Coding matters: The qualification quandary

Do IT qualifications matter? Photo of some rocks, one with a graduation cap and scroll.

In 2019 I heard a talk by a professor from Wits University. His key point was that university degrees are losing their importance in many professions.

This is old news

Fast forward four years. An article on ITWeb this week claims SA university degrees are unsustainable.

(It also notes that the money spent on SETA learnerships has not improved productivity or employment rates. As you know from the importance of fire extinguishers, I am not a fan of the MICT SETA.)

Most of our IT graduates don't have useful skills and are not employed. This is not news. The question is why - or if - we still believe they need that degree.

The wrong question

It's great to have our learning acknowledged and rewarded. That's why so many people post photos of their certificates on LinkedIn.

Recruiters ask job applicants this question:
"What qualification do you have?"

But that's the wrong question. The better question is:
"What have you learned recently?"

By chance I came across a quote from John Holt after I had written this. Holt was a critic of the American school system almost 50 years ago. I don't know his work, but this is still relevant:

"Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned."

I spent hours this week learning about something I thought I already knew. My knowledge was out of date. Technology changes. That's the reason good developers believe in lifelong learning.

Questions about recruitment

Out of curiousity, I checked some SA job postings for programmers on LinkedIn. My impression: at least half of them require tertiary qualifications. And all of them, even for junior positions, require experience.

I have some questions about these ads.

  1. If you need someone with 10 year's experience, why does the person also need a qualification? The content of most old qualifications is outdated.

  2. Why 3 years or 5 years or any other number? Experience is not the same as competence or skill. I wrote about that in Hairdressers and Programmers.

  3. Why don't the ads mention a technical test? Many companies use coding interviews or practical exercises. That's more reliable than anything on a CV. It gives talented young programmers with no formal experience a real chance. And if you mention a test in your job advert, it will reduce the number of unsuitable applicants.

Many years ago, a government department asked us to test candidates for a senior Java programming position. Only one of the dozen or more short-listed people arrived. The rest either withdrew their applications, or just vanished.

Of course, the person responsible for recruitment was unhappy. But that's better than employing someone who wasn't even willing to take the test.

Industry complains about a lack of skills. But are we looking for the right skills? How important is a formal degree for a programmer?

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