Is a computer science degree worth the paper it's printed on?

Self-taught technologists are almost always better hires than those with a BSCS and a huge student loan

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When searching for talent, I've stopped relying on computer science degrees as an indicator of anything except a general interest in the field. Most schools suck at teaching theory and aren't great at Java instruction, either. Granted, they're not much better with any other language, but most of them teach Java. Not that there aren't bright, shining exceptions; for example, every single Virginia Tech grad I've interviewed has a firm grasp of theory.

Our most successful employees have been nontraditional hires. One of my most valuable players has a doctorate in music, got promoted on his first assignment, received wild raves from clients, and now leads large integration projects. I have another fellow who we hired directly from an Apple Store. On his first assignment, he developed the AJAX UI for a multi-billion-dollar financial institution that the client loved.

There's nothing wrong with education, just with most conventional educational institutions -- which today are getting a run for their money from nimbler organizations. For example, the Starter League (formerly Code Academy) in Chicago teaches Ruby in eight weeks. Graduates I've met from the there seem to be capable and incredibly motivated.

I value computer science theory a great deal -- and I'd love to see more computer science in high schools and much better programs in colleges. But unfortunately, most grads don't seem to be getting their money's worth from the trusty old BSCS. On the other hand, I've met a lot of great folks who've made major strides with little more than a hungry mind and an Internet connection.

In my experience, self-motivation, a nearly pathological interest in the field, and great problem-solving skills are vastly better indicators than a college degree that a hire will be successful. What's your experience?

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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