david mohundro

How do we solve this problem? (not a programming problem!)

February 27th 2007

Jeff Atwood posted a great article talking about programmers that can’t actually program.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Actually, lately is probably the wrong word, because I really started thinking about this way back when Joel Spolsky posted his infamous article on why he believes that colleges should teach C instead of Java. When that article came out, I had only been out of college for about a couple of years, but during that time, I had already seen my share of examples of programmers who couldn’t program. Joel’s article couldn’t solve this problem for me, though, because these programmers would have had just as much trouble developing in Java as in C.

For many (non-)programmers, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding about programming in general, particularly with the ability to formulate basic algorithms to solve simple tasks. One example involved a programmer that had trouble with anything beyond placing formatted data to an HTML form. This programmer was tasked with moving through a DOM table to highlight cells that had certain values in them. In programming terms, he basically had to traverse an array checking for conditions - a very simple algorithm. However, he froze when he got to that part of his project, because he hadn’t been trained in thinking about problems and how to solve them.

The examples that Jeff notes are just as much or more appalling and also show that these aren’t isolated incidents.

What do we do about this problem?

At the end of his post, Jeff notes Steve McConnell’s book on the profession of software development. It is an interesting concept and reminds me of a conversation I had with a pharmacist I met in my MBA program. He noted that some professions, such as pharmacy, have certifications to let the rest of us know that an individual actually knows what he or she is talking about regarding their profession while there are other professions that don’t provide any sort of guarantee as to the actual knowledge someone possesses. I’m reminded of my wife in this case, because she has certifications for speech and language pathology. One of the requirements for her to keep her certifications is that she must have X number of hours of continuing education each year.

Could something like this work with software development?

There are obviously already many different certifications that exist (Microsoft certifications, Sun certifications, Oracle certifications, the list goes on), but that really brings out one of the problems with certifications in software development. I don’t want to be a good developer with just Microsoft tools - I want to be a good developer period. If a software development certification existed that could ensure that someone was a competent developer and had a good knowledge of programming in general, it might work, but then again, the field changes constantly.

“OOP all the way!”

“No! TDD all the way!”

“Oh yeah, well, what about functional programming?”

“But… you can have functional and TDD at the same time!”

“You guys are all morons, QUANTUM programming is the way to go!”

It would be nigh impossible to have a certification that would be relevant and, more importantly, STAY relevant.

I’m sure I’m not adding anything new to this subject, but it has been on my mind for a while. I think I like the idea of a certification that requires continuing education - that almost seems like a must with software development. I primarily work with .NET 2.0 right now but it almost feels like what I’m working on isn’t even relevant because of all the talk about .NET 3.0 (I know, just an extension of .NET 2.0) and LINQ, DLINQ, etc (actually coming from the upcoming new version of the framework…. 3.5?).

How would continuing education be defined in software development? Is it conferences? Reading blogs or books? Working on a variety of different projects so that you gain experience with different technologies?

Can the problem of programmers who can’t program even be solved?

(By the way, before someone starts griping, I’m not advocating certifications… at least I don’t think I am. I just want to see this problem fixed. Isn’t that what all programmers want to do? Solve problems?)

I think this might be one of the longest posts I’ve ever written.

NOTE: This post was NOT inspired by anyone in particular… don’t worry. Don’t go thinking you’re an awful programmer and I hate you. :-)

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