Degree != Competence

I just commented/ranted on G+ supporting the opinion of another commenter that we need a better way than college degrees to measure competence in a field. A 4 year degree is an indicator that someone is able to stick with something for several years and is likely to understand the basic ideas in a field, but it’s not nearly enough to determine someone’s competence, especially in a creative field like engineering where competence requires some mastery of math and science along with an ability to approach problems from multiple directions until an approach yields an opening. This last is dependent primarily on a knack for thinking “out of the box” (or textbook) for lack of a better term. Some of this can be taught, but some is innate.

Any intelligent person who’s worked in computing for 10 years or more knows that (degree != competence). Some of the most talented people I’ve worked with had either no degree or a basic one from a non-elite school. I’ve also had to help rescue a project led by a guy with a CS Masters from MIT and rewrite work done by PhDs from good schools. In the last couple years, we’ve hired two excellent engineers, one from an unremarkable school in Mississippi and another from Penn State. In that time, we also had a CS intern from Carnegie Mellon who had a fantastic resume (National Merit Scholar, valedictorian, …) but turned out to be the worst intern I’ve ever seen. Trying to find good people seems almost like a craps shoot at times.

In fact, I’ve developed a slight leaning away from people with advanced degrees because I’ve found that the best engineers/programmers went to school to get their Bachelor’s degree as a way to get a job doing worthwhile work, while many (definitely not all) of those with advanced degrees seem to either enjoy going to school or to want the prestige and money that goes with those degrees.

Bottom line: There needs to be a better way than degrees to qualify someone for work in the computing field. Once you’re established, your reputation helps get you hired to do work appropriate for your talent and passion, but there are still limits based on degrees, and in big companies like the one I currently work for, the HR gatekeepers seem to be there mainly to eliminate people who don’t meet all the check-in-the-box qualifications, which I’m sure loses us some great people.

Sorry for the rant, but this drives me nuts. Don’t even get me started on the farcical No Child Left Behind program we have here in the US.

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