How to maximize a Computer Science degree

Yesterday an interesting question popped up on Slashdot, asking for an alternative to a computer science degree for an aspiring web developer. He complained that what he’s learning in class doesn’t relate to what he wants to do in the field.

Assuming that by “web developer” he means someone who can code stuff in ASP and/or PHP with a database backend and do stuff in Javascript–as opposed to a designer who just does HTML and CSS–I think he’s best off staying where he is and asking better questions.

Here’s the thing: CS teaches you how a computer works. Yes, you’re learning languages and architectures that you may not see much in the real world, but the logic and the thought process will transcend all of that.

I have a very good friend with a CS degree from a respected school. He graduated in the mid 1990s, when “web development” pretty much meant coding HTML by hand. A few years after he graduated, he and I did some collaboration in PHP. He hadn’t used PHP before. But he took to it rather quickly, and was able to bang out the code I needed in a very short period of time.

Most every other developer I’ve met says pretty much the same thing. Learning that first language is the toughest.

And besides all that, with some skills in C or C++ and whatever else, he will have something to fall back on. It’s always good to have something to fall back on.

To get maximum value out of that degree, I recommend getting to know the professors. They have office hours. Not a lot of students use them. Stop in. Introduce yourself. Talk about the class, talk about your goals, and just flat out ask what parts of the class you need to focus on in order to get where you want to go.

Most profs are open to these kinds of discussions. Professors need to publish, and talking to students is a good source of ideas.

Once the profs get to know you, it’s even possible that they’ll approach you. This actually happened to me when I was getting my journalism degree. I declared my emphasis as magazine, because at the time, online journalism was still in its infancy, but all my profs knew I was interested in that. They knew I could code HTML, they knew I could build a server, and they knew I could program a little–not so much anymore, but I could then–in addition to my journalism chops.

When the time came for me to take my capstone class, the professor came to me during the first week of class, and threw out the curriculum. The assignment was to launch a magazine on paper. But not for me. “Forget paper,” he told me. “Your proposal would work online. Put it online.”

I did something very few, if any of his students had done before, and we learned together. It was a good semester.

The school wasn’t quite ready as a whole to embrace web content at the time, but virtually all of my professors had their eye on it. And one of them was eager for me to be a test case.

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