Is computer science a dead end in the workforce?

As tools grow more advanced and more coding moves offshore, the need for advanced development expertise is on the decline

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Indian universities have often been criticized for emphasizing memorization over creativity and practical problem-solving, leaving graduates poorly suited for the real-world job market. But Vembu earned his doctorate at Princeton, and some education experts believe his assessment could apply equally well to American higher education.

"Our national system is, 'Do you have a degree or not?'" says Martin Scaglione, president of workforce development for ACT, a nonprofit education and career services company best known for its college entrance exams. "That doesn't really measure if you have skills."

Which skills and how to get them?
Just what skills define a good programmer is a subject of much debate. Some computer science graduates enter the workforce with a thorough theoretical understanding of software development but little practical experience. Others spent their college years hammering away at C++, Java, SQL, or other specific tools, but failed to gain any working knowledge of the higher concepts. And either type of programmer might lack the communication and teamwork skills necessary to become a top-performing employee.

At Zoho, Vembu is experimenting with a unique, homegrown approach to recruitment. Instead of hiring degreed workers -- who might have already picked up bad habits -- he starts with high school graduates and molds them into programmers. Often his candidates have no previous computing experience. Many don't even speak English. But once they've completed a two-year intensive study course developed at Zoho, Vembu says, they're fully prepared to work at any IT services company.

While a program as ambitious as Zoho's might work in India, where poverty is endemic, it would be impractical in the United States. Still, many American employers are trying a similar, ground-up approach to developer education. Rather than hiring new programmers to staff software projects, they recruit internally, often tapping employees with little or no previous coding experience to transition into development roles. Although the learning curve can be steep, such internal hires have the advantage of domain expertise and knowledge of business processes and objectives -- skills that could take green programmers even longer to master.

Aiding this transition is the proliferation of highly abstracted application frameworks, business process modeling tools, and rapid application development environments, all of which reduce the need for hard coding expertise. In many cases, a U.S.-based product manager can work with stakeholders to gather application requirements and establish goals, leaving most of the heavy lifting to outsourced developers. The ability to act as liaison between coders and business managers is more important than a hard computer science background.

So will a computer science degree soon become a dead end in the workforce? Unlikely, as long as innovation remains the driving force of the knowledge-based economy. Still, the evidence suggests that pure computer science will increasingly be the domain of academia and research, with advanced degrees becoming the norm. Those with four-year degrees will want to back up their education with management and business skills, not to mention keep looking over their shoulders -- there may be high school students already nipping at their heels.

This article, "Is computer science a dead end in the workforce?," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in programming at InfoWorld.com.

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