Fast-tracking: Alternatives to college

How Zoho's internal program finds talent outside universities.

At Foo Camp 2010, Sridhar Vembu, CEO of Zoho, gave a talk called “Alternatives to College.” I was so excited by what he had to say that I wanted to be able to share it more widely — after all, only two people came to his talk. So I recorded a video interview (after the jump) with him.

Sridhar’s efforts at Zoho and their development center in Madras tell us something about how to develop a 21st century workforce by tapping into those who would not normally go to college. In short, his answer is not to prepare them for college but to prepare them to be productive in the workplace — and to do that preparation in the workplace.

Sridhar has a Ph.D from Princeton, having gone there after obtaining a degree from an elite engineering school in India. Yet it was watching his youngest brother succeed at programming without a college degree that convinced him that others could follow that example. As he studied the best employees in his own company, he discovered that credentials were not as important as he once thought.

Based on a few years of observation, we noticed that there was little or no correlation between academic performance, as measured by grades and the type of college a person attended, and their real on-the-job performance. That was a genuine surprise, particularly for me, as I grew up thinking grades really mattered …

Over time, that led us to be bolder in our search for talent. We started to ask “What if the college degree itself is not really that useful? What if we took kids after high school, train them ourselves?” *

At Zoho, Sridhar created a program, which he called a “university” but it was nothing like a normal university. He began working with kids who had a high school education and who were unlikely to attend college for economic reasons. He didn’t care if they had no previous computer experience. He didn’t care that they didn’t speak English.

Once in the program, the students were paid a stipend to attend each day. The program lasted 9-12 months and then the students entered a one-year apprenticeship program. After two years, the students were ready to be productive employees in an IT company. About 100 kids so far have been through the program.

The program offers concrete, hands-on instruction designed to follow how someone who was self-taught would learn. (The first teacher was himself a self-taught programmer.) They are expected to spend the bulk of the time learning on their own. The students are taught very little theory, avoiding computer science altogether. Instead students practice solving problems and doing real work. They learn programming, English (many only know Tamil), and math. None of the students really like math and they learn just enough. Sridhar made a comment that might shock educators and employers: “Math is the new Sanskrit, the new Latin.” He believes we overestimate the value of math as a tool to assess a student’s ability.

Sridhar believes that finding new sources of talent outside the university was important for his company to remain competitive. Now, they have employees who are passionate about their work. By discovering raw talent and developing it, and by having the same expectations of them as college-trained engineers, Zoho has created a fast-track to new opportunities for young people in India who would otherwise not have that opportunity.

With America’s own problems of high unemployment and high dropout rates, not just in high school but also college, we could learn from what Zoho has done. I’d like to hear from you if you’re interested in seeing what we can do in America to learn from this model and create fast-tracking opportunities for many more young people.

Here is the interview I recorded at FOO Camp with Sridhar Vembu.

*Link to blog post by Sridhar Vembu: “How We Recruit — On Formal Credentials versus Experience-based Education.

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• Lithos

This is also how a few US companies raise their COBOL programmers. They take employees from other parts of their company and raise them somewhat similarly.

• Chris Gammell

With the downward trajectory some college undergrad programs are taking and the upward trajectory of tuition rates, I could see this becoming more viable not just in India but also the US. What if you took a student who participated in FIRST, was an avid MAKEr and had advanced math schooling during high school (Calculus) and put them into an engineering apprenticeship? Wouldn’t they be capable of learning much of what is needed on the job in an engineering firm as well, assuming the program was structured right?

I think the main thing stopping this kind of program from succeeding in the US is emotional maturity…many don’t even have that after 4 years at a university, let alone heading in (some do of course). Perhaps in India with rougher living conditions and the need to support family members from a younger age forces this maturity that people in the US don’t usually have.

• Jason

“his answer is not to prepare them for college but to prepare them to be productive in the workplace — and to do that preparation in the workplace.”

This quotation is telling. There’s nothing here about creating good citizens, for example. Suggesting that this model is an alternative to traditional higher ed requires that it be all about employable skills. You can see that from the curriculum (programming, English, just enough math) If that’s all it’s about, this is probably a more efficient way to create a skilled workforce, but what if education is about more than just employability?

• Devin Flake

I thought this was an interesting article and I think its great that these kids are getting opportunities like this. We could definitely use more programs like this in the US but I feel that a college level education provides more than just know-how. The whole idea of a University is to broaden your horizons and unlock new ways of thinking. Not just knowing how to do something but knowing how to create things that no one has thought of before.

I don’t think college is for everyone – there are some people who would benefit more from programs like the one above but there are also people who if it hadn’t been for a college education wouldn’t have made the great contributions to society that they did. I’m thinking of all the amazing scientists, writers, etc. of the past centuries.

These are just my own thoughts.

• Mario

I want to do this in Mexico!! Thank you very much for the inspiration!!

• Sridhar Vembu

Jason writes:
“This quotation is telling. There’s nothing here about creating good citizens, for example. Suggesting that this model is an alternative to traditional higher ed requires that it be all about employable skills. You can see that from the curriculum (programming, English, just enough math) If that’s all it’s about, this is probably a more efficient way to create a skilled workforce, but what if education is about more than just employability?”

First, I would argue that traditional higher education, increasingly test & grade driven, is not about “creating good citizens” anymore. Second, when you graduate an English major loaded with $100K in debt, in what sense are you creating a better citizen? In my world-view, loading a young person with so much debt is … immoral, so the college has already failed its own moral duty. I believe good citizenship is an emergent phenomenon, and a core part of it is a person earning his/her own way. • Scott Barstow If you look at the high school curriculums in most of the US, they are focused on reading and math as well, not creating good citizens ( as mentioned above ). The reason for this is No Child Left Behind, which forces schools to teach to standardized tests rather than provide a well-rounded education. I don’t see any that we lose anything by this kind of program. Going to college does not guarantee good citizenship any more than not going to college makes you ignorant. Some of the smartest people I know did not attend college. I do, however, agree that education should not just be about getting a job. The average college education costs probably$100k at a minimum now. How many graduates can say that, other than perhaps the associated network you can tap, it was worth it? If Mom & Dad are paying, maybe yes. But if you graduate with $80k in loans to pay off, I bet something like this program would look pretty darn good. Thanks for the post. • Mark Atwood @Jason complains “here’s nothing here about creating good citizens, for example.” You seem to be assuming that traditional higher education is effective at creating “good citizens”. I argue that higher education is just as much a failure at this goal as it is at making people “productive”. At best, a high end liberal arts education is marginally good at making people share a world view and habits of mind that many other people with high end liberal arts educations also have, but then calling that outlook “being a good citizen” is more than a little self serving and recursive, and is antithetical to the goal of diversity of thought and outlook that is the REAL basis of a healthy polity. • Nick Aubert @Mark Atwood, if you think a liberal arts education is nothing more than sharing a world view and habits, you really have no idea what a liberal arts education is about. Among other things, a liberal arts education should teach critical thinking and an ability to present ideas coherently. This isn’t to say that one can’t learn to think critically on one’s own any more than one can’t learn to program on one’s own. But there is a real value to passing down a sense of history and lessons learned that you’re likely to miss if you’re entirely self-taught. A diversity of thinking is generally a good thing but it shouldn’t be an end in itself. For example if more people start believing that the earth is flat and that the sun goes around the earth, that is an increase in diversity of thinking. But that’s hardly a worthy goal of education. Mr. Vembu is correct that English majors graduating with$100k debts points to a real problem. Tuition rates are way to high, and aspiring students should be more open to community colleges or alternatives like the one Mr. Vembu is developing. I applaud this effort and I’d love to see it spread. But if the students at institutions like this one only learn how things are done without learning why they’re done a certain way, they’re going to repeat a lot of costly mistakes that could have been avoided.

• Jason

@Mark Atwood and @Sridhar Vembu – I’m quite willing to acknowledge that traditional higher education doesn’t always do a good job of teaching the things @Nick Aubert talks about, but as someone who has worked for the last decade in community colleges I assure you that it is at least something the traditional system aspires to do. My sense is that the Zoho model doesn’t share those aspirations.

It certainly seems that what it does, the Zoho experiment does well and economically. There are certainly people for whom such an approach is a good one (those who have learned their critical thinking and self expression skills elsewhere, for example). The point I was trying to make was the differences in goals between a traditional university and the kind of learning environment Mr. Zembu has developed have to be part of the discussion when you consider the extent to which the latter could replace the former.

To the extent that the traditional system is test and grade driven, it is to some degree a response to government’s desire for accountability and employers’ desire to use grades as a first layer of applicant screening. Mr. Vembu’s point about debt is a valid one, but as Mr. Aubert points out, there are lower cost alternatives available.

• Dale Dougherty

My particular interest is not debating the value of a college education. Those who can afford college should take advantage of it. Those who are motivated to study liberal arts, as I did, should do so. However, not everybody will do that.

What interests me is how to create opportunities in technical fields for those who do not go to college for one reason or another. It’s about exploring alternatives to college that help young people learn and build a future for themselves.

• Glen

I really see this route as the future of education. It is what we have been working on at http://www.nixty.com. Eventually, at least in some fields, I think you’ll see curriculum playlists that will prepare people for work in X field. It’ll be a type of credential that will be informed by actual businesses and experts in that space.

The beautiful thing is, as others and Mr. Vembu mentioned, much of the material is on the Web and freely available. We have been working on streamlining this material, so that people can work through it, interact w/others and get feedback on their progress. Additionally, not terribly important in the US, but important in other places, is the idea of certification. This doesn’t have to be anything crazy, it can simply be a certificate from a recognized organization/institution that can vouch for your competency. For example, we are working with Teachers Without Borders. They provide a Certificate of Teaching Mastery. The person works through 5 courses to earn their certificate. It means a lot to the individual earning it and gives them an edge over other individuals who do not have that certificate.

Education is certainly ripe for disruption here in the US and I think these types of efforts will help show us the way.

• Robert

I think everything that people say should be taught in a liberal arts education (critical thinking, writing, how to be a good citizen) should be done in high school.

There is no reason a high school graduate shouldn’t be expected to think critically and read at a sufficiently high reading level (and often enough) to be an informed citizen.

Why/when did we decide that it takes higher, paid education to produce these skills/traits? Also why does it require someone else (like a college professor) to teach how to think critically? More often they show/tell students what they should think, not how.

College is used my many (possibly most) in the US to put off the real world for 4 more years. It is used as a place to party, relax, hang out with friends and basically take advantage of parents or tax payers money. I think this idea that everyone or almost everyone should go to college is counter productive and gives people an excuse to delay responsibility/maturity.

• Jonathan Chayce Dickinson

I am one of those ‘kids’ – I spent 1.5 years at varsity and decided that I was wasting my time (and more importantly money).

I have worked my way into the server/core team in a multinational industry leader.

At the same time; my co-worker (who never spent a day at varsity) is THE most highly-regarded developer in the company.

IT at university only teaches you two things: persistence and how the industry worked 30 years ago. You can pick up the former by spending one year in the industry; the later by picking up a VIC 20.

• Ivan Kirachen

Hi this is exactly the same situation in most of all Bulgarian software companies. They hire students to get the job done. I am student 3rd year in Plovdiv university and work as a programmer for 2 years. According myself to get the things done you do not need BC degree or whatever degree. But if you want to go up in the hierarchy you need more know more than coding and different ways to solve concrete problems. And the is the place where the education matters. The university gives us overall sight of the things.

• Russell

I have an IT degree, was in the IT industry for over 10 years, have been part of the electricity industry for the last 8 years, and I am currently studying towards a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering.
Very, very little of what was included in any of the subjects I have studied has ever been relevant to the work I have performed. The parts that were relevant would be lucky to fill an entire semesters worth of full time study.
I even had a member of one of those faculties admit the goal of undergraduate degrees is not to produce skilled workers for industry, but to identify future post-grad researchers for the various faculty member’s pet projects.
As for “teaching students how to think”, no subject I have studied has ever done this. Instead they work on an intellectual equivalent of Darwinian evolution: If you don’t already have the skills, or are unable to spontaneously develop them without external instruction, you are removed from the system.
I already have the skills I need to do the work I wish to do, and yet I face 5 more years (part time study) of jumping through intellectual hoops to prove I am worthy of that second piece of paper that will allow me to do work I have already done on a temporary basis.

Don’t get me wrong, I do see some benefits from having a degree: It shows you are capable of long term planning, have patience, perseverance, and occasionally a dash of good old fashioned rat cunning. Some of the material may even be relevant at the time it is presented to you, although it is more likely to 5 to 10 years out of date. I once had a lecturer who spent half a semester going on about the efficiency of token ring networks, and only three lectures on Ethernet. On the other hand I recently completed a telecommunications subject that covered half of the tasks I was performing at work. Then again, that telecoms subject also contained a large section on analogue TV signals, last year it was relevant, next year not so much…

The biggest problem that I see is more of a marketing issue: Most employers that look for staff with degrees do so because it’s easier than assessing true competence. Once they’re in the door qualifications become largely irrelevant. I had one non-technical manager take the word of a colleague over the proof I presented because my colleague had more grey hair, so he was assumed to be senior. The colleague had been a boiler-maker up until two years prior, when an accident rendered him unable to continue in that line, so he did some basic PC maintenance courses and started calling himself a computer tech. I had graduated six years earlier and was hired six months before he was (so I knew the site). The rest of us spent a large amount of time fixing his mistakes.
Why wasn’t he fired? Four managers in two years, and only the first and third had technical backgrounds. In the end I decided that if they couldn’t figure out that he was the cause of most of the department’s problems, then they deserved him and I deserved a more clued up employer.

The skills you need to do a job are not the skills you need to get the job.
Having one set does not guarantee you have the other set.
University/College will present some of these skills, but only briefly, they will not be the focus of the subject, and you will be too busy trying to scramble your way through assignments and exam prep to pay much attention to them anyway.

Like I said earlier, undergrad degrees perform some important functions and are important indicators, just not the functions and indicators everybody seems to think.

• technogeist

If the employees get a rounded view of cs topics, great. My only reservation is that a company will teach them the basics require by their company, and make it difficult for employees to seek work elsewhere.

But the general idea is sound. Qualification don’t mean squat in a rapidly changing field such as IT.

• Sophie

wow, there’s a lot of passion around this topic. Coming from an organisational development background, I have mixed feelings. I think the initiative being taken by Zoho to meet the needs of the business and the local community is great. It bypasses education providers where they have become inaccessible and provides another option.

The concept of placing students in an active workplace learning role from day 1 is great too. Formal, accredited learning isn’t always for everyone, some students can’t stand not being able to learn from other practitioners and apply new skills immediately. I know of several students across more than one discipline who have chosen to pursue concurrent full time work and study so that they could do just that.

That said, there is a point to be made about delivering a rounded, full-spectrum training within a discipline. Sure, being able to apply situation-specific examples and practice is valuable, but providing training that is able to be applied to multiple situations over time, long after the course has been completed is a must in order for the trainee to be able to transfer in the future.

I think what Zoho have done is a great initiative and is a demonstration of the entrepreneurial ability of the CEO. It also seems a good opportunity for those who otherwise might not be able to access education for skilled jobs. Best of luck to everyone involved, I say!

• Steve

As a self educated person, yes learning skills traditionally taught in college is absolutely possible outside of college. However, often times I found myself struggling with programming constructs that had I known the theory behind it would have saved a ton of time in understanding and applying the concept. What Sridhar is describing is what was (is) known as apprenticeship. In the not so distant past it was a common practice to have your young-un’s go off to learn a trade through apprenticeship. They learned by doing. I hardly think that the smiths new very much about metallurgy or how the molecular properties affected the metals they were working with, they just knew what worked and passed the skills on to the apprentices. Learning by doing is a very effective way to teach, that is why there is lab.

• Joe

Great idea. All of the benefits from college with none of the liberal babel being forced on them. That’s exactly what America needs. That touchy-feely mentality of a bunch of left wing pinkos may have been helpful at one time but it’s time for America to get back to being reliant on themselves.

• Scott

This article is affirming the very things I have been saying for several years. A piece of paper does not make one qualified, nor does the lack of a piece of paper make one unqualified.

Consider this true life happening: A man worked for a company through a work to hire firm for six months. He took the companies in house training and passed the tests. After six months, the company decided to hire this individual and began the hiring process. During the process, it was discovered that the man did not have a High School Diploma or GED. At that point, the company terminated the man and said that he was not qualified.

I have known for years through observation and experience that it takes about three years of hands on doing to become proficient at a given job.

I am currently 49 years old. When I was young, I did not attend college. Through the years I tought myself computer skills and some programming. Despite my above average skills, the lack of a degree and certification prevented me from obtaining a job in the field.

Over the past 3 years, after an extensive period of unemployment, I have been taking college classes to obtain employment in the IT field.

I have noticed some very poor practices.

1. The first school I attended, the instructors had a very bad habit of telling students; “It’s in the book.” Which is fine if the student has the critical thinking skill to decipher some of the poorly worded information that is in the text books. However, if the student has spent hours searching the book, it is the instructor’s responsibility to point out the answer to the question.

2. These college level classes which cost several dollars a credit hour, provide very little additional information than what one will find in just reading the book.

3. College classes amount to my reading the book and learning from it, in essence, I am not being taught by an instructor, I am teaching myself. While the instructor is there should I have a question, it has been an extremely rare occasion when I have asked the instructor to answer a question I could not find in the book or on Google.

4. The Community College I attend has some shady practices. They will neglect to list a pre-requisite class in the list of classes for a degree or certificate program, put that information in the class description and claim to have properly informed the student. For some odd reason, the college thinks that if they make this information difficult for me to find, I am learning something.

5. I don’t know how other college accounting offices work, but Community College I attend does not itemize student loans separate from the Pell Grants. The report both student loans and the Pell Grants as grants. Dispersal Check Stubs do not list separately; the amount of the check that is a Grant, and the amount that is a student loan. If your wondering why this matters: Grant money above the cost of classes and school supplies must be reported as income. If the college record is erroneous, how do you prove your case to the IRS? Make sure you save all your records.

While the College may be teaching students technical and other skills, they are, with their actions, also teaching students how to be evasive and dishonest and immoral.

College, especially in the US is highly over rated. The H1b Visas that industry keeps crying for because: “there is not enough qualified US citizens.” has been used to defraud truly skilled and qualified Americans of jobs. These truly skilled and qualified Americans have every bit as much talent as those the foreigners that have college degrees. It is not the lack of skill that makes these Americans unqualified, it is the lack of a degree.

It is in my view, that CEO’s who have stated before Congress, that there are not enough qualified Americans, have committed perjury and need to be called on it.

American Industry needs to stop looking for the “perfect candidate” and start looking for the truly skilled candidates that can do the job.

The warped focus on college education has lowered and hampered the American dream.

• andyy

I have a degree in political science I never used. Ended up in the food service industry. Went back to school at age 45 for client/server programming and got a certificate after a 12 week course. Got my foot in the door, doubled my income and continued learning on my own. Directed training is the way to go. Just glad my wasted 4 yr degree didn’t cost 30k/yr back then. Kudos to Sridhar Vembu.

• Jeet

I would like to discuss this and other alternatives with Sridhar Vembu personally. The “educator” in me says that there is more to education that just learning some “skill set”; however, researcher in me would like to explore alternate avenues of education. Perhaps Sridhar’s way may offer some insights that we can include in college education.

If Sridhar is willing to correspond, I would like his e-mail and telephone numbers to be able to communicate with him directly.

• Charlie

While its true you don’t need a college degree in programming (I come from a time when they didn’t generally exist), I won’t tell my 17 year old not to go to college. Most employers will require a degree for young newhires. Its hard enough to get a job nowadays without some indication of training. Very few places are willing to train you – they have their choice of already trained candidates.

• Benjamin

Sridhar Vembu, I thank you for taking the time and energy to break this old cycle of ‘College’. Years ago, when technology was nothing more than a pencil and paper, I could see how College was of great importance. Today, I view colleges as just a method of obtaining information. Just like a library, except for a college will force information into you that you may not have a desire to obtain. Where as the technology we have today can provide us with exactly the information we seek.

Colleges are great and have a wealth of information, but as a requirement for success? I say no. Not anymore, not in todays technilogical advances.

It will take others like yourself to bond together and prove to the employers, their requirements for a degree are out dated and way behind the times.

Keep up the efforts!

• Dan Paun

This is rather a way of preparing good slaves of tomorrow. Education should be far more than that.

• Robert Young

The first comment is half right: virtually all COBOL (living and working) coders came from either for-profit store front schools or the US military. Most of those folks had, at best, a high school diploma. Now, it was assumed by the mid-1980’s that COBOL was dead and would be replaced by RDBMS integrated 4GL’s. That happened to some extent in the VAR *nix world. But then came www, and java.

If coding is just a trade, such as plumbing, then non-university training venues make some sense. The problem with having a population which is predominantly vocationally trained, rather than educated, is that such folks are more easily swayed by propaganda. Having critical thinking ability is very important to a civilized society. That’s what Jefferson meant. If that means having large debt, then so be it. In the US, it is no coincidence that the Right Wingnuts are overwhelmingly from the lower educated, lower income, higher prejudiced population; just gaze South. Jingoism sells to the stupid. If that’s what you want, you can certainly get it.

• Stunned

“Jingoism sells to the stupid”

Wow! Mr. Young, are you calling Rush Limbaugh fans stupid?

Seriously you think that going to college makes you smart AND entitles you to superior status to look down on “vocationally trained” people? Then you go on to deride “prejudiced population” by applying some of the most prejudiced opinions I have ever seen in print!

• Lithos

I’m confident that you can learn programming as a “trade”. It’s just a matter of symbolic and structural reasoning, if someone can get over that initial start it’s just a matter of getting in your 10,000 hours of “challenging practice”.

As far as I’m concerned if someone can naturally figure this: A=B, B=5, A=? they can eventually learn to program when exposed to the topic.

____________

The only reason programming wouldn’t be taught as a “trade” is for social reasons. Do companies want to hire trade taught programmers. Would experienced programmers care to teach, or to a more basic extent want to work with those trade taught.

Social reasons will out weigh most other factors for the foreseeable future in the US.

• Murali Nathan

I can relate to what Mr.Sridhar was saying/arguing here. I myself moved from business background to computer science and currently managing operations. I help start/turnaround large operations in India and in SE.Asia in the past and what I learned is hiring low and training high always paid/pays great dividends. I instituted this in my client’s organizations and reduced the turnover (very high in India) and the employees appreciate the opportunities – usually denied to them based on their background or eduction levels, resulting in high productivity. Many of them I hired and trained are in high positions and running large multi-national organizations in India. I hope many more companies in India and abroad can follow this model.

• Monkey Boy

“As far as I’m concerned if someone can naturally figure this: A=B, B=5, A=? they can eventually learn to program when exposed to the topic.”

I agree, I’ve always thought that being good at Algebra is all the math necessary to be a good programmer.

• Why?

@Lithos
@Monkey Boy

“As far as I’m concerned if someone can naturally figure this: A=B, B=5, A=? they can eventually learn to program when exposed to the topic.”

There’s a lot more to designing software that you guys think. While I agree that some people are just smart and can figure things out, some fields require training to get good. It’s almost like saying … I could eventually perform brain surgery just by being exposed to the topic… Sure, it’s possible, but would I be any good? If I’m no good, then what’s the point.

• Robert Young

@Stunned:
Wow! Mr. Young, are you calling Rush Limbaugh fans stupid?

Well, Yes.

Just look at the map. Where did Ronnie, Poppy, and Dubya get their votes? From the lowest performing states in the country. That’s just a fact, whether you consider that a prejudice or not. It is also a fact that critical thinking is what one learns from a liberal arts education; and the reason the Rush and company are so virulently anti-intellectual, in case you hadn’t noticed.

And have a nice day.

• Lithos

@why

There are people who can “naturally” perform brain surgery? If anything brain surgery is a peak example of someone eventually being able to do something with a lot of exposure(lots of training).

@monkey boy

That’s not algebra it’s symbolic reasoning. Which is fundamentally a very different topic.

• David

An interesting idea but consider this. Any employees who eventually decide to look for employment elsewhere would be at a disadvantage to those with a degree (at least in the UK). Perhaps awarding some accredited qualification based on their achievements would help to avert this?

• Michael

In the 21st century, to insist that a traditional classroom-based college curriculum is the only or even a superior way to obtain an education, is like saying “That’s all very interesting, Mr. Gutenberg, but we will continue with clay tablets and papyrus scrolls, thank you.”

• Ben

I’d love to see the curriculum being used. I’ve been looking for a way to introduce computer programming to a number of people with great potential. Is the curriculum available? It would greatly help me to fast-track my vision.

• Kevin

The students are taught very little theory, avoiding computer science altogether.

This bit worries me. In my 25-year career, I’ve repeatedly encountered code written by people who knew the language but little to nothing about algorithms, data structures, or the principles of good design. The result is incomprehensible and unmaintainable code that may work in the short-term but is the devil to modify, enhance, or debug.

• Phil

Wow, Robert Young is doubling down on liberal bigotry! Really, a father who wishes to be thought of as knowing best shouldn’t be seen gambling in public. Congratulations on the perfect parody (my sympathy if you actually believe that stuff).

Tell you a story (sorry for my bad sentence construction, I dunt hav a colege eddication):

A few years ago, I was configuring all the software for a manufacturing test line (basically keeping 5 to 10 test technicians in diagnostics, test machines, and such) when a visiting manager was very impressed watching the job I was doing and thought he would like to hire me away to work with his group in South CA (sorry there’s that lack of education again).

I was willing to consider it, so we talked. The manager was obviously very eager to hire me, and got more and more so as I described what I was doing, and how. Right up until he asked me what my degree was in and I told him I had a GED. I could see on his face that the interview was over (and reading faces is not my forte).

He had been there a week and watched me doing the work every day. But, no degree evidently meant to him that the evidence of his own eyes must be wrong.

I wish I had asked him what his degree was in. Something liberal arts with extra critical thinking sauce, maybe?

• Avery

I think Mr. Vembu got a little carried away in stating that math is “the new Latin”. Although the mathematics of a typical computer science curriculum may not be necessary for code-monkeys who spend much of their time cranking out barely functional web applications, it is an invaluable asset for most software development. The alternative is an army of “software engineers” who use floating point values for monetary calculations, or code giant functions with disparate input domains that throw unexpected exceptions or return incorrect values.

Obviously one need not attend a college to learn these things (books like SICP and CLRS do a great job by themselves), but it is absurd to claim that one can create good – let alone innovative -software without thorough knowledge of algorithms, data structures and formal logic.

• Greg Simkins

When my son graduated college (Pittsburgh PA) with a BA in Graphic Design, the only job waiting for him was an unpaid internship that he worked for a full year before finding gainful employment. He now has a good job maintaining a computer based training system for a large pharmaceutical firm. I hope that the education he received in college gives him some advantages, but I have concluded that too many people go to college. I think many people look to college to provide the education that they failed to receive in public school. I received an excellent education in public school, but I feel the typical public school today does a far poorer job than mine did.

A good high school education should prepare a person for a lifetime of success. Too few people go into manufacturing. I see people with skills, but no college, making a good living in real estate, Construction, home repair, etc. It used to be considered a great opportunity to go from high school into an internship in an industrial plant, but such an opportunity today is considered to be for losers. That is a shame. Manufacturing skills are essential and to a great extent built the US into a powerful nation. Today too many people are more concerned about whether some pelicans get covered with oil and have no concept of how to build a prosperous economy.

• Richard

Education as a right of passage is probably a bad thing. On the other hand, an apprentice-based approach to teaching employable skills (such as programming) seems like a Good Thing (TM) and also works well in a free-market system (where there are few government subsidies to offset the cost of college). Zoho seems to have reawakened the apprentice-based approach, which was wildly successful and extremely effective in early American history (from 1700 to 1900) and probably elsewhere and in other times also. However even in that time education existed, though it was not to teach employable skills, but to fast-track students into scientific or literary discourse. Education is a risk: perhaps you will use your knowledge to discover something truly new that can pay off as a major invention, or perhaps you will just be saddled with 100K of debt. Using government subsidies to mitigate that risk has turned college education into grades 13-16, and sadly to the detriment of the students. Education and apprentice-based approaches both have their strengths, and are not mutually exclusive.

• Carter Cole

god i hope this is true… all i see is everyone wanting college degree and im SOL until i can find someone else to pay for it now that im working to support wife and son… im totally sending this dude my resume

wish me luck :)

• DouginPDX

I’m 42 years old. What college education I could afford and fit into a work schedule centers around the liberal arts.

During High School, I was fortunate to be among people and living in a time before things like no child left behind. Back then, we had 8 bit computers, and a few of us showed some talent. One educator put a few of the machines in a corner, and empowered us to do stuff. Anything we wanted really, so long as we actually worked to do it.

We got books, time, machines, and the rest was organic learning for a few years. Ended up teaching other students before it was over.

A similar thing happened with theater and music. The educators had the time and freedom to encourage those that had some talent and desire to learn to actually do so! Ended up able to direct a chorus and get it right, starting from that piece of sheet music pulled from the corner file, a piano for reference, and practice time.

Lots of people walk this world today, possessing some talent or inherent understanding of the dynamics of things, never knowing about it. They run through a cookie cutter program, never being challenged, teased, or encouraged into seeing just who they are and why that might matter.

I love all things technical, and I also love social matters too, where the politics of people, how they communicate, behave, think, etc…

Much of my childhood was spent either roaming free range doing stuff, or working with the technical crap I could find laying around the place I lived. That massive amount of time, freedom to explore, and the presence of people who could help build on what we found made a huge difference in my life.

One observation is knowing what is really possible, not just acceptably possible. Another is cracking the nut on fear of people and fear of things, technology. Good learning is like play, and it’s like work too. The play is seeing the basics of how things go and why they go. The work is building on that to actually do something the person wants to do, not what they are always supposed to do.

For a time I worked in manufacturing, learning on the job, mastering the various machines and weaving that with physical skill to make things, and make them right, and make a lot of them. Those people who showed me how that all works were all very skilled.

The outsourcing move became obvious, and I had to jump, or be rendered worthless.

Started reading one technical book a month. Often I would mix that with other kinds of books too, philosophy, religion, critical thinking, politics, you name it. Just one a month, and usually from the library, or sales where old texts could be had for nothing.

Frankly, I’ve never stopped doing that, and the mass of understanding I have now is very diverse and potent when it comes to facing new problems.

The time I spent in college was very worthwhile time, but it wasn’t for what I learned in terms of simple facts, or ways of understanding. That can come from life experience, and it can come from a desire to grow, learn, do.

What it was valuable for was the connections to other people and some sense of the scope of things. It was good for the interaction too, where one could be challenged by another.

Thought about technical education. Frankly, the specter of debt was looming over the whole idea, and the thought of sitting through prerequisite material for years –years that I could spend actually doing stuff, turned me off, and so I just kept reading and doing.

By day, it was work to keep a roof overhead and support my family. By night, and during those quiet, free times, it was just play! The same play I have always done, and probably always will do! How does it work? Can it do this or that? Wonder if I can make one of these?

The things I miss most now are time and resources. Often it’s difficult to obtain a sufficient measure of both to play and learn. Where that’s possible, good stuff happens. Where it isn’t possible, it’s just study.

So I jumped. Moved up from manufacturing to manufacturing engineering. Planning, material flow, process control, factory layout, NC programming, CAD… About that time I managed to get on the Internet. This was about 91 or so, and it was like opening up a new world to me.

Suddenly, it was possible to step outside my bubble, and interact with others, and do so on damn near any topic, and I did!

(still do, as this post clearly shows)

The skills built up from the computer study, music and drama fine arts, and manufacturing all played into this role well. Communicating complex things and understanding how they relate saves time and money and that’s worth enough to pay somebody for –or it was.

Outsourcing moved up a notch, and soon I found that work to be less than adequate for a family, and jumped again…

This time it was professional work. Those liberal arts classes paid off for consulting, sales, business planning, implementation and training others on the best practices surrounding higher end engineering CAD tools.

(yes, like everybody else, learning those happened below the radar)

Having done that for many years, I feel perhaps it might be time to jump again, sideways this time.

Some of the outsourcing isn’t making as much sense. As much as it pained me to help people do that (which is what some of the tools help them do), I did it because somebody had to, and why not me?

My hobby time is now spent on micro-controllers and early skills learned are coming back to relevance again as little computers are everywhere doing and controlling lots of things –almost everything!

Time to market on that stuff matters, and so there is some movement to bring that back here to the US, at least in some niches. Not all, but some.

The most valuable skills we can teach people –and this goes for anybody, not just young people, are those critical thinking skills needed to learn to learn, observe, deduce, infer, and grow the body of things one knows through interaction, observation and ongoing study. Formal study is good, but the truth is, study is study, be it in a class room, or from a book and idle time spent “in lab”.

Programs like this present really great opportunities for people who would not get them otherwise. I think that’s good.

They are not the entire answer though. We do need formal education so that people can get perspective, and so that they grow to be who they are, and do what they do for their reasons, not those of business. It may be those things align, and where that’s true, having the personal skills to sell that for a high value is good as well.

Where those personal skills are missing, and they could easily be missed in the primary education environment today, that reeks of raw exploitation and that’s not really ok with me.

At the very minimum, we need all our people to grow their core people skills above all else. That means experiencing some of the fine arts, communication, critical thinking, read, write, move, sing, act, play… That needs to be coupled with civics so they understand the scope of things and can contribute to the decisions a society must make to continue to serve it’s citizens, not just exploit them.

Learning by doing, self-teaching and applying what was learned in marketable ways is valuable. But it’s not a means to a greater end.

Perhaps, if we were to free up some time in primary education to build the core things, programs like this would make good sense. Should somebody see a need to change their path, or be exploited, they would have empowering options available to them, that might not be there if they are just formed into the perfect employee.

Perhaps we could split the middle too. Expand on the liberal arts in a way that working adults can get access to, without suffering a huge cost. That way, they can find a place and a way to work that suits them and that is valuable enough to support families, but not get so trapped by that as to be exploited in an unfair way.

Man, I think I wrote a book!

Well, learning how to learn is the key thing we should get from school –all school. It’s more than rote facts and canned behaviors. Learning how to learn and enjoying that is the key to a life well lived and a measure of personal value that will serve them well, either as employees, or maybe as entrepreneurs.

I should end with the fact that I grew up with a good friend who did go through the full course of higher education. We’ve compared and contrasted our experiences, and I find it notable that each of us looks at some of the things the other got, knowing we would have saved considerable time and energy.

That suggests to me we cannot depend on any one process to build good people. It also suggests to me that some core changes to how we educate and why might pay some real dividends.

• Brigitte Jellinek

Apprenticeship are not a thing of the past. Vocational Training in the ‘dual education system’ is an important part of the german, austrian, swiss education system. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dual_education_system

In Germany about 7.000 people per year start an apprenticeship as “Fachinformatiker”. http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fachinformatiker

This is of course a small number compared to the 30.000 people who start to study computer science at university each year. http://www.cio.de/karriere/personalfuehrung/847387/

You can also combine the more practical apprenticeship with an academic education earning a BSc at the same time at a “duale hochschule”.

• r2d2Electron

Programming is an art. Either you have it or you don’t.

Those that are successful with being self-taught would also be successful at any college / university.

It’s all about opportunity. What I find remarkably coincidental here is that at this very moment I am surrounded by Vembu’s compatriots (that have advanced degrees) who think that they are the best to come out of India. The honest truth is that I have seen some US High Schoolers with better talent than these people.

• vegai

Education is for making people more civilized. This has almost nothing to do with work.

• Kaushik

It is my personal opinion that education system like the one that prevails in India

requires an immediate transformation.

Most of the faculties of Chennai engineering colleges don’t even know how to write a basic

C program, nor do they know to use pointers properly. But many of them hold a masters

degree! The most horrible thing is that a 40 page answer sheet is evaluated in just 2

minutes. Marks are awarded only for neatness, and its resemblence with the text/diagram

given in some “local author books”! The exams do not test the application skills of a

student, but just test their memory power and presentation skills. If I write something

innovative (100% correct logically), they just strike it off without even reading whats

written. They just evaluate for money. Also, the people here stereotype things easily. They

don’t think why something happens. In my Digital Principles practicals, I had to do a full

subtractor. the NOT gate IC was faulty. When i informed the faculties about it, they just

ignored to replace it and said that my connections are wrong (damn, i started playing with

breadboards 2 yrs back!). Later I used the XOR (with one input strapped to Vcc) for

negation and proved them that i was right. Thats the quality of education here. I believe

that there are many places in world where education system is like this.

Surely, this would be very helpful for the poor kids who are exploited by many rich idiots.