This App Guy Thinks Computer Science Degrees Are a Waste of Money

September 1, 2015, 3:09 PM UTC

A computer science education is a sure ticket to a job in today’s tech economy, right? Hardly, says one startup CEO who lambasts schools for failing to teach practical computer skills, while suggesting would-be developers skip the degree path in the first place.

In a weekend op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Gelernter explains why he wouldn’t hire CS graduates to work at his email-search app company, Dittach. Here is the gist of his arguments (emphasis mine):

The thing I don’t look for in a developer is a degree in computer science. University computer science departments are in miserable shape: 10 years behind in a field that changes every 10 minutes. Computer science departments prepare their students for academic or research careers and spurn jobs that actually pay money. They teach students how to design an operating system, but not how to work with a real, live development team.

There isn’t a single course in iPhone or Android development in the computer science departments of Yale or Princeton. Harvard has one, but you can’t make a good developer in one term. So if a college graduate has the coding skills that tech startups need, he most likely learned them on his own, in between problem sets. As one of my developers told me: “The people who were good at the school part of computer science—just weren’t good developers.” My experience in hiring shows exactly that.

[…] But my lead developer didn’t graduate from college, and neither did my other full-stack developer. I do have one developer with a degree in electrical engineering: did he learn any of his development skills in college, I ask? No.

Taking shots at computer science is hardly new, of course. I can recall my own college experience more than a decade ago, when my friends in physics and math departments sneered at the intellectual confines of the subject; meanwhile, others told me the only serious tech occurred in the electrical engineering department.

I can’t say for sure if my friends were right (my own background is in law and liberal arts), but I can add that Gelernter’s comments jibe with my experience as a tech reporter. In the course of talking to hundreds of startup founders and developers over the years, I can’t recall meeting many computer science majors—though I’ve certainly met some very successful dropouts.

Interestingly, Gelernter is also skeptical about the coding schools and “bootcamps” that are sprouting up all over. He says such programs, which typically last around 12 weeks and cost thousands of dollars, are unlikely to land students a plum job at Facebook or Google. The simple reason, he argues, is that those who enroll in a coding bootcamp are unlikely to have the natural chops to be a good developer in the first place, and are there just because they want a job. He prefers people who have an innate passion and talent for coding in the first place.

So does this mean no one should get a CS degree or attend a boot camp? Not necessarily. There are plenty of good jobs out there in the computer field where employers will be looking for credentials, even if such positions lack the cachet of “Pinterest engineer” or “Silicon Valley app developer.”

It’s also worth noting that Gelernter’s proposed path has limits of its own: his renegade coder ideal is fine for a certain cultural stereotype—especially young, wealthy, unattached men—but is not a practical option for most people. More seriously, Gelernter’s dismissive view of the academic approach to computer science risks glorifying minor technical talent at the expense of understanding computers’ relation to science and humanity. An Android developer is no more of an authority on computers than a copy editor is on Shakespeare or Keats.

Instead, the larger lesson of the op-ed may be that would-be developers should be realistic about their career opportunities, and that schools should be upfront about where their programs will lead. As for startup CEOs, they should keep in mind the distinctions between coding, vocational training, and knowledge.

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