(This is a snapshot of my old weblog. New posts and selected republished essays can be found at raganwald.com.)

Friday, July 08, 2005
  Why You Need a Degree to Work For BigCo

Hello applicant:

I’m very sorry, but I don’t have good news about the job opening here at BigCo. We really liked meeting you, but the bottom line is that you don’t have a degree from the right kind of University.

——What’s that you say? You have learned an awful lot about writing software during the four years that you weren’t carting textbooks around the campus? My dear applicant, thanks for pointing out the obvious.

I can read, you know. I was impressed by the list of projects you have completed. I even took an extra thirty seconds to Google your name and enjoyed the screen shots and links on your home page.

But nevertheless, University teaches you things above and beyond how to write code. And that’s what we need here at BigCo.

——I beg your pardon? You think that you have learned just as much about communication, teamwork, and project management from shipping software in small teams as you would have learned completing coursework?

Please don’t take this personally, but I need a moment to chuckle. Ok, I’m done. University isn’t about communication, teamwork, or project management. If you happen to learn those things, that’s a bonus. I was thinking of something else.

——Look, I admire your enthusiasm, but if you’d let me do a little of the talking I could tell you what we need. But since you bring it up, no I wasn’t thinking of any of that Computer Science stuff.

Just in case you’re thinking of referring any of your friends to BigCo, please let them know that if they learned why S, K, I, and Y are the most important letters in the alphabet, they need not apply. Ever.

To paraphrase Eric Beck, “At either end of the educational spectrum there lies a hacker class.” And we are not interested in hackers, even great hackers. We need those middle of the spectrum folks who are going to live in the suburbs, commute to our offices, and do a decent job for a fair wage week after week, year after year.

Quite honestly, the very fact that you passed on University tells us something disturbing about you. Quite obviously you aren’t stupid. And you knew that people like us would have a problem with your lack of education. But you believed in your heart of hearts that you could make up for this with excellence.

But you know what? That same attitude might have you think “It’ll look bad if I quit this job in less than five years, but I’ll make up for it.” That kind of attitude makes you a little fearless. And while we try our best to build a decent working environment, we like our people to be just a little afraid of leaving the nice security blanket we give them.

This may come as a surprise to you, but we’re looking for people who are looking for us. Of course we know that the educational component of University is a waste. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

Like hazing rituals and wearing dark suits to work in August, attending a certain kind of University is a statement that you want to belong, that you know there is no practical purpose to the exercise but that you are prepared to make the sacrifice just to fit in. And you, dear applicant, would not fit in.

Let me stress this point about what kind of University. We aren’t talking about some aerie faerie place where you build robots or spend your free time writing business plans. Those places exist to skim the cream off the top so we can hire a plain glass of 1% milk.

As a matter of fact, the kind of University we like discourages you from dreaming about the future and keeps your feet firmly planted in the ground. For example, our favourite institutes of higher learning send you to work for companies like ours on work terms. This provides us with cheap labour and has the pleasant side-effect of discouraging the more creative undergraduates from wasting everybody’s time by coming to work for us.

——Look, I really have to go, and I don’t want this call to end on a down note. There are lots of happy people in this world, and most have never even heard of BigCo, much less come to work here. So please consider this a redirection instead of a rejection. I know that’s trite, but it’s no less true just because it has a memorable rhyming form.

It’s not you, it’s us. The plain fact is, you wouldn’t be happy here. So buck up, look around, and see if you can get yourself into something a little more early stage. Consider starting your own company.

Because quite honestly? I’d read your business plan any day. Your résumé would look better on top of a funding proposal than under a cover letter.

Good luck out there.

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Comments on “Why You Need a Degree to Work For BigCo:
This post is so cool with lots of humor and I love it!
Truly wonderful post...

Keep blogging.
There is something blue in the name of this company, BigCo. Something big and blue...
on my second read of this blog, I feel you must have watch a lot of Matrix:-), very much like their script. Very cool indeed.
Really true... being a BE final year student in an engingeering college, that's exactly what they seem to be saying when they come for recruitment to our college. Great write.
"If schools don't produce passionless programmers who are afraid their inadequacies will be exposed, then who will work in the enterprise environments, who will write the accounting software, who will submit to using their B&D languages and their top-down methodologies?"

Schools are more than happy to produce these passionless programming clones as long as the big companies continue to fund them. Why produce intelligent programmers who could obsolete your lifes worth of research?

This is excellent. Thanks for writing and posting it.
One of the important things going to college does, from my point of view, is that it removes you from and thereby reduces by one the size of that annoying class of people who did NOT go to college, but insist that college would have been a waste of time.

Andrew Molitor
that annoying class of people who did NOT go to college, but insist that college would have been a waste of time.

Well said, thanks!

Clearly the BigCo hiring manager satirized in this post is not a member of that class, although he or she might feel that attending something other than a JavaSchool is a waste.

In my very first CS class we had a busy beaver contest. I strongly suspect that this kind of theoretical approach, coupled with exposure to Recursion Theory, doomed that school to aerie-faerie status...
Do you have a citation (or link) for the Eric Beck quote?
I believe that Eric actually said at either end of the social spectrum, there lies a leisure class.

Eric was a climber during Yosemite's "Golden Age." I've often marvelled at the early climbers, forging their own equipment, inventing new techniqies for accomplishing the impossible, and doing it all on a dirt-bag's budget. It's very obviously the same pioneering spirit that drove hackers like Steve Wozniak to invent hardware circuits that needed an order of magnitude fewer chips than existing designs.

I'll keep an eye out for the source of the quote. I'm pretty sure it was one of John Long's books about climbing. Either that or Steve Roper's phenomenal memoir "Camp 4."
Go to a liberal arts school with a small CS Department (Bonus if it's got a good grad school for CS). Get a well-rounded education and do some undergraduate research. Get an internship. Get a fun, good-paying job. Look back on four years of fun and friends (not to mention connections). Why would anyone want to skip on that???
I love it, dude!
"our favourite institutes of higher learning send you to work for companies like ours on work terms. "
-- Would people from U of Waterloo get pissed? :-P
Would people from U of Waterloo get pissed?

The ones that go on work terms at IBM or MSFT and buy nice houses in Oakville? The ones I used to see on the GO? The ones with the nice SUVs?

Why should they be pissed? Aren't they perfectly happy with their choices?

Or do you mean guys like Greg Kiessling and Ed Lycklama, who founded their own company and went on to be a reasonable success story in the Canadian Software business?

I don't think they'd be pissed at this story either.

If this story has a point other than to make you laugh, is that you have to find the place that matches your personality and avoid the place that doesn't.

Just in case you need the support: I DO have an MsC degree from a more or less renowned university, in Computer Science, no less, and I'll confirm that it was a complete waste of time.

The only useful things I picked up there is a network, good friends, and of course the realization that at least in CompSci, you really need to start your own company or join something hip and small.

If you happen to have that prior to university life, don't go to university. Otherwise, still go, but know that your goal is not to get a degree.

By the way, reg: Excellent article.
Just repopped in the feed reader. Good stuff.

the university/work divide has been on my mind of late.
One big reason these BigCo's demand that you have a university degree from a name school is that the interviewers themselves went to a big name U. It's an exclusive club. They feel pretty proud and mad that they spent 4+ years getting a bachelors and MBA.

The last thing they want is an undegreed person who excels and makes them look bad.
"I’d read your business plan any day. Your résumé would look better on top of a funding proposal than under a cover letter."... Now I know why all my friends are getting jobs but me :(
The intelligent and practical avenue to take in life is 2 to 3 years of GENERAL literary courses.
Then a simple high paying SELF employment profession like mortgage origination or real estate appraisal.

THEN, after you have a good part time income ($45,000+) live in a large city and attent a local university.

(Buy rental properties)
I retired at 37. Became a multi-millionaire, Masters of piano, speak three languages, read Latin and Classical Greek. Received enough education to become a registered pulmonary physiologist. Have three homes: Chicago, Atlanta and Ft Myers, FL.

DO NOT plan to work for someone else and expect a good life and retirement.

DO NOT - DO NOT get a one-item degree until you are moderately wealthy.

NEVER BE A TEACHER. Wait until you can't do anything else OR if you fail at life.
Was interested to see that at least some other people are interested in S K I Y combinators, and also the busybeaver comment. However I found the post (and the comments) encouraging. At my age, I feel I would be spreading myself a bit thin, to think of taking up accounting, or building, or waiting in a cafe. I am however, thinking of doing "English as a second language".

richard telfer anonymous
I enjoyed this very much.I thought you might enjoy these thoughts from another blog- Thanks Again

I believe ultimately, what distinguishes "us" from them is our passion for learning that transcends the structured environment of the classroom. Instead of limiting our education to formal schooling, we are curious about the world around us. With our fearless spirit of exploration and our desire to experiment, we have discovered true passions and strengths, which we build upon to achieve success in life.

Imagine what a loss for the world if Thomas Edison decided to conform to the system, and invest his time in doing homework, rather than pursuing his love for invention. What if Walt Disney had confined his learning to the requirements of his school's curriculum, and followed only the guidance of his teachers, rather than his own internal motivation. His extraordinary animated features may have never been created.

Ultimately, formal education - by placing the control of learning in the hands of teachers and administrators, and imposing rules and requirements on students - stifles the natural love for learning. We must learn from exceptional individuals who have/had the courage to defy the coercive force of formal education and carve their niche in our history and futures.
One thing that should be mentioned here is the frame of time that one could have attended college. When I had my chance financial aid was only for the poorest of people. I was raised by a single mother. I did not have the funds to attend college and was turned down for any aid. Actually I've done quite well for myself and earn more money than some of my friends who are college grads. A college degree gives you an edge but doesn't guarantee anything like stability or decent pay. I would love to get my degree though but some of you need to think a little outside the box of conformity.
I loved the Eric Beck quote. And yes, climbers from that period were pretty awe-inspiring.

At Neilston crag near Glasgow, there's a crack with a big rusty railway nut permanently wedged into it - a salutory reminder of the days when climbers used to make their own protective gear!
This is the biggest steaming nugget.
For any company to create a culture like that, is a miracle it stays in business.
Turning away qualified for the sake of a "fit and play nice" attitude or status quo. Talk about cushy jobs, I wouldn't WANT to work for them and would gladly join the competition.
I’ve seen enough of the trench coat clicks that make companies “top heavy”. Whatever happened to experience and pride of workmanship?
It may be a fact of business but that mindset distroys an entropy of the corporate world.

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Reg Braithwaite

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Homoiconic Technical Writing / raganwald.posterous.com

What I‘ve Learned From Failure / Kestrels, Quirky Birds, and Hopeless Egocentricity

rewrite_rails / andand / unfold.rb / string_to_proc.rb / dsl_and_let.rb / comprehension.rb / lazy_lists.rb

IS-STRICTLY-EQUIVALENT-TO-A / Spaghetti-Western Coding / Golf is a good program spoiled / Programming conventions as signals / Not all functions should be object methods

The Not So Big Software Design / Writing programs for people to read / Why Why Functional Programming Matters Matters / But Y would I want to do a thing like this?

The single most important thing you must do to improve your programming career / The Naïve Approach to Hiring People / No Disrespect / Take control of your interview / Three tips for getting a job through a recruiter / My favourite interview question

Exception Handling in Software Development / What if powerful languages and idioms only work for small teams? / Bricks / Which theory fits the evidence? / Still failing, still learning / What I’ve learned from failure

The unary ampersand in Ruby / (1..100).inject(&:+) / The challenge of teaching yourself a programming language / The significance of the meta-circular interpreter / Block-Structured Javascript / Haskell, Ruby and Infinity / Closures and Higher-Order Functions

Why Apple is more expensive than Amazon / Why we are the biggest obstacles to our own growth / Is software the documentation of business process mistakes? / We have lost control of the apparatus / What I’ve Learned From Sales I, II, III

The Narcissism of Small Code Differences / Billy Martin’s Technique for Managing his Manager / Three stories about The Tao / Programming Language Stories / Why You Need a Degree to Work For BigCo

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