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9 key career issues software developers face

Peter Wayner | Sept. 18, 2012
The path from birth to death is filled with choices about where to work and what kind of work to do.

What is the true value of a computer science degree?

If it's hard to discern whether a professional certificate for a particular technology is worth earning, it's almost impossible to decide whether to invest in traditional collegiate degrees. All it takes is one look at leaders like Steve Jobs, Michael Dell, Bill Gates, or Mark Zuckerberg to know that a bachelor's degree is not a prerequisite for changing the world.

But traditions die hard. Some companies simply insist on a bachelor's or even a master's degree because it's an easy way to cut their pile of résumés, or offers a measure of some intangible quality like a deep interest and versatility in working with computers. Whatever the reason, a significant number of people continue to believe that a sheepskin is essential, so developers with an eye on the want ads encounter the dilemma to stock up on diplomas time and again.

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The practical value of a collegiate degree is controversial. Some find the typical university curriculum too focused on theoretical questions about algorithms to be a meaningful benchmark in the workplace. The professors are more interested in wondering whether the running time can be predicted with a polynomial or an exponential function.

Others believe that this abstract understanding of algorithms and data structures is essential for doing a good job with new challenges. Languages come and go, but a deep understanding lasts until we retire.

Should you specialize or go broad when it comes to programming languages?

A good developer can program in any language because the languages are all just if-then-else statements wrapped together with clever features for reusability. But every developer ends up having a favorite language with a set of idioms and common constructs that are burned into the brain.

The challenge is to choose the best one for the marketplace. The most demand will be for languages that form the foundation of the big stacks. Java, C++, PHP, and JavaScript are always good choices.

But the newer languages are often seductive. Not only do they solve the problems that have been driving us nuts about older languages, but no one has managed to articulate the new aggravations they offer.

Employers are often as torn as developers when it comes to committing to a new language. On one hand, they love the promise that a new programming language will sweep away old problems, but they're also prudent to be skeptical of fads. A technology commitment could span decades, and they must choose wisely to avoid being shackled with a onetime flashy langauge that no one knows any more.

 

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