By Jeff Winkler
You see it happen in professional sports all the time. A new prodigy arrives on the scene, one who oozes with god-given natural talent, and begins living out his (or her) manifest destiny by dominating the game. Our contemporary examples include the likes of Tiger Woods, Lebron James, Serena Williams, and Bryce Harper. All uber-talented, and all knew at a very young age that they weren’t going to be sitting behind a desk for a living.
Yet, far away from the bright lights of the playing field and ball courts, there’s a very similar talent emerging in the ambient glow of a computer screen. You likely won’t ever know their names, and you won’t be seeing them appear on any television commercials. However, they too are destined to reign supreme in their trade, and have a major impact on their organization – and potentially the world.
Let me take you back to the end of the 2015 summer when Origin Code Academy hosted a 2-week computer programming class for high school students in San Diego. Attending the class were a pair of kids that were picking up the concepts faster than anyone I’ve ever seen – including many previously trained adult learners that I’ve encountered. It was as if these kids were genetically predisposed to be programmers. Not only were their minds wired for it, but it also brought them great joy to put their talent on display – just like a professional athlete.
Their parents begged us to create a curriculum for them to follow while they attended high school because they were bored at school. If they had their druthers, I believe the parents would have allowed the kids to drop out of school at that moment, and begin working as a developer. As crazy as that sounds, I’ve come to the realization that they were probably right. I’ve rolled this scenario around in my head like a cement mixer for the last few months and I simply don’t see any reason why kids shouldn’t be allowed to drop out of high school to start working as a developer if that’s what they enjoy. Here’s why:
Computer Science degrees don’t matter.
At Origin, we have a guest speaker every Friday morning to talk to the students. Our guest speakers are either Founders, Senior Developers, Recruiters, or CTO’s. The students are able to pick their brains on a range of subjects – from hiring practices and code test practice, to insight on how to position themselves for a successful career in tech. Out of the last 12 speakers, guess how many said that a college degree was required to become a successful developer? Zero! In fact, most of the speakers viewed it as a negative.
There’s a reputation that new Computer Science degree grads think that they know it all because they aced their college classes. However, a lot of what they know has quickly become outdated or irrelevant in today’s tech hiring environment.
At a meet-up I recently attended, I struck up a conversation with a computer science professor that was with one of the large state universities here in San Diego. He had expressed genuine frustration at the fact that he was only just now able to get GitHub into the curriculum after several years of trying. By this time, GitHub – a popular web-based repository hosting service – had been around for 7 years – which is also when the first iPhone made its debut. So, imagine if you were majoring in “Mobile Phone Hardware Engineering” and you just got access to first-generation iPhone tools and curriculum as a part of your $30k yearly tuition. It would be like going to fashion school to learn how to knit leg warmers.
Let me end with stating that Computer Science degrees are not a waste of time or worthless by any stretch of the imagination. They are valuable for years 3-4+ in your tech career. However, most of the studies estimate about 100 hours in coding during your undergrad while coding bootcamps average closer to 600 hours. The coding bootcamp graduate definitely needs to reinforce computer science topics on their own time, but since they won’t have to use most if not all of those concepts early in their careers, it doesn’t need to all be up front.
Our tech communities would thrive.
Origin Code Academy is based in the same building as several startup incubators. Do you know what all of them need to continue to grow? More developers. Scores of them. It’s the main reason the average tech salary in San Diego was $114,300 last year, and the average non-tech salary was only $49,700.
By allowing kids to drop out and tune into a tech career, it addresses a real need in the local technology workforce. The entrepreneurial community would be greatly served by having a larger pool of more adequately qualified technology candidates.
What do companies do now when they can’t find talent in the US? They get it from Mexico, Ukraine, or India. They have to, there’s no alternative. Would you rather companies in your community continue to spend that money for overseas talent? Or give it to a 17 year-old that has been developing for three years and lives down the street? You are increasing the city and state’s tax base, the depth of their talent pool, and expanding the job creation market potential in every instance.
We’re only delaying the inevitable.
Do you remember what you were like in High School? I took a clothing class to hang out with a cute girl every day – and to make my mom and grandma’s Christmas presents. I also took a cooking class because it was a lesser evil than study hall. Now, while I’m thankful that I can make a killer grilled cheese sandwich as a result, maybe it would’ve been more productive to have an entrepreneurship class, or a sales class, or a personal finance class.
I’m advocating that for current high school students that already spend 4-5 hours a night coding or doing Minecraft mods, that they seriously consider making the leap to “go pro.” By dedicating their focus entirely to their craft, they can earn a salary that would likely rival what their parents make – and avoid the steep cost of college tuition. By the time their peers will have reached their senior year, these “dropouts” would already have several years of experience and would be much further down their career path. The only sacrifice would be missing a few additional years studying topics that they weren’t really going to retain anyway.
It accomplishes the goal of education.
What is the goal of education? Ask 100 people and you’ll get 100 different answers – but for sake of argument, I’ll suggest that the end result should be a productive citizen that is working and providing for themselves. This could be accomplished right now with thousands of high school students. They already have the skill-set, and already spend a significant amount of their time coding, so why not let them start working as a software developer right now and start earning money? As software developers will tell you, the education will never stop for those in tech as things change so rapidly, so why not jump in and start the lifetime learning that is involved in software development instead of the periodic table?
Logical minds will eventually embrace the need to change.
I’m not opposed to having some regulations to implement this policy change. Obviously, it’d be irresponsible to not have some rules that needed to be followed or standards that needed to be met before allowing a kid to drop out of high school. However, I think it would be fairly easy to come up with those rules and standards. Perhaps a summer internship with a company and a year-long, part-time role as a junior developer would be enough to allow them to get a waiver to no longer have to attend high school? There really is no downside assuming you ensure they can perform the skills that companies are hiring for before quitting high school. By the time their peers are graduating with six-figures of debt from college, they will have seven years of work experience and a much healthier financial situation. If they still want to go to college someday, they can use their salary to pay cash rather than financing with Sally Mae.
The parents whose kids would fall in this category would overwhelmingly agree with me – but they’re resistant to the notion because it’s not yet socially acceptable. Eventually, as college tuition costs escalate even higher and the demand for software developers continues to mount, minds will begin to change and “going pro” will become acceptable for those who have talents you can’t find in the sports arena.