7 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started a CS Program

on Friday, April 1 @ 4:29pm

It will be difficult

All computer science programs are difficult. This is primarily because the underlying material is difficult to comprehend. Computer science encompasses philosophy, math, science, and logic. All of these can be both very abstract and very specific. Your CS program will be incredibly difficult in this respect. You will have to stretch your brain to grasp concepts that you didn’t even know existed, but you will be glad to have learned them when you’re done. You will have to wrap your mind around something as concrete as binary numbers to something as abstract as encapsulation. These small battles of understanding one particular topic at a time will help you understand the overall picture much better when you’re done. It will take you a long time to win a small battle, but this is why wars sometimes take a long time.

If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. — Sun Tzu

We will never understand the entire picture, but understanding computer science is a big piece to that puzzle.

You will fail, but you will also succeed

You will fail. You will lose some battles. You will not understand certain things. It will take you a longer time to understand certain concepts compared to some of your peers, but you might learn other concepts more quickly. Failure is an integral part of success. If you don’t fail, you can’t learn from our mistakes and push ourselves into the next stage. A sailor who ties a knot incorrectly that causes a sail to blow out does not stop sailing; that person continues to sail until that knot is tied correctly. Repeated failure leaves a more permanent mark in your mind than repeated success does. This is called progression. Success tastes much sweeter when you have repeatedly failed.

You will be working with analytical people, AKA: you will be working with nerds

This is a great thing! Nerds are a great type of people. Don’t be afraid to assimilate with your fellow nerds. Most nerds are introverted, but don’t be afraid to talk to them. Most likely, they want to talk to you as well! You might make a wonderful new friend or study partner, and these connections might be helpful down the road as you expand your career.

You will not be the smartest person in your program, but you have the ability to be better than the smartest person in some way

As is the case in most of life, you will never be the best. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be the best in a certain facet. Strive to compete with your peers in a respectable, reasonable way. You will not be the best, but you can be the best in at least one thing. Find that thing, set an example. It might be asking more questions in front of an audience, or solving a problem in a graceful manner while thoroughly explaining how you solved it. Find your talent and harness it.

The key to succeeding is to never give up

When confronted with a problem, most computer scientists will tell you that, “there’s a better solution”. The truth is, they’re often correct. For example, one could use an iterative search to search through a list, but a computer scientist would tell you you’re wasting your time. But the trick is that you can still solve any problem with brute force. Giving up is the only type of real failure that you can commit.

Your journey is your reward

Your journey starts in the marina. Your journey ultimately ends where you started. Along the way, you will experience both rough and calm seas. The reward is the wealth of experience and knowledge you gain. Your mistakes, failures and successes along the way will mold your character and build you into a tougher, more resilient person. You will also obtain a cunning ability to solve not just math and programming problems but also anything that needs more efficiency. When you are done, you won’t even care about your “merits” because you will be so excited with the new knowledge you have at your disposal to give to the world.

I work hard for the audience. It’s entertainment. I don’t need validation. — Denzel Washington

Computer science programs focus on theory over practical application

If you only learn what a CS program offers, you might graduate with very strong theoretical and analytical skills, but only minimal practical skills. To maximize your chances of getting a great job, ensure you’re also studying popular frameworks, platforms, and languages. For example, many employers expect software engineers to be familiar with modern tools like Ruby on Rails, GitHub, AngularJS, Heroku, Amazon AWS, etc. The combination of a theoretical foundation with practical skills will make you invaluable to any team.

If you’re considering a CS degree, you might want to compare it with Bloc’s Software Engineering Track which builds upon CS degree fundamentals with things like mentors with actual industry experience, an open source apprenticeship, the aforementioned technologies, and a whole community of people rooting for you every step of the way.

Go forth, and conquer!

More advice on changing careers

Why Apprenticeships Are on the Rise

Ask any VP of Engineering or CTO, and they’ll tell you hiring talented developers is getting harder. Meanwhile, ask one of the millions of underemployed millennials, and they’ll say they are willing to learn, but can’t get their foot in the door. Apprenticeship was once a commonplace feature of the American economy, but for the last 30 years it has been in decline. Apprenticeships are the critical link to closing the skills gap for employers and reducing unemployment for millennials.

To understand why apprenticeships can bridge the gap, let’s take a look at the marketplace for technical talent.

Traditional Universities are Failing Us

traditional-uni

First, the gap between supply and demand for technical talent is widening. On the supply side of the marketplace for technical talent, we have universities. According to the Department of Labor, 400,000 new CS grads will enter the workforce between 2010 and 2020. In that same period, nearly 1.4 million new tech jobs will be created. That’s a shortage – a skills gap of – 1 million more jobs than graduates.

Second, even those students graduating in computer science, aren’t prepared for careers in software engineering. Universities care about helping students become job-ready. But that isn’t their singular goal. Many also seek to teach a liberal arts education and to publish ground-breaking research. Because of this, there is no singular focus on one goal. As a result, students graduate ill-prepared for industry. According to Brad Neese, director of Apprenticeship Carolina, employers are seeing “a real lack of applicability in terms of skill level” from college graduates.

For example, top tier university computer science curricula often include courses in advanced math, physics, compilers, and operating systems. When we surveyed engineers at top companies like Twitter, Facebook, Google, and Amazon, they told us they used less than 25% of their university education in their career. According to Rob Gonzales, co-founder of Salsify, “many ‘core’ CS courses really aren’t that critical for becoming very productive engineers. I’ve never had to write a compiler or operating system in my career, and the last time I thought about finite automata was 2001 when I was studying them myself.”

Meanwhile, few universities teach essential skills a software engineer will use every day. According to Mo Kudeki, a Software Engineer at Twitter, “Although I went to a top Computer Science program, there are software engineering topics that we never covered that are crucial to being a great engineer, like how to methodically debug something, and how to give and receive a good code review.”

All of these factors combined result in a tremendous mismatch between the skills with which American students graduate and the skills needed by employers.

Employers are Hungry But Ill-Equipped to Train

chalkboard

While employers are hungry to recruit great talent, their appetite for growing that talent themselves has been declining for the past decade. According to Lauren Weber of the WSJ, apprenticeships in the US have declined over 30% from 2003 to 2013.

Furthermore, even those companies that want to provision such training may be unable to do so. Training programs require experienced instructors. According to Gonzales, “you must have someone to manage the program full time, including doing daily coaching, code reviews, design sessions, planning sessions, one-on-ones, communication outside of the group to gather requirements, etc. This person should be respected throughout the organization, as getting the program started and effective is going to be a bumpy road that will draw on company resources even beyond the coach.”

Unfortunately, the shortage of technical talent has left most companies without the bench strength to fill existing headcount and also train a large pool of junior developers. According to Marcy Capron, the founder and CEO of Chicago-based Polymathic: “Companies don’t have an infrastructure for ongoing learning. We really need a guide to mentoring junior devs. Hourly consulting firms can’t afford it because you can’t bill mentoring to the client.

We’re Seeing Renewed Investment and Innovation in Technical Skills Training

pair-programming

So with universities failing us, and employers hungry but unable to grow their own talent, a new breed of apprenticeship-like programs have leveraged technology to deliver better outcomes, more affordably than ever before. Computer science bootcamps put students through compressed programs to prepare them for coding jobs. These bootcamp programs have found traction with employers and graduates alike. The first coding bootcamp was founded just four years ago, but Course Report estimates that over 150 bootcamps graduated more than 16,000 alumni in 2015 – a combined estimated market of $180M, up from $0 in 2011.

According to Western Governors University President Bob Mendenhall in the Washington Post “Neither accreditation nor regulation has caught up with the power of technology to impact both the quality and cost and accessibility of higher education.” And last month, Udacity raised $105 Million bringing their valuation to $1 billion, Dev Bootcamp was acquired by Kaplan, and Bloc recently announced a year-long Software Engineering Track, which includes a three month apprenticeship, before students start the job search. And now a slew of specialized apprenticeship programs are emerging.

Employees are also more open to non-traditional university education than ever before. According to a 2014 survey by Glassdoor, 72 percent of employees said they value specialized training over earning a degree. What’s more, 63 percent of respondents said they believe that nontraditional ways of learning new skills — such as certificate programs, bootcamps, webinars and massive open online courses — could help them earn a bigger paycheck. This growth for nontraditional skills training may be coming at the expense of graduate programs, with more than half (53%) of employees saying a graduate degree is no longer necessary to be offered a high-paying job.

What Should We Expect to See in 2016?

As apprentice-like programs cross the chasm from early adopters to early majority, we may see see savvy millennials foregoing the traditional 4-year campus experience in favor of a leaner hybrid, pairing community college with a technical apprenticeship that gets them into the workforce and learning on the job earlier and with less debt.

With the hype around coding bootcamps reaching it’s zenith, we may see these programs coming full-circle, as they begin adding-back curriculum covering the computer science theory that they once eschewed.

Why Apprenticeships Are on the Rise
How to Succeed in an Online Coding Program

Learning online is hard

As online education proliferates (read: online coding programs), its proponents and detractors develop increasingly stronger opinions on its effectiveness. Proponents tout online education’s low cost, accessibility, and flexibility. Students can learn anywhere, according to their schedule, and usually at a reduced expense. Detractors, on the other hand, cite high dropout rates and a lack of effectiveness. While both sides of this debate are correct, there is a strategy for succeeding in an online program.

Create a dedicated home office, and make it awesome

A dedicated home office doesn’t require a large investment. As an online student you’ll work from home most of the time. You must find a space that’s quiet, clean, and allows for ergonomic amenities. 100 square feet should be plenty of space to create an office. You can find high-quality office furniture at IKEA, or buy used from a site like craigslist. Consider using a standing desk, or treat yourself to an ergonomic desk chair. Better yet, you can buy a sitting desk and build a modular standing desk, so you can stand or sit.

After your desk and chair are positioned, build the rest of the office around them. Hang pictures or paintings and buy a small bookshelf to fill with inspirational books. Save your money for perhaps the most expensive things, like a computer and monitor. It’s essential that you have a capable computer, and I recommend splurging on a large monitor. You’ll need to have multiple windows open from time to time, and a large monitor provides the real estate to do this.

Finally, if you live with other people, ask them to respect your office space. A clean, organized, and comfortable office will set you on the right path for succeeding in an online program.

Immerse yourself

When you take an in-person program, immersion in the topic is inherent. You’re physically near your classmates which means that you’re likely to discuss the program and share knowledge. As an online student, immersion is not necessarily inherent – you have to force the issue. Your program will probably have a community – forums, chat rooms and mail lists – and while those are good places to hang out, you shouldn’t stop there. Subscribe to blogs and podcasts and find people to follow on Twitter. Get to know the lingo of your topic of study, and some of its key figures. It doesn’t matter if you understand everything right away, it’s important to become comfortable with the “language” you’re learning.

Study every day

In-person programs impose a routine of study because you have to go to class at specific times. Online programs offer more flexibility, so you have to manufacture a routine. Without a consistent and disciplined routine of study, you will not succeed in an online program. Whether you spend 15 minutes or 8 hours studying, you must study every single day. Create a habit for yourself. How long it takes to form a habit depends on the person, but you’ll know once you develop it because it will feel wrong not to study. Make sure that your study time is scheduled when you are at your mental best, and not when you’re tired or easily distracted. Find a method that helps you get into a relaxed zone, and make sure you schedule your study time around it.

Find meetups

The fact that you don’t have a classroom doesn’t mean you should avoid people and in-person interaction. An online program offers many benefits over an in-person program, but interaction in real life is something it can not offer. Fortunately, there are many options for meeting people in real life for many different areas of interest.

For example, if you’re studying to become a Rails web developer, there is almost certainly a Ruby or Rails meetup in your area. Join the meetup group, discuss your program with others, tell them what you’re working on and what you’re having trouble with. You’ll learn a lot from these experiences, and often in ways that are hard to duplicate virtually.

Rebase iteratively, and celebrate

No matter how great your virtual community is or how many meetups you attend, as an online student you’ll spend most of your time alone. It’s easy to forget how much you’ve learned when nobody is there to remind you. You must make it a habit to remind yourself. At the end of every day, you should rebase. That is, think about what you know, compared to the prior day. Think about the problem you’ve been toiling over, and that you finally solved. Even though these may seem like small wins, celebrate them! Treat yourself to a beer, order a pizza, or do something to spoil yourself for every little win.

Celebrating your wins is as important as embracing your struggles. If you focus too much on either, you’ll derail your progress. Develop a balanced mindset for both, and you’ll create momentum to capitalize on your wins, and grit to push you through struggles.

Will an online program work for you?

It certainly can, but whether it does or not ultimately depends on your commitment, consistency, and discipline. The strategy outlined in this blog will ensure that you succeed in your program, but you have to embrace every part. If you do, an online program will provide you with a quality education, at a reduced cost, and on your own schedule.

How to Succeed in an Online Coding Program