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back to article What's wrong with Britain's computer scientists?

Simon Hettrick is Deputy Director and Policy & Communications Leader of the Software Sustainability Institute, which is based at the universities of Edinburgh, Manchester, Oxford and Southampton. In the UK, there are more unemployed graduates in computer science than in any other discipline. In an attempt to understand the issue …

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Anonymous Coward

The problems are:

1) Chicken & Egg: Employers want experienced staff.

2) They would rather employ lower paid workers who are based abroad.

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Re: The problems are:

"1) Chicken & Egg: Employers want experienced staff."

But how many? The article seems to assume that the problem is caused by the wrong people studying Comp Sci, or the wrong education being given to them, with the result all the peachy IT jobs go to graduates from other disciplines, whilst leaving Comp Sci graduates unemployable in any other field.

An alternative reading is that there is simply vast over-supply of Comp Sci graduates relative to the vocational opportunities, meaning there's also more of them chasing non IT careers which I'd guess would lead to higher unemployment levels because the competition is greater.

Perhaps somebody could clarify what is the market? Specifically, how many IT-related graduate jobs are there each year, and how many Comp Sci graduates? How many of the IT related jobs go to non-Comp Sci grads?

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The findings are bollocks

What the industry wants is programmers, not Computer Scientists. I've been in the industry 30 years and don't think I've really done much Computer Science per se.

Good programmers will be drawn to programming no matter whether the cool kids at school think they are nerdy or not.

Good programmers will also be drawn to programming whether or not it is taught at school. Good programmers need to be resourceful and if they have to be spoon fed by teachers they will likely be crap programmers. Give me the kid who taught himself to write Visual Basic over the kid who only knows what was downloaded into him by formal education.

Joining this industry is a commitment to life-long learning. If you can't teach yourself, then give up now.

As for "1) Chicken & Egg: Employers want experienced staff.", that's not entirely true. Employers do indeed want experienced staff, but it is not a chicken and egg problem. Now, more than ever before, students have opportunities to flex their programming muscles before they graduate.

Internships abound. There are also thousands of open source projects where a student can get stuck in and learn something new and actually contribute. And prove themselves.

Give me a "B" graduate with an interesting bunch of projects on github over an "A+" graduate who only focused on their coursework.

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Re: The findings are bollocks

Give me a "B" graduate with an interesting bunch of projects on github over an "A+" graduate who only focused on their coursework.

Pros and cons with this approach

The problem with any job is that there will be large amounts of time spent doing stuff you rather wouldn't have to do. An "A+" grad has already demonstrated the necessary discipline needed to maintain focus.

The "B" graduate would probably start posting bollocks on el reg as soon as he/she got bored with whatever it is they are supposed to be doing for you

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Outsourcing?

The problem with software is that there's always someone somewhere else happy to do it for less.

It's the same reason we make very little of the shite we buy in the shops these days.

At least they can't outsource haircutting. My advice is to study hairdressing at Uni, like 30% of the undergraduate population!

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jai
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Re: Outsourcing?

or undertaking. even long haired hippies with no need of hairdressers need someone to put them in the ground when they're ready to start pushing up the daisies.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Outsourcing?

....Or plumbing... During the construction boom a killing was made by some. Now property is sky-rocketing again... WTF??

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Pint

Re: Outsourcing?

"The problem with software is that there's always someone somewhere else happy to do it for less."

This is not only a problem with software. But this is where "marketing" comes in. Play to your advantages.

Yes, the standard customer will be point-haired galore: lazy, arrogant, thinks he knows all about IT, will insist on a "fixed price" before specification while not even knowing what he wants, thinks it's a thing that can be solved by tomorrow evening anyway and will absolutely complain that you bill him for time spent reading books (so put everything under "hardcore coding, 1450 lines/hour").

Convince the guy.

And if he really wants more crap for less dough .... hell, walk away, leaving your business card.

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Re: Outsourcing?

"Now property is sky-rocketing again"

Re-welcome to the inflationary economy trying to inflate away its debts. As Greenspan used to say "There is some frothing in the market".

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WTF?

Massive Graduate Unemployement

In the UK, there are more unemployed graduates in computer science than in any other discipline.

*****

Large numbers of unemployed graduates in a subject suggest that there are too many graduates for that subject. So a meeting is arranged to discuss how to get even more students to study the subject.

Does anyone else see a flaw in this plan?

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Re: Massive Graduate Unemployement

> Does anyone else see a flaw in this plan?

My thought exactly. It seems backwards. It seems that either (a) they need to discourage school leavers from choosing this dead-end degree, or (b) they need to encourage businesses to recruit more of these unloved graduates. Or maybe (c) the article is messed up, and either the problem or the proposed solution is being mis-described.

From where I sit, it looks like the "smart startup" end of the computer business is short of good people. Even many of the "good" people are not actually good enough to drive a startup to success. Maybe small companies need to learn how to use "average" graduates better. Or maybe the really smart undergraduates are still being turned into bankers, or something.

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Re: Massive Graduate Unemployement

The flaw is blindingly obvious to you, me and readers of El Reg. A more interesting, and probably important, question is why it isn’t also blindingly obvious to our “Minister of State for Universities and Skills “.

I wish I knew. But them that rules over us exist intellectually in a parallel universe. And when reality doesn’t match it, it’s reality that’s wrong. So, they’ve presided over the destruction of much of the UK’s industrial base. But they used to chant that it doesn’t matter, we can be “post-industrial, the Chinese can do the low value added stuff and Britain’s future lies in the cutting edge of pharma, telecoms (the likes of Huawei will not register on their consciousness) and IT. When it doesn’t happen, and UK IT graduates aren’t being sucked up into a UK Microsoft, Google, well – what to do ?

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Re: Massive Graduate Unemployement

Agree, the whole article is based on an assumption that the poor employment outlook stems from a quality issue with CS graduates, but cites no evidence for that.

Could it have something to do with offshoring, outsourcing, immigration and intra-company transfers, which together allow employers to demand experienced staff for circa £10 per hour ?

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Re: Massive Graduate Unemployement

No - as has been discussed in El Reg and elsewhere, UK industry struggles to recruit suitably qualified computer scientists and software engineers.

Part of the problem is an unwillingness of businesses to recruit all these graduates. Maybe the businesses need to be willing to put more effort into training these graduates themselves in the more practical aspecs of the job. Or maybe the graduates are crap - either because they are the wrong sort of person for the job or because they were badly taught by their uni.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Massive Graduate Unemployement

Also my thought - the main problem I have (I'm in the infrastructure field) is that most post-graduates don't arrive with any (useful) skills, often have little enthusiasm, and generally have an inflated self opinion. They may be great programmers but I need someone who wants to solve bizarre problems caused by terrible third party applications (no not office or cisco vpn). Though a manager of mine did recruit a junior grad that couldn't plug in a graphics card (she wanted to become IT management)

When forced to recruit juniors that must be post-graduate (which is madness, the best juniors are just out of college preferably having ignored all the IT subjects as they were a waste of time and built their own pc and played with alternative OSs) I just look at their interests and hobbies, if they don't claim to have built their own networks and built a demo lab on their desktop I'm not interested (bonus points for playing games, reading, roleplaying, sci-fi, fantasy, writing, non-hotmail/gmail email address, etc etc etc) As these things show a genuine interest and passion for all things geekery.

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Re: Massive Graduate Unemployement

The article's author is obviously a failed graduate, with little experience of analysis.

Fundamentally, he needs to re-analyse his source data and divide it into: Russell Group, 1994-Group, Post-92 former Polytechnics, Post-92 former colleges.

Now in which of these groups are the graduates that are not being employed fall?

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Anonymous Coward

Comp Sci degrees were sold to many kids looking for a well paid job....

Comp Sci degrees were sold to many kids looking for a well paid job.... The trouble was that a large percentage weren't actually interested in I.T. they were only interested in the potentially decent money instead.

I know plenty of people who left uni with comp sci degrees who still had no clue how to install Linux (before the advent of the live-cd). Those people were supposed to be computer literate, no wonder so many couldn't actually find a job in I.T. after their degrees.

What's the point in going to uni these days to 'learn' a language? If you've not published your first Android or IOS app before your 14 your basically toast.

By the time the youngsters are ready to go to uni if they've not made some bucks out of computer programming they might as well find another degree to do that will give them a decent chance to get a job in their 'chosen field'.

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Re: Comp Sci degrees were sold to many kids looking for a well paid job....

By age 10 I had introduced myself to various programming languages, which involved installing an IDE off a cover disk or suchlike, playing with and breaking a few example programs, then giving up on writing anything from scratch. It took me another decade to develop a rudimentary understanding of programming sufficient to write code.

But that's because programming is hard, and a lot of the decisions you have to make to get started are political not technical. I don't believe there are that many tweens who can sit down at a computer and start writing code. And how many of the ones that can had help from their parents?

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Re: Comp Sci degrees were sold to many kids looking for a well paid job....

"I know plenty of people who left uni with comp sci degrees who still had no clue how to install Linux"

And I know people who can install Linux but who've never heard of functional programming or shift registers. What's your point?

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Re: Comp Sci degrees were sold to many kids looking for a well paid job....

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

I am seeing a lot of graduates with computing degrees who apply for software developer roles, yet are hopeless at programming. Their experience of computer programming seems to be limited solely to the exercises in their tutors' reference material; typically noddy sales systems (airline booking). They've learned only what was required to pass the module. Ask them to do anything outside that exercise, and they have no idea. It's not merely that they have to look it up (looking stuff up is fine - we'll buy you all the books you can eat and you'll have a web browser on your desktop), it's that they have no realisation that the language they're supposedly skilled in can do anything other than the one or two exercises they've tried.

If a primary-age child was given a box of Lego but three years later was only ever building the exact same model as per the set's instructions, we would think there was something developmentally wrong with that child. Yet that is exactly what we're getting with computer science graduates and we give them degrees!

Worse, they can recite theory about object orientation and several different software development methodologies, yet can't actually write an object skeleton for any set of requirements other than the one or two exercises they're familiar with, and don't understand the concept of dependencies.

Coding tests are fairly hopeless. They'll pass the multiple-choice questions and still fail to grasp the concept that they can use those little nuggets of code to build a larger program that can solve a larger problem.

It's quite clear to me that the current output of comp sci graduates have been taught to pass modules and pass exams and nothing else.

What I expect from someone with a comp sci degree, is a person with a curiosity about what computers can do, who are interested in commanding computers, and are interested in learning as many ways as possible to make a computer perform a variety of tasks. Instead I get a lot of people who have no curiosity at all, whose only interest is to get a job (any job) and can make one or two computers do one or two things.

It's almost like they've been brought up in a world of single-purpose electronic gadgets, rather than the "my computer can do anything, I just have to find out how" attitude of the 8-bit generation. I actually think the Raspberry Pi push has a better than 50-50 chance of solving this problem, but we won't see those kinds of kids coming out of uni for ten years yet.

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Re: Comp Sci degrees were sold to many kids looking for a well paid job....

You don't want a CS graduate. You want a Physics graduate who enjoys programming.

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Re: Comp Sci degrees were sold to many kids looking for a well paid job....

Or a CS graduate who enjoys programming.

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Holmes

Re: Comp Sci degrees were sold to many kids looking for a well paid job....

"I am seeing a lot of graduates with computing degrees who apply for software developer roles, yet are hopeless at programming"

This is exactly the point being made with schools and GCSEs a few years ago - what the students are being taught is not what industry needs. There may be a need for educating recruiters to better understand how to spot talent rather than advertising for one language skill and nothing else, but for the most part it's to educate the education system. Schools have for years been teaching computing as how to use MS Office, but universities are just as guilty of teaching computing as an offshoot of theoretical mathematics.

Personally I don't see the sense in keeping on churning out 'computer scientists' when what we really need are graduates from BEng and MEng courses in Software Engineering. Taught through engineering principles to solve problems. Not pages and pages of theory. As I've said before here, no-one in industry is going to ask you to prove a language is Turing complete. They're going to ask you to deliver a robust processing system using the tools you're given.

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Functional programming and shift registers

That's one of the real problems of computer science.

Very, very, few of the people who enter the world with a computer science degree end up doing computer science. They end up programming and doing software engineering.

Computer science is actually a really poor education for someone who is going to develop software. CS is an academic subject and the industry wants practical people.

Sure, FP is interesting as is how shift registers work and NP-completeness or whatever to anyone who cares. However these are completely irrelevant to people who develop software on a daily basis.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Comp Sci degrees were sold to many kids looking for a well paid job....

It's all well and good being a cs grad but employers want domain knowledge and, when you look at the higher paid sectors like finance (which likely attracted the greater numbers), that means maths and physics grads. I'm an example. Studied maths at uni and last did cs at a-level (pointless). Programming can be learnt quickly if you have the aptitude.

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Re: Comp Sci degrees were sold to many kids looking for a well paid job....

"...can't actually write an object skeleton for any set of requirements"

Blimey, if I were so lucky! To have a set of requirements, that is.

The only requirement is - get the code out!

Rome Total War 2, X Rebirth, et al, anyone?

Windows 8?

Why? Because sales people rule programmers.

Tell that to enthusiastic young coders!

Will a professional pride be nurtured too?

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Pirate

Re: Comp Sci degrees were sold to many kids looking for a well paid job....

Goddamit. As a geek you can go Venetian on their ass. Poison their schedule, let them fall on their sword, garotte them with a line of a badly written declaration.

The possibilities are endless.

They are YOUR POTENTIAL VICTIMS.

Let's have fun.

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Re: Functional programming and shift registers

On an (almost) daily basis I find that all the 'interesting' stuff you mentioned is crucial to the software I develop.

Domain knowledge is an important background to effective problem solving.

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Re: Comp Sci degrees were sold to many kids looking for a well paid job....

If you've not published your first Android or IOS app before your [sic] 14 your [sic] basically toast.

"Hi, I'm Anonymous Coward, and I believe All the World's a VAX - sorry, a Smartphone."

When I'm looking to hire people, their having "published" a smartphone app counts for absolutely nothing. Having produced a significant piece of software that's robust and maintainable, and solved interesting problems along the way - sure, that's important. But that doesn't describe most apps, and it does describe a vast array of non-app software.

(I'd also give points to an applicant for knowing the difference between "your" and "you're".)

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Re: Functional programming and shift registers

FP is interesting as is how shift registers work and NP-completeness or whatever to anyone who cares. However these are completely irrelevant to people who develop software on a daily basis.

This is the standard line among professional software developers. And it's why commercial software is loaded with race conditions, ghastly performance issues, and the sort of mind-numbingly stupid implementations that decorate the pages of thedailywtf.com.

A great many programmers have vague and wildly inaccurate mental models of the machine and the various abstractions layered upon it, and lack the critical and technical skills to improve them. And that is largely responsible for the generally abysmal quality of software.

Certainly many - perhaps most - computer scientists know very little about programming and software development. More than a few academics have pointed this out and urged the discipline address it; Stroustrop, for example, had a piece on the topic in CACM some issues back. But this Snowian1 "two cultures" mythology of a fundamental divide between CS and programming / software development is bullshit, and it only exacerbates the situation.

Also, it shouldn't be necessary - but apparently it is - to point out that a great many software projects require a whole fucking lot of CS to be done correctly. I wouldn't want to see a DBMS created without benefit of actual computer scientists. Or a JITing VM. Or a distributed analytics platform.

1Or Kiplingesque, if you prefer.

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There's your problem right there.

"not happy with the idea of being stuck coding in some basement"?

IMHO, the only skill which matters a damn is the ability to write code that does something useful, and does it well - whatever that might be. If an article asking "What is wrong with Britain's bricklayers?" was so distainful of the building of walls, then perhaps the question might be easier to answer.

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Re: There's your problem right there.

"IMHO, the only skill which matters a damn is the ability to write code that does something useful"

I'd suggest analysis skills are also useful. Otherwise you've no idea if your 'useful code' is in any way related to the original requirement. I've met some very talented programmers who prefer to code for what they think the requirement should be, not what it is.

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Gimp

Re: There's your problem right there.

And project management. Deployment. Solutions architecture. Enterprise architecture. Test design and development. Documentation. UI design. Network design & build. PC support. Team management. Systems analysis & design...

Coding is just a a little part of the grand scheme of things.

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Re: There's your problem right there.

And being able to sit on a conference call with your customers and explain clearly why you're designing the code the way you are, or why it will take X days to add a new feature, or why test Y failed and what you are going to do about it, etc.

IMHO, recruiting people that know their stuff technically AND can communicate it clearly with other human beings is quite difficult.

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Re: There's your problem right there.

You want geeks that can communicate... Might be a bit of a big ask!

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Re: There's your problem right there.

Sigh! I guess the "code monkey" paradigm is still alive and well then. If the central craft and art (I believe Mr Knuth referred to it as such in his series of textbooks) of the software business is held in such low esteem, then I guess that we've answered the question. Programming, how quaint. You wonder how anyone ever managed make a living and/or get a sense of satisfaction out of the simple expedient of sitting on one's arse and figuring out a way of making a computer do something other than just consume electricity and then actually making it happen. Perhaps if we'd all spent the last 30-odd years or so doing things properly before we let the vulgar code monkeys loose, we might be on course to create a multi trillion dollar industry. Oh, wait...

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Happy

Re: There's your problem right there.

Maybe they just need a HAM (Human Abstraction Layer)?

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Paris Hilton

You need to remember that some IT managers are quite under qualified and feel insecure about their post in a difficult economic climate.

Appointing a new grad rather than someone already in the system or shimmied across from a sister organisation might not be a good idea.

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FAIL

Do you need a degree to...

Personally, I don't think you need a degree in CompSci to cut code any more than you need a degree in Architecture to lay bricks.

A CompSci graduate should _understand_ the concepts of programming [I hate the term 'coding' since it implies that the product is something quite arcane and probably unmaintainable] but understanding business-requirement definition, budgeting, systems-analysis, project- and system-lifecycle management as well as software QA are far more important skills for a graduate to have than a detailed understanding of HDLC bit-stuffing or how to wire up CTS/RTS lines on a RS232 serial-port.

The CompSci graduate specifies what is to be programmed, how he intends to test the programs, and then makes sure the results are delivered on-time/within-budget/to-quality.

The actual programming gets done by the equivalent of a team of brickies with appropriate NVQs.

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Re: Do you need a degree to...

You are managing the Universal Credit program for the DWP and I claim my £10

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Re: Do you need a degree to...

I'm sorry, but good grief, your idea of computer science sounds terrifyingly like the typical gormless middle manager who's convinced he doesn't need to understand the technical details because he's got a firm hand on the budget.

To be honest, the thing that would most invigorate the entire industry is returning the focus to getting actual value from the work we're doing. Creating something. A real result rather than the hyped up nonsense of improved social media penetration and merry-go-round startups who's only existence seems to be to insert themselves in the middle of a perfectly functional value chain to no good end.

We can create and transform industries with the work we do. We can discover new science and help people live longer, healthier lives. We can deliver outstanding entertainment and we can improve every one of the human senses. We can teach. We can save lives and predict deaths. We can create delightful experiences. We can aid discovery and remember for you. Yet all of these things get lost in the mire of big data projects with no discernible outcome or over-hyped startups with paper-thin business models that boil down to selling more adverts. If you ask people today what computers do for them, they'll tell you Google and Amazon - not for the feats of engineering that uphold those companies, but for the experience of being sold stuff at every point of interaction with a machine. If you want people to be excited about computers, we need to start being excited ourselves, and to throw off the hype around businesses who's only value is coincidental to the actual technology and function being created.

Doctors and lawyers get a good rap because people can see what they do. Make people well, prosecute the guilty, protect the innocent. Computer scientists have lost their identity to telephone sanitisers and snake oil salesmen. Real outcomes excite people, not vague nonsense.

The same applies to kids. They want to see outcomes. In our day, getting an LED flashing was still relatively novel - and a sufficiently big step that moving on to a fully working robot seemed only another small step away. The excitement and imagined possibilities drew us in and we learnt around them. These days, getting a RasPi to light an LED or launch a website is utterly mundane and children are left asking where they can go next. The things that excite them (high quality games, Facebook et. al) seem just as far away as they were when they didn't know how to get a linux partition to boot. The challenge to educators is to get children to a platform where they can achieve things that involve them before having to understand decades worth of technological advancement.

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Re: Do you need a degree to...

The CompSci graduate specifies what is to be programmed, how he intends to test the programs, and then makes sure the results are delivered on-time/within-budget/to-quality.

The actual programming gets done by the equivalent of a team of brickies with appropriate NVQs.

Not in the real world. Code written by "brickies" is invariably crap and requires real engineers with CS degrees to unpick and debug. Better for it to be written by someone who knows what they are doing in the first place.

If there is such a thing as "grunt work" programming, you're doing it wrong - as Turing himself realized:

Instruction tables will have to be made up by mathematicians with computing experience and perhaps a certain puzzle-solving ability. There need be no real danger of it ever becoming a drudge, for any processes that are quite mechanical may be turned over to the machine itself.

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Re: Do you need a degree to...

Total myth. The best programmers I've ever worked with were physicists, mathematicians and, of all people, an economist. People with CS degrees rarely featured. If you're smart and have the aptitude you're there, you don't need to have backed yourself into an alleyway by doing a CS degree.

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Re: Do you need a degree to...

"The same applies to kids. They want to see outcomes"

So do Business Unit Managers.

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Boffin

Re: Do you need a degree to...

@Tom Wood 100% correct - I'm always saying that any person in a process that is easily automatable between two machines is just an inefficient meat interface. To have such an interface programming machines is madness.

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I'm a recent (2012) CompSci grad from a top 20 UK university and also have an MSc in a growing specialist field. It got me to three assessment centres and now a full time graduate job.

What's my secret? The MSc; that and the fact that I'm one of the very few UK CS grads with aspirations higher than Java-monkeying. I've said this ad nauseam, but UK CS degrees are totally broken and just pump out average programmers rather than "computer scientists". Unfortunately, said degrees are now moving towards pumping out average "security experts" so expect that field to become saturated and dumbed down as well.

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Anonymous Coward

The problem is not with the graduates...

The fact is that many British companies, on the whole, regard all their staff as an expense they'd rather do without. They are utterly crap at recruiting staff, and they are useless at training, rewarding and retaining them once they have them. That applies to graduates (all of them) and experienced staff too. It starts with the fact that HR has been cut to the bone so there is the bare minumum of people whose main jobs by necessity are making sure that they don't get sued too often and running the wfr process. The senior management are too busy gaming the system to keep their salaries in the seven figure range.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: The problem is not with the graduates...

"... It starts with the fact that HR has been cut to the bone ..."

Eh? HR is one thing that NEVER gets cut. That which implements the cuts never gets cut itself.

Not sure where you got this from.

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Anonymous Coward

'regard all their staff as an expense they'd rather do without'

Agree. The sad fact is IT has never been respected. In eras where companies offered big rewards, those rewards were often in stock. In the golden years of stock splits, a lucky few made a killing. However, most went to start-ups that blew-up or corporates like Honeywell or CA instead of Microsoft / Google, or they joined too late! Someone posted a US distribution of wealth chart here recently, and that graph says it all....

Overall companies particularly corporates have never ever wanted to pay. Why? Who knows! But its probably due to a management perception that most techies and developers are like other staff, mediocre and therefore expendable. But the big difference between past and present is that they couldn't google you out the door as easily as they can now either.

That said, there are select smart business heads that recognise hard workers and talented pros and because they have pressing projects they're willing to pay well. If you're lucky to find those projects or start your own consultancy at the right time, it can make all the difference. For others lucrative Expat gigs in HK, Dubai or Singapore, or a stint in HFTs in or banking derivatives software, will help pay down the mortgage or even offer early retirement. Meantime all the other years are basically grunt work, like most jobs!

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The problem with comp sci degrees....

Is that they are not producing computer scientists.

Right off the bat I must admit I do not know the specific state of Britisch Comp Sci curriculae. I DO however know something about technical degres this side of the pond.

And the truth is we are not producing scientists. What we ARE producing is circus monkeys. Graduates are tought specific skills tailored to specific markets. They are tought Java, XML, some C++ perhaps, or even SQL, and some general approaches to coding a solution.

They are however not ought to FIND a solution. They are not given a thorough mathematical and statisctical foundation that teaches them how to solve problems.

Turing was a maths graduate. Lovelace was taught maths by, amongst others, de Morgan. Hopper has both maths and physics degrees.

The graduates we are producing are equivalent to people mounting wheels in a Toyota factory. They'll do wheels in the Volvo factory no problem, but ask them to set valve timing and they're in trouble. OK, it's a silly hyperbole, but you get the point.

Knowing how to write an app does not a computer scientist make.

The flip side is that we never produced very many Turings. Neither did the UK.

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