I have read quite a few posts recently on the lack of quality programmers, web or otherwise, available in the current market. I’ve even written a post myself on some of the “differences” in the technology stack between now and when I started programming professionally just four years ago. Some people are saying we need to encourage children to become programmers, others are questioning the languages that are taught in schools, still others are criticizing the things that are not taught (or encouraged) during secondary education. I’m going to question how things are taught.
I spent my first year of college at RIT, not to downplay my last three years at Muhlenberg, but everything I really needed to learn I learned in three quarters at RIT. Computer Science 101-103 had labs in a Sun Unix lab. We wrote Java code using Emacs from a shell. We compiled it from that shell. We checked it into RCS from that shell. We ran diffs from that shell. We submitted our completed assignments from that shell. We loved that shell, whether we wanted to or not.
We did not have an IDE, not in today’s sense anyway; there was no code complete, re-factoring tools, or visual SCM merging tools. In the process we learned Unix, we learned how to grep, how to use sed and awk, telnet, ssh, and command line ftp. We learned how the internet worked by first learning how a network worked. We learned to write code, use a computer, and use the internet with the functional equivalent of hand tools. In the process we learned and understood how and why it all fit together.
As a matter of illustration, I’m reminded of the Home Improvement television show that was on when I was a kid. In it, Tim Allen plays Tim Taylor, the host of a cable TV tool show called Tool Time. He has an assistant, Al Borland, played by Richard Karn. On the show, Tim’s motto is “more power,” which usually leads him to the biggest Binford Tools power tools, disastrous projects, and eventually the emergency room. Al, on the other hand, is more of a renaissance man, appreciating the beauty, elegance, and simplicity of hand tools and the wood they’re used on. Although I don’t think it was ever stated, Al never ended up in the emergency room. Which character would you hire to work on your house?
But I digress, we’re seeing more and more computer science grads who have worked only on Windows. They’ve used Eclipse and Visual Studio. They know how to use the very basic IDE functionality with the mouse and they live and die by ctrl+c and ctrl+v. They were given power tools in the very beginning of their careers and now quite a few of them have figuratively managed to cut their fingers off. They’re crippled programmers because the “more power,” here’s-a-monsterous-power-tool-that-does-everything-you’ll-ever-need-really-fast attitude has physically removed their ability to operate the simple tools that solve their problems in an elegant manner. They’re afraid of the shell because they don’t know how to use it, but they’re not afraid of the IDE because it has a big, shiny button that promises to make their life easier if they press it. Power tools in the real world have warnings about loss of life and limb if operated incorrectly. Sadly, power tools in the digital world do not.
So, I propose my solution. Bring the hand tools back into the classroom. Eliminate IDE’s from the educational system. Teach students to use the shell, and with it the tools of our hacker forefathers. Let them nick their fingers with a hand saw instead of cutting them off with a circular saw. Encourage them to use open source. Encourage them to contribute to open source. The web in general runs on it, they should know how it gets made, and know how to give back to the community that has made a large part of their future pay possible. Teach them Emacs or Vi. Give them cvs, svn, or git, and teach them to read a diff. Make them create a website and share what they’re learning, or at least participate in the forums of some pet open source project. Do them a favor and scare the ones who aren’t meant to be doing this out of the profession. If they don’t have the passion to persevere they need to find something else to do. Ladies and gentlemen of academia, I ask you for one thing. Stop manufacturing cookie-cutter, power-tool graduates and start nurturing artesian, master programmers.
Thank you. If you need me I’ll be uninstalling Eclipse.