Last Updated: April 17, 2021
Talking to Robert Dewar is enough to make you think about the future of the American-based software engineer. Dewar is a professor of computer science at New York University, and he believes that American colleges are producing programmers who aren’t competent enough to do their job.
To back this claim up, he has written a paper that is extremely critical of today’s computer science training. The popular article has caused a lot of discussion in the technology industry.
So, to paraphrase what Dewar was trying to say: the college computer science programs that are being taught today in America’s colleges aren’t thorough enough, and don’t encourage students to think deeply and critically about problems that need solving.
Alternately, as a bid to boost numbers in the classroom, computer science programs are focusing instead on the curriculum being accessible, which is sadly failing the students when it comes to competing with their overseas peers.
One of the main points of the article is that using Java as one of the first programming languages that is taught is a reason for this setback. However, Dewar believes that this is being misinterpreted. Yes, Java isn’t helping anything, and lets students easily put together software without having an understanding of the code underneath, but the real issue is that computer science programs go beyond this.
The problem is that colleges are trying to make the entire course more fun. They’re saying that algorithms and math isn’t fun, so let’s dumb it down to make it more palatable for students.
As a result, Dewar says that his inbox is full of positive responses to the article, from employers and students alike. There are a lot of readers who have praised has candidness, and believe that someone needed to speak up about the issues that need addressing.
One particular email was from a computer staffer who was employed as a junior programmer. A more experienced worker suggested that the younger engineer check the call stack about an issue, but the younger worker had never even heard of a call stack.
So, in Dewar’s view, the fault lies in the colleges who are trying to make up for low enrolment numbers, even if this means taking out the bulk of what’s important in the programs.
It’s common knowledge that enrolment numbers in CS programs are on the decline, and have been for some time. The biggest cause of this was the dotcom crash, which made a career in CS seem too risky. Of course, the media fearmongered around it too, which didn’t help. Once upon a time, CS was seen as a reliable career choice, but now people aren’t so sure.
Dewar says, “Universities tend to be in the raw numbers mode. Oh my God, the number of computer science majors has dropped by a factor of two, how are we going to reverse that?”
He says that they have reacted to this by making sure that the programs are easy to apply for, and easy to graduate from, i.e. dumbed down. Those parts of the program that were seen as too demanding are seen as tedious and put in the ‘too hard basket’. Dewar believes that this approach is unfortunately counterproductive.
He says, “To me, raw numbers are not necessarily the first concern. The first concern is that people get a good education.”
When students are spoon-fed the curriculum, they aren’t prepared for what’s out there in the big wide world. Dewar says, “We see French engineers much better trained than American engineers.”