Why Your Academic Record is Important

by Krishna on November 15, 2009

Jon Skeet has a long post on how programmers fall prey to pretty nasty bugs because they aren’t aware of the details of what they are doing. And he offers the following thoughts:

First, try not to take on more complexity than you need. If you can absolutely guarantee that you won’t need to translate your app, it’ll make your life a lot easier. If you don’t need to deal with different time zones, you can rejoice. Of course, if you write a lot of code under a set of assumptions which then changes, you’re in trouble… but quite often you can take the “You ain’t gonna need it” approach.

Next, learn just enough about the problem space so that you know more than your application’s requirements. You don’t need to know everything about Unicode – but you need to be aware of which corner cases might affect your application. You don’t need to know everything about how denormal number representation, but you may well need to know how rounding should be applied in your reports. If your knowledge is just a bit bigger than the code you need to write, you should be able to be reasonably comfortable.

Pick the right platforms and libraries. Yes, there are some crummy frameworks around. There are also some good ones. What’s the canonical answer to almost any question about java.util.Calendar? Use Joda Time instead. There are similar libraries like ICU – written by genuine experts in these thorny areas. The difference a good library can make is absolutely enormous.

To add to this, I would say that it is very important to enroll in a computer science degree in college before embarking on a programming career. I know there are very good programmers who have learnt everything on their own. But for the general population, it is a good idea to be fully involved in 2-to-4 year degree that provides you some basics, such as what floating-point representation means. Of course, you still have to do the learning, but your physical presence in a classroom is a higher probability that you may learn something.

While recruiting new employees, I always take a look at their academic scores. Although a good academic record does not guarantee a good programmer, a bad record invariably points to a poor software developer, with very few exceptions. Apart from the obvious IQ reason, here are some of the ways why this is so.

  1. Getting things done: All other things being equal, a person who pays attention to end results is more valuable. If a person has high IQ, but doesn’t translate that to results, it usually means that they don’t care about delivering results. They may like learning and tinkering, but they will not deliver.
  2. Lack of in-depth knowledge: An exam is not the perfect way to measure knowledge and application of knowledge, but it is among the best systems we have. If someone scores a passing grade on an operating systems course, they are probably missing a lot of important information.
  3. Problems with authority: Innovation and breaking rules are important, but you also need some level of conformance to the goals of the organization. Poor scorers are sometimes rebels. They don’t feel the need to impress anyone (parents, teachers, etc.) or sticking to schedules.
  4. Lack of perseverance: Some people simply lack the determination to tackle tough subjects. They may do well in a controlled setting, but when faced with challenges, they may need a lot of attention.

An example of an exception may be that somebody had a medical or family problem that affected their grades. Or they had a temporary blip that they got over. As always, you have to consider the whole picture. But definitely, academics should be a big part of your hiring process.

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