You don’t need a Computer Science degree

If you never studied Computer Science in school you might believe that’s made you a worse programmer. Your colleagues who did study CS know more about algorithms and data structures than you do, after all. What did you miss? Are you really as good?

My answer: you don’t need to worry about it, you’ll do just fine. Some of the best programmers I’ve worked with never studied Computer Science at all.

A CS education has its useful parts, but real-world programming includes a broad array of skills that no one person can master. Programming is a team effort, and different developers can and should have different skills and strengths for the team to succeed. Where a CS degree does give you a leg up is when you’re trying to get hired early in your career, but that is a hurdle that many people overcome.

What you learn in Comp Sci

I myself did study CS and Mathematics in college, dropped out of school, and then later went back to school and got a liberal arts degree. Personally I feel the latter was more useful for my career.

Much of CS is devoted to theory, and that theory doesn’t come up in most programming. Yes, proving that all programming languages are equivalent is interesting, but that one sentence is all that I’ve taken away from a whole semester’s class on the subject. And yes, I took multiple classes on data structures and algorithms… but I’m still no good at implementing new algorithms.

I ended up being bored in most of my CS classes. I dropped out to get a programming job where I could just write code, which I enjoyed much more. In some jobs that theory I took would be quite useful, but for me at least it has mostly been irrelevant.

Writing software in the real world

It’s true that lacking a CS education you might not be as good at data structures. But chances are you have some other skill your colleagues lack, a unique strength that you contribute to your team.

Let me give a concrete example: at a previous job we gave all candidates a take home exercise, implementing a simple Twitter-like server. I reviewed many of the solutions, and each solution had different strengths. For example:

  • Doing a wonderful job packaging a solution and making it easy to deploy.
  • Choosing a data structure that made access to popular feeds faster, for better scalability.
  • Discussing how the API was badly designed and could result in lost messages, and suggesting improvements.
  • Discussing the ways in which the design was likely to cause business problems.
  • Adding monitoring, and explaining how to use the monitoring to decide when to scale up the service.

Packaging, data structures, network API design, big picture thinking, operational experience: these are just some of the skills that contribute to writing software. No one person can have them all. That means you can focus on your own strengths, because you’re part of a team. Here’s what that’s meant in my case:

  • I’m pretty bad at creating new data structures or algorithms, and mostly it doesn’t matter. Sometimes you’re creating new algorithms, it’s true. But most web developers, for example, just need to know that hashmaps give faster lookups than iterating over a list. But I’ve had coworkers who were good at it… and they worked on those problems when they came up.
  • In my liberal arts degree I learned how to craft better abstractions, and writing as a form of thinking. This has proven invaluable when designing new products and solving harder problems.
  • From the friends I made working on open source projects I learned about testing, and how to build robust software. Many of them had no CS education at all, and had learned on their own, from books and forums and their own practice.

Job interviews

The one place where a Computer Science degree is unquestionably useful is getting a job early in your career. When you have no experience the degree will help; once you have experience your degree really doesn’t matter.

It’s true that many companies have an interview process that focuses on algorithmic puzzles. Unfortunately interviewing skills are often different than job skills, and need to be strengthened separately. And my CS degree doesn’t really help me, at least: I’ve forgotten most of what I’ve learned, and algorithms were never my strength. So whenever I’m interviewing for jobs I re-read an old algorithms textbook and do some practice puzzles.

In short: don’t worry about lacking a CS degree. Remember that you’ll never be able to know everything, or do everything: it’s the combined skills of your whole team that matters. Focus on your strengths, improve the skills you have, and see what new skills you can learn from your teammates.

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