoted by people who are very gifted writers and speakers.
Even on the small scale, when you look at any programming organization, the programmers with the most power and influence are the ones who can write and speak in English clearly, convincingly, and comfortably. Also it helps to be tall, but you can’t do anything about that.
The difference between a tolerable programmer and a great programmer is not how many programming languages they know, and it’s not whether they prefer Python or Java. It’s whether they can communicate their ideas. By persuading other people, they get leverage. By writing clear comments and technical specs, they let other programmers understand their code, which means other programmers can use and work with their code instead of rewriting it. Absent this, their code is worthless. By writing clear technical documentation for end users, they allow people to figure out what their code is supposed to do, which is the only way those users can see the value in their code. There’s a lot of wonderful, useful code buried on sourceforge somewhere that nobody uses because it was created by programmers who don’t write very well (or don’t write at all), and so nobody knows what they’ve done and their brilliant code languishes.
I won’t hire a programmer unless they can write, and write well, in English. If you can write, wherever you get hired, you’ll soon find that you’re getting asked to write the specifications and that means you’re already leveraging your influence and getting noticed by management.
Most colleges designate certain classes as “writing intensive,” meaning, you have to write an awful lot to pass them. Look for those classes and take them! Seek out classes in any field that have weekly or daily written assignments.
Start a journal or weblog. The more you write, the easier it will be, and the easier it is to write, the more you’ll write, in a virtuous circle.
Learn C before graduating
Part two: C. Notice I didn’t say C++. Although C is becoming increasingly rare, it is still the lingua franca of working programmers. It is the language they use to communicate with one another, and, more importantly, it is much closer to the machine than “modern” languages that you’ll be taught in college like ML, Java, Python, whatever trendy junk they teach these days. You need to spend at least a semester getting close to the machine or you’ll never be able to create efficient code in higher level languages. You’ll never be able to work on compilers and operating systems, which are some of the best programming jobs around. You’ll never be trusted to create architectures for large scale projects. I don’t care how much you know about continuations and closures and exception handling: if you can’t explain why while (s++ = t++); copies a string, or if that isn’t the most natural thing in the world to you, well, you’re programming based on superstition, as far as I’m concerned: a medical doctor who doesn’t know basic anatomy, passing out prescriptions based on what the pharma sales babe said would work.
Learn microeconomics before graduating
Super quick review if you haven’t taken any economics courses: econ is one of those fields that starts off with a bang, with many useful theories and facts that make sense, can be proven in the field, etc., and then it’s all downhill from there. The useful bang at the beginning is microeconomics, which is the foundation for literally every theory in business that matters. After that things start to deteriorate: you get into Macroeconomics (feel free to skip this if you want) with its interesting theories about things like the relationship of interest rates to unemployment which, er, seem to be disproven more often than they are proven, and after that it just gets worse and worse and a lot of econ majors switch out to Physics, which gets them better Wall Street jobs, anyway. But make sure you take Microeconomics, because you have to know about supply and demand, you have to know about competitive advantage, and you have to understand NPVs and discounting and marginal utility before you’ll have any idea why business works the way it does.
Why should CS majors learn econ? Because a programmer who understands the fundamentals of business is going to be a more valuable programmer, to a business, than a programmer who doesn’t. That’s all there is to it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been frustrated by programmers with crazy ideas that make sense in code but don’t make sense in capitalism. If you understand this stuff, you’re a more valuable programmer, and you’ll get rewarded for it, for reasons which you’ll also learn in micro.
Don’t blow off non-CS classes just because they’re boring.
Blowing off your non-CS courses is a great way to get a lower GPA.
Never underestimate how big a deal your GPA is. Lots and lots of recruiters and hiring managers, myself included, go straight to the GPA when they scan a resume, and we’re not going to apologize for it. Why? Because the GPA, more than any other one number, reflects the sum of what dozens of professors over a long period of time in many different situations think about your work. SAT scores? Ha! That’s one test over a few hours. The GPA reflects hundreds of papers and midterms and classroom participations over four years. Yeah, it’s got its problems. There has been grade inflation over the years. Nothing about your GPA says whether you got that GPA taking easy classes in home economics at Podunk Community College or taking graduate level Quantum Mechanics at Caltech. Eventually, after I screen out all the 2.5 GPAs from Podunk Community, I’m going to ask for transcripts and recommendations. And then I’m going to look for consistently high grades, not just high grades in computer science.
Why should I, as an employer looking for software developers, care about what grade you got in European History? After all, history is boring. Oh, so, you’re saying I should hire you because you don’t work very hard when the work is boring? Well, there’s boring stuff in programming, too. Every job has its boring moments. And I don’t want to hire people that only want to do the fun stuff.
I took this course in college called Cultural Anthropology because I figured, what the heck, I need to learn something about anthropology, and this looked like an interesting survey course.
Interesting? Not even close! I had to read these incredibly monotonous books about Indians in the Brazilian rain forest and Trobriand Islanders, who, with all due respect, are not very interesting to me. At some point, the class was so incredibly wearisome that I longed for something more exciting, like watching grass grow. I had completely lost interest in the subject matter. Completely, and thoroughly. My eyes teared I was so tired of the endless discussions of piling up yams. I don’t know why the Trobriand Islanders spend so much time piling up yams, I can’t remember any more, it’s incredibly boring, but It Was Going To Be On The Midterm, so I plowed through it. I eventually decided that Cultural Anthropology was going to be my Boredom Gauntlet: my personal obstacle course of tedium. If I could get an A in a class where the tests required me to learn all about potlatch blankets, I could handle anything, no matter how boring. The next time I accidentally get stuck in Lincoln Center sitting through all 18 hours of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, I could thank my studies of the Kwakiutl for making it seem pleasant by comparison.
Stop worrying about all the jobs going to India.
Well, OK, first of all, if you’re already in India, you never really had to worry about this, so don’t even start worrying about all the jobs going to India. They’re wonderful jobs, enjoy them in good health.
But I keep hearing that enrollment in CS departments is dropping perilously, and one reason I hear for it is “students are afraid to go into a field where all the jobs are going to India.” That’s so wrong for so many reasons. First, trying to choose a career based on a current business fad is foolish. Second, programming is incredibly good training for all kinds of fabulously interesting jobs, such as business process engineering, even if every single programming job does go to India and China. Third, and trust me on this, there’s still an incredible shortage of the really good programmers, here and in India. Yes, there are a bunch of out of work IT people making a lot of noise about how long they’ve been out of work, but you know what? At the risk of pissing them off, really good programmers do have jobs. Fourth, you got any better ideas? What are you going to do, major in History? Then you’ll have no choice but to go to law school. And there’s one thing I do know: 99% of working lawyers hate their jobs, hate every waking minute of it, and they’re working 90 hour weeks, too. Like I said: if you love to program computers, count your blessings: you are in a very fortunate minority of people who can make a great living doing work they love.
Anyway, I don’t think students really think about this. The drop in CS enrollment is merely a resumption of historically normal levels after a big bubble in enrollment caused by dotcom mania. That bubble consisted of people who didn’t really like programming but thought the sexy high paid jobs and the chances to IPO at age 24 were to be found in the CS department. Those people, thankfully, are long gone.