If recent empirical and anecdotal evidence is any indication, computer science is about as trendy with college students today as phone-booth stuffing and pet rocks.

According to a recent survey from the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, the number of freshmen indicating that they plan to major in computer science declined by more than 60 percent between 2000 and 2004. Industry luminaries such as Bill Gates are pushing the U.S. government to lift limits on H1-B visas to meet the perceived shortage of IT talent in the United States. Is the IT talent sky falling? I don’t think so, because I feel the importance of a computer-science degree is overstated.

Although some of the great technologists I’ve known came equipped with computer-science degrees, I’ve worked alongside just as many who leveraged interdisciplinary training and on-the-job business experience to build high-quality software and systems. I’ve worked with philosophy majors for whom a basic development best practice such as source-code control was second nature, and I’ve worked with computer-science majors who seemed genetically predisposed to implementing uncommented production code hidden away in their home directories.The common traits of the great developers I’ve managed are inventiveness, rapid learning, creativity, persistence, ability to communicate, a passion for technology, and deep technical knowledge. Text The common traits of the great developers I’ve managed are inventiveness, rapid learning, creativity, persistence, ability to communicate, a passion for technology, and deep technical knowledge. If I had used the computer-science degree as a non-negotiable litmus test in hiring, I would have missed out on some top IT talent with all of these traits in abundance.

Perhaps the stated lack of interest in computer-science degrees among freshmen has nothing to do with interest in IT and is more reflective of aggressive self-teaching, an approach to lifelong learning that seems to be essential to career success as an IT professional.

When I was a kid I enjoyed writing programs in Basic on the Commodore VIC-20 I shared with my brother, and later we ran the books for our successful lawn-mowing operation from my dad’s Kaypro. By the time I got to college, my interests shifted to studying literature, and computers took a backseat as I threw my energies into Shakespeare and James Joyce.

My interest in computing re-emerged in my first job after graduation when I realized that writing software to automate some of my day-to-day tasks would save me time and effort. I started thinking more broadly and began using technology to solve larger problems in my department and then my company as a whole.

I eventually decided to take computer-science classes, which served as a practical and helpful foundation, but I largely taught myself. With the Internet, open source, and overnight delivery of books from Amazon, access to the required tools to drive a self-paced computer-science education has never been more transparent. Much of getting things done in corporate IT involves communication and working effectively within teams, disciplines for which most traditional computer-science curriculums offer little explicit help.

I would encourage anyone to pursue a computer-science education. But the lack of a computer-science degree won’t doom you to irrelevance, nor does it mean a better-educated candidate from Palo Alto, Calif., or Bangalore, India, will edge you out of the job market. Just ask Bill Gates, who is still a few credits shy of graduation.

Related links:

Entry-level jobs in jeopardy, expert warns

Tech jobs on the rise, report says



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