On “Is a Computer Science Degree a Good Goal?”

Dan Fink’s “Is a computer science degree a good goal?” has gotten my wheels going. I think it’s important to note this:

Computer Science ≠ Information Technology

Not only are these two disciplines not equal, neither is a subset of the other.

One of my most memorable culture shocks coming out of school into the Oracle domain was how many people didn’t understand the difference between computer science, which is a specialized branch of mathematics, and information technology, which is a specialized branch of business administration. They both deal with computers (the IT major more than the CS one, actually), so of course there’s risk that people will miss the distinction.

Over dinner Friday night with some of my friends from Percona, we touched on one of the problems. It’s difficult for a technical major in school to explain even to his family and friends back home what he’s studying. I remember saying once during my senior year as a math major, “I haven’t seen a number bigger than 1 since I was a sophomore.” I heard a new one tonight: “I got to the level where the only numbers in my math books were the page numbers.”

It’s difficult for people who don’t study computer science to understand who you are or how the min/max kd-trees and deterministic finite automata and predicate calculus and closures that you’re studying are different from the COBOL and SQL and MTBFs and ITIL that the IT majors are studying. It’s easy to see why laypeople don’t understand how these sets of topics arrange into distinctly different categories. What continually surprises me is how often even IT specialists don’t understand the distinction. I guess even the computer science graduates soften that distinction when they take jobs doing tasks (to make a living, of course) that will be automated within ten years by other computer scientist graduates.

I agree with Dan and the comments from Tim, Robyn, Noons, Gary, and David about where the IT career path is ultimately headed in the general case. What I don’t believe is that the only career path for computer scientists and mathematicians is IT. It’s certainly not the only career path for the ones who can actually create things.

I believe that college (by which I mean “University” in the European sense) is a place where the most valuable skill you learn is how to learn, and that, no matter what your major, as long as you work hard and apply yourself to overcoming the difficult challenges, there will be things in this world for you to do to earn your way.

I really hope that the net effect of a depressed, broken, and downward-trending IT industry is not that it further discourages kids from engaging in math and computer science studies in school. But I don’t want for so many of our kids today who’ll be our adults of tomorrow to become just compartmentalized, highly specialized robots with devastatingly good skills at things that nobody’s really willing to pay good money for. I think that the successful human of the future will need to be able to invent, design, create, empathize, teach, see (really see), listen (not just hear), learn, adapt, and solve.

…Just exactly like the successful human of the past.


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