Seemed like an innocent enough question when I asked it.A bunch of us developers from the consulting firm I worked with were at lunch talking tech. Then the conversation turned to college football and we were getting into friendly banter about our alma mater’s teams.
I noticed one of the guys who was all over the tech conversation was all of a sudden very quiet.
So I figured the nice thing to do was to bring him back into the discussion and asked that question. With more than a hint of a defensive tone, he said that he didn’t go to college.
Cue awkward silence.
Since he didn’t elaborate and I was the curious type, I dug deeper.
“Really? So where did you learn to write code?”
We’ll call my counterpart in this conversation Joe. Well, Joe squirmed in his seat as he responded, “I went to a two year technical institute.”
The topic of where he received his post high school education was obviously uncomfortable for him. And I obviously needed to know more.
“Interesting. What kind of courses did you have to take?,” I inquired.
Joe glared back at me as he swallowed a bite of his sandwich.
“Probably more technical courses than any college requires for a computer science degree. You see, I didn’t want to waste my time having to learn about philosophy and political science. I just cared about writing code. Period. All that other stuff would have been worthless… in my humble opinion.”
As I was starting to process what Joe was saying, our button-downed coworker Stan chimed in.
“Joe, I’m sure you learned a great deal about software development, but I happen to think that those so-called “worthless” courses make a more well-rounded developer who as a result might be able to relate better to clients and projects. It’s not just about writing code. You have to be able to deal with people, processes, business rules and even office politics.”
I jumped back in, earnestly trying to help Joe out. “So you couldn’t afford to go to college?”(I cringe that I actually said that.)
Joe was starting to show some crimson colors, feeling a bit cornered by his coworkers. He took a deep breath and proceeded to explain his position.
“Just because I chose to take a different path that led me to the same position as you, doesn’t mean that I was forced to. I actually started off at a top engineering university. I hated it. So I chose to quit after the first year and go for a two year degree so I could focus on what interested me and not what others thought I should do.“
I actually was thinking that was an admirable position to take and took some gumption to leave such a good school. I mean, many successful techies left college. Bill Gates left Harvard, right?
That’s when Stan piped back in.
“Oh, so you were flunking out of college?”
Joe grimaced. “I had a perfect GPA in my computer science classes, thank you very much! It was the other courses like ‘Interpersonal Communications’ and ‘Rhetoric in a Free Society’ that I found a complete waste of time.”
I said, “Hey, I took similar classes and thought they were great!”
That’s when our other buddy Dean (who always got under my skin) added his two cents.
“Yeah Eric, that’s why you are such a great communicator.” Dean said with total sarcasm.
“You majored in Information Science, right? I bet our friend Joe took way more technical courses than you. I actually wish I would have had the guts to do what Joe did. I mean, what does learning about rhetoric have to do with writing software?”
“Whatever, Dean,” I said. “ I’m not saying that he took a bad path, I just think Stan and I are saying there are benefits to getting a college degree that go beyond what you major in.”
Stan agreed: “Whether it is fair or not, if you are in consulting like us then your resume can be harshly judged by prospective clients. Not only can a college degree get a higher rate for our services, but we’ll be able to more easily justify higher salary than you, Joe. “
(You know, now that I’m in management, I miss these frank conversations.)
The heat in the room kept rising. “Are you so sure your salary is higher than mine Stan?” Joe said. “And even if it is, do you feel it’s justified because you took a bunch of courses that did nothing to help you write better code? Come on!”
Stan tried to keep things cool – awkwardly. “I’m just saying you might be looked at more like a blue collar developer than a white collar developer who brings more to the table. And that could impact your marketability.”
Trying to be the peace maker and drawing on my Interpersonal Communication class work, I interjected.
“Everyone is making valid points. But let’s keep in mind that we build stuff, and blue collar workers have historically been those that rolled up their sleeves and either built or fixed great things. That’s what we do.”
Dean laughed. “Yeah right! We build stuff alright. But blue collar implies manual labor and I don’t think any of us have broken a sweat writing software. Well, maybe you have Eric.” He continued laughing.
Joe wasn’t amused. “No, but you are implying that I’m less educated by referring to me as blue collar? You know who I consider blue collar? The techies who run the data center. Many of them are self taught who have administration certifications. They get their hands dirty with the servers and telecom stuff, whereas we design and write complex code – regardless of where we learned how to do it.”
Dean jumped back in. “Oh, so what the folks down in the data center do to keep the lights on isn’t complex? You better not let them hear you say that or your next help desk request will fall on deaf ears.”
Looking back on this, I think we all were acting like a bunch of immature snobs. I’m sure I didn’t recall every word of our conversation, but the gist was still the same. Everyone wanted to make a case for why their software education was better and how we were all a step above techies who didn’t write software.
Perhaps part of it was wanting to feel like you had more job security or upward mobility than the next guy (or gal).
Over the years (many, many years) I learned that there are benefits to having developers educated in different ways. The fact is, despite our differences, all of us worked together really well as a team and we produced some great software.
More important than where we were educated was how passionate we were about writing software. The best developers live and breathe this stuff. They read about the latest software trends at night because they can’t get enough of it, and want to be on the leading edge – even if their managers will only let them look over that edge and not take the leap.
Sure, it may help to be more well rounded, not just for your job, but in life. However, it’s not a requirement to be a great software developer.
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Eric Spiegel is CEO and co-founder of XTS, which provides software for planning, managing and auditing Citrix and other virtualization platforms.