Sunday, June 22, 2008

Ada Byron was Homeschooled

Continuing this discussion from Geeknews and greatjustice.

The post at geeknews doesn't make much of a statement except in the title, but since this is a generally inflammatory topic, they've earned a pile of readership from that alone. And to prove I'm not the guy with the degree trumpeting the wonders of elitism, I went to a second-place state college. Even that was a better education than I could've managed on my own, but then it doesn't take MIT to do that.

I've been a vocal supporter of bootstrapping your way into other careers for a couple years now, but recently have changed my mind. I think the question of degree vs. hard knocks goes deeper than the "value of an education" or "real-world experience". Those are great things, but what will really turn a journeyman to a master is deliberate practice (PDF).

According to Ericsson, et. al., to really be deliberate practice, not just any task will do:
The most cited condition [for optimal improvement] concerns the subjects' motivation to attend to the task and exert effort to improve their performance. In addition, the design of the task should take into account the preexisting knowledge of the learners so that the task can be correctly understood after a brief period of instruction. The subjects should receive immediate informative feedback and knowledge of results of their performance. The subjects should repeatedly perform the same or similar tasks.
This probably sounds obvious, but take a step back. What they're asserting is that learning is doing. It is a task. You can sit on your ass reading CS articles on Wikipedia for 4 years and never learn how to write a program. You could even read through MIT's "Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs" course material for free and not learn a damn thing about Scheme.

Whether you're learning from Wikipedia, a professor, a colleague, or a book, you're not going to start learning till you care about the subject and start stretching. A great programmer is one that is not afraid to do just that, and at the end of the day it doesn't matter whether he went to college or not. He will be great because he wanted to be and was not afraid to do what it takes to get there: intentional, deliberate, ongoing practice.

This practice of learning has been around much longer than universities. The system of apprenticeship survived for thousands of years. Any good tutor can create the above conditions for their student, but at the end of the day it is the student that must put the work in, not just the reading. Or the student can put that work in even without a tutor, though it will take much more effort.

So when hiring, look for the curious, unafraid, diligent one. Don't let a degree fool you into thinking that, just because they had the opportunity to learn, they did anything but read.

Further reading: A Reg Braithwaite post in a similar vein.


Andy said...

"inflammatory"? Dear sir, I resemble that remark. :)

Seriously though, don't equate the degree with a job. That's what too many people do and frankly that's a position based on ignorance.

In some of my replies both at GN and elsewhere, i've agreed that simply studying wikipedia won't get you a job, but I caution the naysayers against self-study vs. formal education. It's not the education a smart hiring manager is looking for in a candidate, it's their experiences, it's their coding capabilities and ability to learn and contribute value to the project.

I think we're in agreement. So then, why frown on the idea of self-study, which leverages wikipedia, as an alternative to a CS degree when the knowledge gained is what bootstraps the ability to go code and learn and build your skills?

Take care.

Anonymous said...

oops, forgot to mention that the url to greatjustice is broken.


jonathan said...

We're definitely in agreement. I just think the self-directed route is a much harder path to take, and I have a hard time encouraging people toward it who are trying to decide whether or not to take classes.

It IS a miracle of man that we have such an ocean of free knowledge available, and bully to those who turn that into greatness. But for myself and most others I meet, the only way to turn that knowledge to greatness through deliberate practice is under the guidance of another person. Degrees are just a great way to pay a lot for the best guidance you can find. :)