Uncharted Waters

Feb 5 2014   10:48AM GMT

Tech education: Or how to get a job quick!

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

Education paths for tech workers has been pretty cut and dry for the past few decades. Get through high school and ideally be good at math, then move on to a university and major in computer science, or computer engineering, or some type of mathematics. Alternately, go to university and major in the humanities and spend a lot of time with learning on your own after graduation while working your day job.

There are a few problems with this model though. Most software jobs don’t require a deep understanding of pointer arithmetic and data structures. After graduation, most of us will spend your days writing web-apps that help with some business process. I don’t mean that as a bad thing, at all, there is a lot of value there which is why this is such a big part of the programming world. So, you spend 4 or 5 years learning the most intimate details of software development and may rarely have an opportunity to use that knowledge.

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(I have a hard time learning in this environment, do you?)

Expense was a big problem for me, I bet others have shared this experience. A university diploma isn’t cheap and it is growing more and more difficult to justify for a lot of people. I spent about 10 years on my undergrad working full time as a way to offset the cost. Each semester I took one or two classes and paid in cash. While taking one class per semester, the industry work experience I was gaining quickly became more valuable than the degree I was working on. I knew something was up, but there that nasty rumor that you will never advance without a degree kept looking my way.

There are quite a few non-traditional school options around that are probably worth exploring if you find yourself questioning the university route. Job specific schooling can be a great alternative for people who don’t fit well into a university system, or people that are already in the workforce but are looking for a change.

Tech schools range from the extremely casual to an intense boot camp type atmosphere (sans push ups I suspect). On the more casual side of things are websites like codeschool.com where a student can register and work through a series of exercises based on the technology they want to learn.

On the more intense side of things are brick-and-mortar schools like Nashville Software School. NSS offers a full time, six month web developer boot camp based on two courses. The first course, web development foundations, covers things such as JavaScript, HTML, CSS, and git. The second course goes a little deeper and introduces students to the Ruby / Rails stack, and also some testing frameworks such as rspec, and the selenium test suite.

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(Nashville Software School graduating class)

The goal of this program is to teach technologies that there is local market demand for, and to help the students land a gig as soon as they graduate. From what I understand, they are doing a pretty good job at both of these things.

If you want to build software for the space station, or for geological drilling expeditions, sure, go get that university degree. But if you aren’t set on that, you may want to consider some vocational options.

Next time I’ll be talking with a friend and instructor at Nashville Software School to get a closer view of how they do things.

6  Comments on this Post

 
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  • FTClark

    Good article! These are some moderating and amplifying thoughts.

    In my experience, there is a lot of deep discipline, logic, patterns, and similar things that are only thoroughly learned and taught in a good degree program. These things will serve you well though they are not highly critical in the first work years. They will become more important as you advance in your profession. There will be many changes as the years pass and technology progresses. Foundation knowledge is important. It is not cheap!

    Industry work experience is also highly valuable to begin gaining as soon as practical. Both are needed and valuable for the long haul. It is a very reasonable course to jumpstart with some of the methods described to earn and learn as you go.

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  • Jim401

    I attended two colleges, got one BS degree in Accouting. Worked for a big CPA firm. I later attended three "trade" schools that helped me learn the technical stuff so I could be successful in three different technical businesses, including Oracle DBA certification which gained me entrance into managing large databases and writing lots of code to integrate and report on legacy systems.

    A four year college degree now means about as much as a high school degree did one hundred years ago. I believe that someone at IBM was quoted as saying "All a college degree means is that you are trainable." The fact is that you have to have both the foundational education and the technical training.

    I am saddened to see techical training has been removed from the public schools and now seems to be available only from for-profit companies, for the most part. That means that it is expensive and sold to some unsuitable students. There is a reason why those companies have very high student loan default rates.

    I would love to see a system in place where workers could take 6 to 9 months off every 10 years or so to go to a technical school and either update their skills or change fields. For most of us a career in a technical field does not last a life time.

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  • FTClark
    With the solid foundational training of a computer science degree I didn't need to go back to a technical school for 6 to 9 months. I have changed fields within the broad range of computer science several times with self-study or occasionally one/two week technical courses. Technology changes rapidly and so do careers. You must adapt.
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  • Justin Rohrman
    @Jim401

    There are still a few public high schools that offer a vocational curriculum, Houston has a high school for performing and visual arts, and also a tech / science school if memory serves. I get what you're saying though, this definitely isn't the norm.

    I keep up to date in my field by spending a good bit of my free time in study and practice. This certainly wouldn't work for everyone, but I do worry that an intensive course every 10 years wouldn't be enough to stay relevant. 
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  • Justin Rohrman
    @FTClark

    I started working in software around my second semester into university. Doing both school and industry work at the same time was sort of disillusioning. The university education, though useful for some foundational stuff, simply couldn't keep up with the real world. Both in the pace of the learning experience and in the relevant technology. 

    Maybe that is different for people that went to other schools more known for tech programs though...
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  • FTClark

    @Justin

    Definite agreement with my experience that the university training is not as fast paced and immediately relevant but the foundation is also important.

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