Saturday, May 25, 2013

What Exactly Does a College Degree Mean?

On LinkedIn there's a post by Ilya Pozin (@ilyaNeverSleeps) titled Class of 2013: Your Degree Doesn't Mean Squat. Ilya appears to be a young, successful businessperson. With all due respect to his success, I have a lot of issues with what he wrote.

I'll ignore the provocative title and move to the statement "most employers could care less about your GPA or where you went to school." I'll assume he's commenting on the value of a degree from status schools - Harvard, MIT, Yale, etc. There's truth in that, especially for undergraduates. As long as you attend an accredited school you can get a solid undergraduate education that's valuable. I'm not pretending that all schools are identical. But a B.S. is more about the student than the school.

But on the topic of GPA I guess I'm not like "most employers." I do care about your GPA. GPA means two things: either you're intellectually gifted or you work hard enough to overcome your lack of gifts. Either is good. 

When Ilya writes "getting hired in entry-level positions requires experience and fine-tuned skills, not a 4.0 GPA" I find myself saying no, no, no. We hire aptitude, not skills. Skills can be taught. Skills are how to do a particular thing. A B.S. in engineering is not a trade school. I don't want you graduating with skills at running program X. I want you to understand the fundamentals behind program X and similar programs Y and Z.

So all of that is from Ilya's introduction. Now we begin his five main points.

"Your degree isn't a golden ticket." Agree. There is nothing about a degree unto itself which entitles anyone to anything. But Ilya pushes it a bit too far for my taste: "I’d much rather hire someone who has been freelancing as a web developer for three years than someone who has a master’s degree in computer science. They’re bound to be more passionate, driven, and profitable in the long run..." Hmm. No bias there, eh? As though getting an M.S. doesn't require passion or drive. I'm not really certain what kind of social statement Ilya's making.

"It's all about experience." (And one internship isn't enough.) Ah, it's the old Catch-22 - need experience to get hired, need to get hired to get experience. Ilya suggests freelancing and contract gigs as a way to gain the requisite experience. After all, he started his company when he was 17. Long ago I stopped underestimating what new graduates can do when given the chance. And not all new hires need to arrive full of entrepreneurial zeal - that's not for everyone. They may just want to write code or design wings or whatever - and that's OK.

"Passion will help you succeed." On the surface, I agree. But by this he means that the job candidate should use their cover letter, resume, and interview to demonstrate true passion for working for Ilya's company. In other words, Ilya wants candidates to suck up. C'mon, man. How is a new graduate supposed to have true, demonstrable passion for working for Company X as opposed to doing the same thing for Company Y or Company Z? The passion that new graduates have is for the work, or technology, or field - they lack the experience to know which employer deserves their praise. In fact, it's up the employer to earn the employee's passion.

Also, let's keep in mind that passion can only take you so far. You can be passionate about something but if you also suck at it, well that's too bad. Excellence in the end goal. Passion, like discipline, is a means to an end, not an end unto itself.

"Companies hire the person who is certain to cause the most positive impact." That requires perspective. If you're hiring for skills (see above), certainly someone who has written ten iPad apps can come in and have an immediate impact on your iPad app (especially if you haven't done any yourself). But what if you're looking for long term impact, after that iPad app is done? What if your horizon for positive impact is five years? Do you still hire the most proficient Objective C programmer today?

"Go the extra mile." Seems like we kinda ran out of steam by the time we got to point #5. Don't see how it relates to having a degree or not. Don't see how it relates to new hires versus experienced employees. Try hard. There, I can write that stuff too.

At the end of the article there's a question written in italics what makes me wonder whether it's from Ilya or part of LinkedIn's boilerplate. "What do you wish someone would have told you when you graduated college?" New graduates need to know that over the course of their career they'll derive most of their satisfaction not from the work nor from the employer but from their coworkers and all the other people with whom they interact.


Francis Shivone said...

Good review. I agree especially with the last sentences.

John said...

Thanks. It started out as a longish paragraph in the regular Saturday post and then I finally pulled it out to give it the full treatment.