The Perils of Java Schools? Joel Spolsky — of Joel On Software fame — continues to ding Java whenever the opportunity arises, which just so happens (again) to be a recent article on his blog about “Java schools” and undergraduate programs. I think he still holds MSFT stock in his portfolio, which may explain the constant FUD coming from his bully pulpit.

I like Joel. I enjoy his articles and insight. Normally, I agree with him or learn something, but sometimes….!

Joel’s original article bemoaned the state of Computer Science curriculum in today’s universities, but what gets me (and he may be trolling, really, just to promote his products) is the continuing attacks on Java as a language and platform despite the fact that his former employer is following the exact same roadmap in order to claim Java’s marketshare. This does not change his choice in platform, naturally. He’s MSFT all the way, with the inclusion of *nix by writing his own language called ‘wasabi’ to crank out PHP code from a vbscribt-looking language. They must be bored over there at Fog Creek.

The Physicist, the Architect, and NASCAR

Physicists can tell you with great accuracy why things fall, why bodies of water ebb and flow, what makes up stardust, and why weight distributed across various building materials would support more or less weight than other materials in myriad configurations. There are formulas to calculate these things to the nth degree.

Architects will say they need a floor to support X people and design their building accordingly. Structural engineers make it happen.

I’d argue that one is science while the other is applied science. One is research and learning, while the other is a pragmatic use of today’s knowledge.

Architects do not need advanced degrees in physics to design a building. They need to get the job done on time and on budget. Most businesses don’t need computer scientists who understand relational algebra at a deep level. They just need pragmatic application developers who understand that relational algebra exists and that it underlies how modern databases are built. Knowing about relational theory at a superficial level is sufficient to take advantage of it by applying the right level of normalization on a database design. Folks who build NASCAR cars don’t need to be able to design next generation engines, they just need to be able to put horsepower under the hood.

Today’s curriculum

Colleges today are changing their curriculum to match the demands of the business world. There is is a schism forming between computer science and application development (for lack of a better term). We see this here in a local university from the eyes of a professor who consults with our company. One is science and research, the other is applied science to achieve business goals. The two don’t necessarily align, but we only have a single “computer science” degree that most closely matches what businesses need today.

I don’t know if Joel would support learning software engineering best practices in a computer science curriculum. His excellent “Joel Test” for software organizations may not have any place in today’s comp sci classrooms, but it’s still an excellent test. How do we teach people the merits of version control systems, build and smoke tests, and planning and scheduling? How do we teach good design with an eye towards maintainability? How do we teach young programmers that the project is not done when the coding is finished and that non-functional requirements will lengthen the schedule considerably? How do we write code that simultaneously meets the oft conflicting requirements and schedule pressure?

Does pedigree matter?

My daughter and I watched Underdog this past weekend. She held a huge bowl of popcorn in her lap while enjoying a canine protagonist that looks suspiciously like our beagle. We popped the popcorn in our microwave. Percy Spencer was a self-taught engineer working for Raytheon when he discovered microwave radiation. He didn’t get a comp sci degree from Yale. He didn’t even go to a Java school. He learned on his own. A childhood friend of mine is blowing up buildings in Connecticut as the Director of Technology for an NBC owned television station. He’s building a next generation studio and control center for NBC. Before that, he was the technical manager of the Today Show. He went to school to learn how to operate a camera. You know, a Java school for TV.

What most of us do everyday in the trenches isn’t rocket science. It isn’t even computer science. It’s application development where ingenuity, passion, and creativity drive the best of us, not pieces of paper.