Similar to thinking of Joel Spolsky (and me), Bjarne Stroustrup (the inventor of C++) says the way we teach CS today is broken. That is, it is at odds with the needs of the industry. Having just completed a Masters in CS I can say first hand that this is true. Some of what I learned was applicable to my work at Microsoft, but I could see the tension in the higher-level classes especially between the needs of preparing someone for research and preparing them for industry. Research is not about programming. It is about thinking in new and innovative ways about problems. Industry needs good programmers and the best solutions to problems. CS research students often ignore the best solutions to problems because those have already been discovered and you can’t get published writing about the same thing again. Industry prefers the proven solutions.
Stroustrup bemoans the use of Java in so many programs today. He doesn’t attack Java per se but rather the emphasis on the libraries. Students don’t learn to solve fundamental problems (like sorting) because the library can do that for them. It is easy to become an expert in Java rather than an expert in programming, something Rovert Dewar states well in this interview. When the Java (or C# or Ruby) language wanes in popularity, it is the underlying CS skills that translate, not the intimate knowledge of the Java collections hierarchy. I have a more fundamental problem with higher-level languages for learning. It is important to learn how the machine works because someday everyone will be stuck with a leaky abstraction and will have to solve the deeper problem. Without an understanding of what is below the byte code (or code), doing so can become very difficult. It is easy to code oneself into a corner without knowing it if the understanding of the underlying system is missing.
He also talks about the lack of quality in the code written by students. Too many projects are littered with magic constants, not well factored, etc. This probably comes from the fact that code written for classes is thrown away. Most of my professors never even asked for our code let alone actually read it. A TA in my OS class actually said they didn’t care about memory leaks. In a freaking OS class of all things!!!
- Learn a lower-level language. Joel Spolsky says everyone should learn C. I’m inclined to agree. It’s not too hard to learn and it is as close to the metal as you usually want to get.
- Learn to express your ideas in more than 1 language. Each is a little different. Learning other languages gives you tools to think about problems in new ways. This also ensures your knowledge is about the algorithms, not the base class libraries.