Autoblography Part 31: ICM

By Shamus Posted Thursday Oct 20, 2011

Filed under: Personal 101 comments

My alarm goes off and I sit up in bed. The opening shouts of the song No Sleep till Brooklyn storm through my brain. This happens every morning. I don’t know why. I’m not even particularly fond of the song. I guess I have it in my head because the lyrics are talking about not getting enough sleep, which is my big problem these days.

It’s six in the morning. I’ve been asleep for five hours. I can’t hit the snooze button because I’ll miss the bus.

I pull my McDonald’s uniform out of the washer, toss it in the dryer, grab some breakfast, and get dressed in the business casual outfit we’re required to wear at school. (Which is basically, “business formal, but ties are optional”.) I grab the now-dry McDonald’s uniform as I dash out of the house and drive to the other side of town, where I park my car. Next I catch a bus to Pittsburgh. The ride takes about an hour. I try to sleep, but I can never get comfortable and I’m always worried that other passengers might mess with me. The bus drops me off at the David L. Lawrence convention center, and I walk a mile from there to ICM School of Business. I attend classes there all day, then retrace my steps: Walk a mile, ride a bus for an hour. As soon as the bus drops me off I go to work a seven-hour shift at McDonald’s. Finally I stagger into the house a little after midnight, put my McDonald’s uniform in the wash, and collapse into bed. I do this five days a week.

It’s 1991, and I have somehow screwed things up. Other college kids have these heroic stories of sleep deprivation and all-nighters. They seem to keep up with studying, dating, early classes, and late parties. I don’t know how they do it. I don’t party, I don’t have a girlfriend, and my schooling requires very little extra study, but this lifestyle is killing me.

When I graduated high school, everyone impressed on me the fact that I wouldn’t be able to get a job without a degree. It was taken as a given that I would go to college somewhere. The same question came from friends, parents, people at church, and random strangers I’d meet: Where are you planning to go to school? I didn’t have an answer.

Buckling under this pressure, I looked for a way to get a degree as quickly as possible. I don’t want to go to school at all. The only thing I need is a piece of paper that will tell employers that I know the stuff I already know so I can get on with this career thing already.

This place is called “ICM School of Business”, but it’s more correctly a technical school. (Years later this place will be renamed Kaplan Career Institute.) It’s designed around the idea of a small number of focused classes, and they offer the chance to get an associates degree in under two years. The curriculum is fixed, so everyone in the same degree program will have exactly the same classes. Because of this, students are assigned to a room, and the teachers move from classroom to classroom, instead of the other way around.

The idea of getting a two year degree in eighteen months sounded good to me at the time, but the process is miserable in its execution. The bus trips to Pittsburgh are expensive, and most of my pay goes into getting me to school. I do the math and realize I’m working a seven-hour shift to pay for two hours worth of travel. I could drive, but the cost would be about the same once I paid for parking, with the added thrill of driving while sleep-deprived.

I complain about this to Mom, and she explains that I ought to keep it to myself. Apparently this school is costing our family a lot of money, and everyone is making sacrifices so that I can go here. As small as my income is, we need every little bit. This is actually news to me. I understood that the school cost money, but I have no idea how much the family makes, or how much things cost. I am reminded of that first day of kindergarten, where everyone else seemed to already know how things worked and what was expected of them.

I was given a computer for graduation. It’s a proper IBM clone with a hard drive. It also came with the Borland C development environment and reference books. Over the summer I went crazy and binged on programming. I was teaching myself C, graphics programming, and trigonometry at the same time. I had to set all of that aside when I began at ICM, because I simply don’t have the time.

The school seemed very impressive during the tour. They showed us the generous computer lab and talked about how much access we would have to the machines. It sounded good, but now that I’m in the thick of things I’m horrified at the actual curriculum itself. There is some computer history, which was thoroughly covered in Vo-Tech. Then there is COBOL, which was doubly covered in Vo-Tech, and which is stupid and useless and not what I want to learn. A total of three COBOL courses stand between me and graduation. There are two accounting classes. I can understand throwing one accounting course in there, but two is ridiculous. Not all of us are going to be writing report generators for accounting, and very few of us will ever need anywhere near this much depth of accounting knowledge. There’s also a psychology course thrown in, for some reason. It’s a stimulating subject and introduces me to interesting ideas like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but I’m not sure why we’re burning class time on it.

Then there is the class on the computer language called RPG, which stands for Report Program Generator. This is such a monumental waste of time that I am actually offended by it. This language has all the problems and limitations of COBOL, only to a greater degree and with terrible syntax. It is a thoroughly ridiculous language. In RPG, you design your programs by putting certain letters in certain columns. Sometimes a line of the program will begin with a few characters, then require one more letter floating in (say) column twenty, on the other side of the page. You can always tell when someone is programming in RPG because you can see them rhythmically smacking the spacebar over and over while they count spaces in their head. Unlike COBOL, you can’t just glance at the printed source and see what’s going on. You need to squint at it in a word processor and count spaces to get a sense of where the characters are positioned so you can see what they mean. This probably made sense during the days of the punch card, but now it’s a massive liability. I don’t want to know this language. I don’t want it taking up space in my brain. This is a bad idea that needs to die. I would love to take a job killing this language. I would rather leave the field entirely than take a job perpetuating it.

Of all of the incredible things we could be learning, of all the vast fields of study that involve the computer, is this really the best we can do? Accounting and report generators? There’s no theory here. There’s nothing on how you make good software, or how user interfaces should work, or how programming interfaces should be designed, or how to debug, no networking theory, no graphics, nothing on logic, nothing on computer languages in general, not a word about data structures, no mention of of the inner workings of the computer’s memory or CPU. Just accounting and report generators. This is like going to school for a communications degree and only being taught how to proofread. Okay, it’s a solid skill and in reasonable demand, but that’s a pretty thin basis for even a single semester of schooling. Making an entire two-year degree around something this narrow is just sad.

Once I complete all of these classes, there will finally be a couple of classes on the C programming language. I suddenly realize that every single thing they’re teaching me is either irrelevant, stuff I already know, or stuff I could learn on my own after I’ve begun my career. I will need to complete all of this before they finally get around to teaching me the one relevant subject that might be of use to me. This wouldn’t be so bad, but I was already learning C when I began school, and I had to stop learning it when I began school. This school actually halted my education.

I’m working hard and not making any money. I’m going to school and not learning anything. I’m tired all the time and I’m evidently putting a strain on the rest of my family, who I hardly ever see. How did I screw this up so bad? Are all schools like this, or did I pick a bad one? I suppose you can look at the curriculum of a school before you sign on, but I didn’t know that that was something I needed to do. It didn’t even occur to me that curriculum was something a school could get wrong.

I can’t possibly keep up this pace for two years, but what should I do now? Do I drop out? I don’t have time to look at other schools, and now that I know this is such a burden on the family, the last thing I want to do is tell them, “Whoops. This school sucks. I quit. Sorry!” At the same time, I don’t want to continue to waste my life and the family income on something so worthless.


From The Archives:

101 thoughts on “Autoblography Part 31: ICM

  1. Airsoftslayer93 says:

    Drop out Shamus!!! Drop out and start your own development studio, rival valve!!!! you can do it!!!!

    1. Nick says:

      Yelling at past Shamus to rival an as-yet unfounded gaming company using his zero business experience is unlikely to help :P

      But yeah, this kind of stuff is what guidance counselors were invented to try and prevent…

      1. Jarenth says:

        But remember that earlier comments have demonstrated that Shamus is a certified time traveller.

        1. ngthagg says:

          Certified? That’s ridiculous. There aren’t any schools that can certify you for time travel . . .

          . . . yet!

          1. Jarenth says:

            Amusingly, there aren’t any in the future either. The only time-travel certification course was given somewhere between 1849 and 1886, in the municipality of Tarsdorf, Austria.

            Finding the class is the first step.

            1. Methermeneus says:

              The second step is providing documentation that you have lived in a time period outside the 19th century. Although this has resulted in a few people who were born in the late 18th century obtaining the certificate based merely on longevity, it’s not a hard subject to pick up when surrounded by legitimate applicants.

          2. Mistwraithe says:

            Ah! I see what you did there…

      2. Chuck Henebry says:

        Current-Day Shamus’ ability to get us so involved that we’re rooting for Past Shamus? That’s writing talent, baby!

        Same as any great fiction writer””Dickens had readers so far out on the edge of their seats that crowds are said to have gathered on the docks in Boston and New York waiting to see if approaching ships bore the latest installment revealing the fate of Little Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop..

        1. SoldierHawk says:

          This is so very true, and its this fact that sold me on the AutoBlogography. I thought I would hate these, and now the first thing I do every morning is check to see if there’s a new one. Amazingly engaging. I love all of Shamus’ writing, but between this and his novel, I think he really has a rare storytelling gift that I hope he continues to make use of.

  2. Jack says:

    Okay, this is possibly less useless than Ms. Grossman’s class, but only just. I mean, this kind of blundering incompetence in the teaching of a new field the teachers are still trying to grasp themselves is kind of understandable in School, but at a College dedicaated to it you’d think they’d know what they were doing and what was actually useful to the students who likely know as much as them at the very least, or else they wouldn’t be interested enough to sign up. Also, good on getting your license and a job since Summer School.

    1. 4th Dimension says:

      That college probably wasn’t dedicated only to CS. It probably had other tracks for other business jobs. And so curriculum was probably slapped together by two Economics Managers with no idea what they are doing, while on CS guy using stealth and burning Sishkebab managed to insert those two C courses.

      1. Methermeneus says:

        That’s… actually a pretty good description of how places like Kaplan and Chubb work in general, even in classes more directly related to their specialties, I’m given to understand. They’re places you go to get the piece of paper, not to learn.

      2. Shamus says:

        Yep. You’ve pretty much nailed it. I can’t remember what all of the other fields were, but I do know that the top floor was nursing. Once in a while the nurses would need to practice with needles. Once they’d stabbed each other about as much as they could stand, they came down to computer science and rounded up a few of us nerds for stabby practice. I did this often because:

        1) I had a lean build, but for whatever reason I had great big bulging veins on my arms as if I was a bodybuilder. I was a really good practice subject.

        2) I’m not particularly troubled by needles. It was a little worrisome when a really nervous girl came at me with shaking hands, but I was usually less afraid than they were.

        3) Some of them were really pretty.

    2. Abnaxis says:

      In ICM’s defense he software tools you’ll have to work with and the tools that are actually the right, modern tools for the job most definitely do not exist in a one-to-one relationship. In fact, more often than not, you’re stuck using crap that should have been incinerated decades ago. If you work with consumer products you’ll be working with crap tools for backwards-compatibility purposes to reach a wider base. On industrial software, you’ll be working with crap because businesses have a period of investment on their software that’s much longer than the rate at which innovation happens.

      Nevertheless, RPG is a godawful tool.

  3. uberfail says:

    Wow… I wonder how long it took them to start teaching Computer Science properly. I know that a lot of the more important stuff is taught at College (read: highschool) level now in IT classes.
    EDIT: You really do get up early these days don’t you.

    1. Klay F. says:

      The problem is that its nearly impossible to learn to program without just eschewing school altogether and teaching yourself. No class can teach you to create software that is at once logical, efficient, and accessible. At most, a University Comp Sci course can teach you the syntax of the most popular languages.

      I speak from experience. At no point did a programming class I ever took teach me how to program. I found out late that I lacked that special spark that Shamus talk about earlier. I know the syntax of C++ reasonably well, and if you sat me down in front of a bunch of source code, I could eventually figure out what it does, though I at no point would I ever be able to produce something of any complexity on my own.

      1. Mistwraithe says:

        I disagree somewhat. Courses aren’t necessary in order to become a great developer but decent courses can certainly speed the process up by helping you leapfrog the first 50 years of software bootstrapping/knowledge development and get up to speed with modern techniques, structures, etc. If you are destined to be a great developer then all this stuff will stick instantly and make sense when you hear it which is easier than having to work it all out from scratch yourself.

        Of course reading the right books and doing the right practice could also do the same sort of shortcircuiting if you are disciplined enough.

        1. Methermeneus says:

          That’s essentially true of any field. For example, I’ve learned languages (human, not computer) both on my own and in classrooms. While it’s possible to teach yourself with sufficient discipline and the right tools, it’s far easier to take a class.

          I would equate Shamus’s method of just grabbing a book and starting to write programs as soon as you have a computer with just moving to the country where a language is spoken after memorizing a phrasebook so you don’t get yourself killed by accident. Seems more daunting at first, but you learn the useful stuff much faster, and you internalize the language better once you do pick it up thoroughly.

      2. Kayle says:

        While I haven’t experienced it personally, MIT has long had a highly regarded class Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, based around a book of the same title (which is now freely available as a pdf through CiteSeer). If you don’t “get” programming, I doubt this will put you over, if you do but don’t know much, reading the book/viewing the lectures/taking the class probably will give you a lot of insights about fundamentals of computer programs and programming.

        However, I suspect it’s not really possible to teach good programming judgement. You can teach good practices (modularize, comment, document), but programming as a craft (where to put the module boundaries, what aspects need to be documented) requires experience.

  4. silver Harloe says:

    When you write these, do you say “what the eff, me-from-20-years-ago, if you had spent 10 minutes thinking about what a business school might be in relations to computers, you would have realized the name alone should be enough to turn you away. If only you could spend a few minutes empathizing instead of dreaming of C.”

    I have this terrible feeling every day I wake up that me-from-the-past was a complete and utter moron who shouldn’t have been allowed to breathe or reproduce (though he was and wasn’t, respectively).

    1. Jarenth says:

      That’s growing up for you.

    2. Dwip says:

      I don’t know about Shamus, but I sure wish _I_ had spent of that time thinking about it, because I spent 2 years in a 4 year college doing roughly the same sort of thing Shamus is doing here (only with C!) in a business computing program. Did it because I love computers, and because I knew there was no way I was going to make it through the higher math involved in a CS degree. Spent all of my time taking ridiculously easy and kind of BS MS Office classes (yeah, whole unit on sending email in Outlook, I mean you), econ, and accounting, very little on anything I’d actually like to do.

      In retrospect, I mean, it’s business computing, what else were they going to teach me, but I didn’t really catch on until accounting my second year, which I couldn’t stand. Switched to that famously computer-related subject, history, which I actually have a BS and not a BA in because I used some arcane university rules to treat C as my foreign language, which I understand ceased to be the case right after I graduated.

      Also in retrospect, I dunno what else I was really going to do at the time, since the decision actually made some sense, as it undoubtedly did for Shamus. I mean, I was basically told from an early age I was going to college, but basically had no career guidance whatsoever other than the usual “You’re really good at computers!” by people who were not, in any way, good with computers. I at least knew my limits enough to know that there was zero chance I was going to make it through the various non-programming prerequisites of a CS degree, so the business thing seemed like a reasonable compromise.

      Live and learn, I guess.

      Also, I don’t understand how people who do work, school, and ten other things do it. At one point in my master’s program, I was doing that, working 20 hours a week, had a girlfriend, was involved in student government, had a raft of other extracurriculars, AND tried to have some semblance of a life beyond that, and it damn near broke me. And I had it easier than some. I can work pretty hard, but there’s only so many hours in the day.

      1. lazlo says:

        I sometimes wonder if *everyone* has the same sort of “what was I thinking” experience?

        I know that I spent 5 years working on a degree in Chemical Engineering because it never occurred to me that other people might find working with computers difficult, and might therefore want to pay someone else to do it for them.

        I mean, I liked ChemE, and I was fairly good at it, but I really think I would have been miserable if I’d finished my degree and started a career in it. (which is kind of funny in itself – ChemE was the major I chose when I was like 15 or so, and I was pretty solidly confident of it for the next 8ish years)

        1. mockware says:

          Wow. A fellow ChemE. How’s this for sad. I got my bachelors and moved on to graduate school in ChemE because I didn’t want to ruin my favorite hobby – programming. Luckily, my gradute work involved programming and I ended up dropping out and getting a job programming with a company that did Chemical process simulation. I never looked back and now I’m a DBA. Funny how life twists and turns like that.

          I had one computer class – pascal – and that was it. Everyone was desparate for IT people before 2000.

          1. Raka says:

            One of my first bosses was a ChemE undergrad who got her MBA and became an HR director. An ex was a ChemE undergrad who went on to vet school. My best friend is a ChemE undergrad who is now a structural engineer. I’m acquainted with a few other ChemE degree-holders… and not a single chemical engineer.

            ChemE (at least in the schools I know) has some of the strictest requirements and most daunting classloads of any undergrad major. Why do so many of you finish that hell march and *then* immediately switch careers? You know that switching majors is a thing, right? They really don’t take you out back and shoot you if you do it.

            My only theory is that the curriculum is so grueling that you don’t have time to realize how much you really don’t ever want to do chemical engineering.

      2. Andrew says:

        I work full time 40hrs a week, go part time to school, teach part time at the same school that I am attending, Volunteer as much as 20 hours a week, and then wonder why I never have time to clean my house????
        It’s all a juggling act – you learn to deal with it.

  5. Amstrad says:

    This sounds surprisingly similar to my experience with attending the local community college in pursuit of a drafting technology degree. I would drive the hour to school then work at an Arby’s in the nearby mall and then drive the hour home. I ended up dropping out in the midst of my third semester despite having an obscenely high GPA in my first year.

    Those kids who got to go away to school and live on a campus and not work the entire time never quite appreciate how well they had it.

  6. Zaxares says:

    Your experience is remarkably similar to what I went through in University, Shamus. (Except that I knew right from the start that I wanted to do a degree in either IT or Creative Writing. I actually wanted to do the latter more, but ended up picking IT because I knew I would be able to better justify it to my parents, who would be funding my higher education. I actually regret that decision now, even though I ended up doing a diploma in Creative Writing some years later anyway.)

    Anyway, like you, the IT degree turned out to be not really like what I had imagined. I also discovered that I am actually a terrible programmer. :P I love computers, but I just don’t have the kind of mental workings it takes to design a program and bring it to life. To use an example you gave in one of your earlier autobiography entries, I was a good student in the IT classes, but a bad programmer. Unfortunately for me, I only realised this in the middle of my 3-year degree.

    So I then had two choices; either bail on the course and thus waste all the time and money I and my family had put into it so far, or stick it out to the end and try to make it work. I opted for the latter, because like you, I knew how much my parents were sacrificing for me and I didn’t want their efforts to go to waste. I did successfully graduate in the end, but only by teaming up with more skilled programmers for projects and justifying my leeching by writing all the documentation and reports for the projects. (Which ironically, stood me in good stead for my now-current job as a Technical Writer, many years later.)

    1. Robyrt says:

      I took your path not traveled – a degree in creative writing with some IT classes on the side – and lo and behold, I am now a technical analyst, so it might not have made much of a difference anyway :)

      Fortunately, my parents gave me the latitude to get a stunningly useless degree, because at least I beat my father’s “Let’s join a rock band instead of graduating” plan.

    2. Alex the Too Old says:

      I was in a similar situation, except I had *a hell of a lot of interesting things to choose from* (music, a hard science like physics or chemistry, majoring in English or a foreign language…) or IT, and I chose the latter, both for the easy-to-justify factor and because I couldn’t choose between the other things. And this was during the dotcom bubble, so the IT degree was REALLY easy to justify. Unfortunately, also because it was during the dotcom bubble, I wound up in, rather than the CS program, a “MIS” program within the business school that taught me base knowledge about things like ERPs and EISes that people were blowing a lot of money on during the bubble, as well as business stuff like accounting, economics, statistics and management theory (which, except for that last one, have turned out to be very good to know about anyway).

      The one programming class used Visual Basic, which was so embarrassingly basic (ha ha) that I and several other people were always way ahead of the instructor. I also took one C++ class over in the CS building, but I don’t remember if that was a degree elective, an “arts and sciences” elective, or on my own initiative. The “MIS” classes were all basic, “technology for business majors” stuff, meant to prepare us for the product training we would receive from whichever Big 6 (at the time) consulting firm hired us.

      Then the bubble burst a few months before I graduated and it took me over a year to find a job because while I knew *about* a lot of things, I didn’t actually *know* anything in depth, a state of affairs that I had to remedy on-the-job over the course of pretty much all the ensuing years since.

      Moral: it’s better to be an expert in *something*, that way there’s *some* job out there where you can hit the ground running. Generalists have to be trained for *any* job they attempt.

  7. Warbright says:

    I think the worst part is this sounds like the kind of college where there aren’t lots of RPG playing nerds or the equivalent to find and have a good time with. The social bit of college was probably the most crucial part of life development for me. Of course I fall under Amstrad’s group of people who didn’t realize what they had. Great writing by the way, I’m actually a bit stressed out myself just reading it. At least we know there’s a happy ending, continuing, or what have you.

  8. Jarenth says:

    This story has me in two minds. On the one hand, I find myself gripped by the emotional rollercoaster you’ve layed out here, constantly wondering what road bumps life will have in store for Past You, and how you’ll overcome or sidestep them.

    On the other hand, this is still not a story of Patrick and you breaking things.

    1. Patrick the Apocalyptic Copy Editor says:

      You are now my favorite person.

  9. Tizzy says:

    Making an entire two-year degree around something this narrow is just sad.

    Designing an 18-month curriculum that will make students employable at the end is far from obvious, especially since many of your classmates would have had little familiarity with computers to begin with.

    Yes, it’s sad to have something so narrow, but what else can you do? A curriculum is not designed for the top 1% of the class, and it appears that they were delivering what they promised: immediately useful skills in a short period of time.

    True, those skills would become obsolete very quickly, but that’s always a risk in highly technical fields.

  10. Josh says:

    > I am reminded of that first day of kindergarten, where everyone else seemed to already know how things worked and what was expected of them.

    > It didn't even occur to me that curriculum was something a school could get wrong.

    I’ve seen this sort of thing among friends of mine who are amazingly smart, and not just academically; two in particular, both PhD biologist types, one of whom had an amazingly supportive mentor early in her career, and one of whom was largely left to fend for herself. Having someone experienced who’s willing and able to help you figure out the stuff that “everybody else just knows”, and that don’t occur to you when you’re just getting started, is incredibly valuable.

    To the extent that I’m a successful person in my own field, I should try to find opportunities to do more mentoring.

    1. Guthie says:

      Just don’t get frustrated when you run into the other side of this issue, which is that people who don’t know these things usually don’t know that they need to know, so they frequently either don’t listen or do the right things half-assed because they’re not sure why they should be doing them. I had several mentors in college try pointing me in the right direction, but almost all of it was for naught because it just didn’t make sense that I should, for example, take the required biology classes before taking biochemistry instead of weaseling my way out of them.

      Now, as a math/science tutor for elementary school through college students, I’m frequently faced with students who are making the same idiotic choices I did, and who just won’t listen when I tell them they’re screwing up. Not even horrific anecdotes of how everything went terribly, terribly wrong seem to sway them.

      Not to dissuade you from trying. ^^ Some do listen. Just don’t get frustrated when most don’t.

      1. Allan says:

        Dunning-Kruger effect for the win (or lose?).

    2. Tizzy says:

      Yes, mentoring is insanely useful. And it’s not even hard to do. Sometimes, the most important art of mentoring seems to be telling people that they need to look ahead and research their options.

    3. Abnaxis says:

      I’ve always wondered about this as well. I am a first-generation college graduate. I am very unsatisfied with the experience of figuring out how college works by myself. It was horrible, and unbelievably expensive.

      I think the lack of experience in navigating collegiate level academia is a major factor in the rich poor gap–when you’re a teen, and don’t have anyone close to you to draw knowledge from (counselors are all well an good, but I never met one I trusted farther than I could throw them), higher education becomes exponentially harder to achieve.

  11. Ruthie says:

    I wrote a great paper in college for my class on Holocaust history using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to support my theory. Taking away the most basic needs of those imprisoned in concentration camps dehumanized them, and made it easier for those who worked their to do their “job”. It was arguably the most cruel torture.

    1. Allan says:

      Sounds like an interesting notion, but the medical experimentation probably edges it out.

      So, was the idea that it dehumaised the prisoners, thus enabling the guards to view them as non-human, thus allowing them to do whatever they wanted, a la Zimbardo 1971? Or did the deprivation of needs in itself constitute a torture?

  12. SolkaTruesilver says:

    I know I am criticising somebody else’s major life choices after the facts, etc.. etc… But, Shamus, it never occured to you to actually… ye know, search for actually advanced programming classes? Ask professional programmers where you should take classes that would fit your lever of programming?

    We had this thing in my own high school where you were encouraged (and helped) to go meet people who were doing the job you wanted to do. They could point out to the things you would need, and what to expect.

    You never wrote anyone, asked counsel outside of the incompetent school system?

    1. MadTinkerer says:

      What professional programmers? I was lucky enough to be born the son of a Senior Systems Architect, but other than my father, and a couple of his friends, I never met any professional programmers until my twenties. And those folks I met because of my Comp Sci courses.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if Shamus was in the same situation. but it is a little surprising to me that he just hadn’t thought ahead at all in terms of what he wanted to study and where he wanted to study it.

      EDIT: In fact… Yeah, I actually went to Electronic Arts for Work Experience* for a week and was put in the testing department away from the programmers. Which was fun, and I did learn some valuable things about QA, but no programming. So yeah, it wasn’t until 2009 that I actually met anyone in person who was a programmer in the game industry.

      *To define things for my fellow Yanks, Work Experience is a thing in Britain where you go off for two weeks during the equivalent of High School Sophomore year. When my homeroom found out what I was getting to do for WX, someone literally yelled out “You fucker!” at me. It was hilarious at the time.

      1. Klay F. says:

        What about pretty much any of his old VO-TECH teachers?

        Hypothetical Shamus: “Yo teach, I really like this programming thing, you dig? How do I do that for a living?” (I assume this was how people talked back then.)

        Virtually anything is better than going into a post-high school education blind(indeed it is worse than no education at all). Its a terrific way of wasting tens of thousands of dollars.

    2. Patrick the Apocalyptic Copy Editor says:

      This was 1991. Experienced programmers didn’t have Fb pages because there want an internet yet. It’s not like you could pic up a phone book and go to the “programers” section. That’s like tryiong to find an astronaut to ask about how one might get to fly the space shuttle.

      The truth is, ICM and its many clones were actually the best options at the time. Well, except for schools like Carnegie Mellon, MIT and Stanford. But those were probably a bit more expensive, and they have their own laundry list of classes you need to take to graduate, and they have absolutely zero to do with computers.

      I dont know how old you are, and maybe where your from was different, but going to a high school guidance counselor asking for advice to be a programmer would have gotten you as far as asking him where to go to learn how to genetically produce flying monkeys. In the early nineties, computers were rare and more associated with black magic than a science discipline.

      Especially around here, where we have a very large union element. There was still a very large resentment paid towards computers, and their makers, for the employment contraction in the 80’s. Teachers certainly didn’t like them ( well some anyways, I see you Larry). It was like teaching a kid how to use your replacement.

      1. Abnaxis says:

        MIT tends to frown if you fail any classes.

        I got turned down from their program for a D in Spanish. Not that I expected to get in, but for programming it seemed a bit silly…

      2. Tobias says:

        Well, for normal people, there would be the possibility to go into hardware and study EE instead of CS.
        But it looks like past-Shamus, like many CS kids, never made the connection that computers run on electricity instead of magic.

        1. krellen says:

          Computers do run on magic. I regularly use magic to fix computer errors at work.

  13. MadTinkerer says:

    “Are all schools like this, or did I pick a bad one?”

    That, and probably the fact that at the time the curriculum hadn’t caught up to what was actually relevant in the computing world. Kind of like the current sorry state of most Game Design programs right now.

    In fact, was this pre-1998? I’ve lost track. I never got much formal history-of-programming learning, but I think it was a pretty big deal when the C++ Standard Template Libraries were standardized and made C and C++ easier to learn and use. I’m pretty sure it was this event that made the majority of CS teachers realize “Hey, C and C++ pretty much are the most useful thing we could teach!”.

    And then Java and Python came along, confusing everything. (They have their uses, but they really shouldn’t be taught at the expense of C++ in a CS course. C++ is pretty much the standard for 90% of everything now.)

    1. noahpocalypse says:

      He clarifies that it is 1991 in this post.

      He should be finished with the degree approximately halfway through 1992.

    2. Klay F. says:

      Thus you have hit on one of the essential reasons why going to school to learn how to program will never EVER amount to much of anything and is a waste of time and money.

      By the time a curriculum gets approved its already out of date.

      1. Sander says:

        Actually, if you go to a good university you will be taught not how to use a specific language, but how programming logic works and how to think your way through a problem. The actual coding is secondary, and the language used irrelevant.

        At least, that’s how it’s done in the Netherlands. Learning a specific language is considered elementary and not really worth the time of teachers: students can do that stuff on their own.

        That stuff right there is useful. But it can also be boring and because of the lack of hands-on computer programming turns off a lot of people. Which is kind of the point.

  14. Mari says:

    On the bright side, everything you ever REALLY needed to know you learned from Maslow’s hierachy of needs. The rest is just gravy. In fact, that fabulous pyramid could have answered your questions about what to do in college, had you just consulted it in the proper frame of mind. I find surprisingly few personal dilemmas that can’t be solved by Maslow.

    1. Allan says:

      Speaking as someone who studies psychology (studied? I graduate in like a week), no. Not at all, even a little. Ok, maybe a little: it depends on what level you’re working at. Obviously, I can’t comment on your personal experience, but more generally the more viewpoints and theories you understand, the more well-rounded of a perspective you can take. Behaviourism and some of the cognitive models, for example, tend to be exceptionally helpful when analysing the reasons for someones behaviour. Even one or two of Freuds ideas (particularly defense mechanisms) can be helpful conceptually, even if most of his ideas were nuts.

      Saying ‘Maslows hierarchy of needs is all you need’ is somewhat similar to saying ‘all you need to survive is apples’. Yes, technically it’ll work, but using other sources as well will lead to much greater results.

  15. ccesarano says:

    In 1991 I was six years old and just beginning my horrifying journey through the Public Education system, where I spent my free time drawing and just not paying attention to whatever was going on in class.

    Nice to see history has its own way of repeating itself.

    1. Audacity says:

      I keep reading Shamus’ Blography trying to relate it to where I was at this point in time. I think I had just graduated… from diapers to pull-ups.

      It’s kind of amazing what a broad age range Shamus reaches.

      1. Aufero says:

        The broad reader age range hit me in this story as well. I was 30 in 1991, and had just quit programming in RPGIII for good. I still have the occasional nightmare in which my desktop has become an IBM system 38 workstation.

  16. Perhaps you could create an RPG where you main weapon is an RPG and you goal is to go around destroying all knowledge of RPG. Oh yes… I just went there.

    I took a couple business-like courses in college. Specifically the lowest level Econ and Management courses. Econ was okay, but the other one felt like a big waste of time so I never even considered taking more. I don’t think I could have survived in a pure business school.

    1. lazlo says:

      A rocket propelled role playing report program grenade generator game, the RPRPRPGGG.

  17. Hitch says:

    Not all of us are going to be writing report generators for accounting, and very few of us will ever need anywhere near this much depth of accounting knowledge.

    Probably true, but given the nature of the school, that was probably the upper limit of aspiration for their graduates.

    1. Tizzy says:

      I agree, it sounds like 19-year old Shamus is being a little harsh on the school when what we have is a mismatch which cannot really be blamed on them.

      1. SolkaTruesilver says:

        Shamus, being harsh on an organisation because he picked the easiest available course that was offered and thus ended up feeling sorrounded by incompetent idiots?


  18. Lee says:

    I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to know that until a few years ago, I worked for a several-billion-a-year company whose main production software is written in RPG. In fact, me of a year or two ago would have been thrilled to take a course in RPG, to better understand the environment I used to work in.

    Although, I believe that RPG has evolved some, as well. While there were still plenty of old fixed width formatting programs in use, new code was generally written in RPG IV, which was free form.

  19. Zagzag says:

    We’re finally getting somewhere close to the point at which I was born. This series has been a huge insight to me, as a Brit, from a different generation to Shamus. My dad, who is a bit older than Shamus, had the good fortune of getting into a good British university and studying computer science. His experiences were (luckily in most cases) nothing like what I’ve been reading about here.

  20. Meredith says:

    This reminds me painfully of my experience in an MA program. I didn’t know what to do with myself after college, so hastily applied to a few masters programs and ended up in one that was far too generalized for my interests or needs. It was basically a repeat of my college courses. I was afraid I’d regret dropping out, so I finished and saddled myself with massive debt. I should have quit halfway through.

  21. Klay F. says:

    If only learning how to create efficient, accessible, logical software was actually something a CS degree actually helped you do, alas.

    1. Deoxy says:

      Mine did.

      Seriously, I have a BS in CS, and it was only 15 hours short of a math major (I considered doing that), and many of the required math classes were CS-specific – algorithms, linear algebra (not specific, but most of the students were CS nerds), etc. I really enjoyed them, and they were very useful for writing efficient code.

      In the senior year, we also had some less concrete types of classes where they covered useful bits like why and how to comment code, why and how to break code up into individual pieces, etc, etc (one was called “Senior Seminar”, and it was basically just this kind of stuff – used “The Mythical Man Month” and “The Design of Everyday Things” as textbooks – I still highly recommend both!).

      So yes, good programming degrees do exist (and I started college in 1995, so just a little after you), but they aren’t common. Our undergrads went to a programming competition, beat the absolute crap out of every other undergrad program there, and took 3rd among the GRAD programs.

      1. I read (most of) The Design of Everyday Things in one of my CS courses in my senior year (1.5 years ago). Probably one of the better books I read in all of college, not just for CS stuff.

      2. Tizzy says:

        I’m glad at least one person has a positive experience to share today! :)
        CS is not my specialty, but it seems clear to me that there are some good (and even some excellent) programs out there (as well as some wicker ones). Is it indiscreet to ask where yours was?

        And the good ones do not shy from the theory, even if theory for theory’s sake should be avoided. As some stories show here, some computing languages are here to stay, warts and all, others make a brief flash in the pan, even though they were promising, but a solid grounding in the basic principles ought to see you through the fads and keep you relevant.

      3. Klay F. says:

        I imagine you are among the lucky ones. While my obvious problem was that I never actually attempted to major in CS, I’m glad I didn’t because I found out a couple of years later when my interest in programming was waxing full that I completely and utterly lacked the special programming spark that Shamus mentioned.

  22. MOM says:

    I hate this autobography. I sure wish all that “Shamus is a certified time traveler” were true.

    1. Patrick the Apocalyptic Copy Editor says:

      Would you prefer more stories of how we used to break shit, too?

  23. Susie Day says:

    This story is EXACTLY why I never went to school for computers. Anything relevant takes a couple years to make it into the school system, and by then … it’s out dated.

    1. Unbeliever says:

      I dunno.

      One of the required classes for my BS in Computer Science was “Database programming”, or something like that.

      I took the course in 1991. At the time, it was the least interesting and most confusing of my programming classes. We had to “CREATE” these “tables”, with “keys” that referred to one another, “INSERT” data into them, and “SELECT” it back out. Really very obscure.

      Upon graduating, the first programming job I could find was working for my alma mater… as a database programmer. Eighteen years later, I’m working for another university altogether… as a database programmer.

      And we’re still using SQL…

      1. Raka says:

        Most confusing? SQL is deliberately designed to be almost embarrassingly close to English. SELECT this FROM that WHERE a = b. Sure, crafting declarative statements when you’re accustomed to procedural programming is a jarring shift. But if you’ve ever seen a spreadsheet, and/or worked with multi-dimensional array data (depending on which end of the programming world you approach databases from), it seems like the underlying structures should be intuitive.

        Then again, I’ve been a database programmer for more than a decade now, so of course it seems intuitive to me now. Hard to remember what it was like when I was first trying to pick it up.

    2. silentStatic says:

      This is not really my experience.

      Yes individual technologies may take many years to enter academia, but the thing is, a good CS education should not be narrowly focused on a single set of technologies.

      Instead it should teach you about the general paradigms – say Object Oriented programming, the functional vs. imperative divide, databases, general, algorithms etc.

      Once the foundation has been put down, you should be able to slide into the basics of most languages and technologies in a short amount of time.

      Yes, a CS education should teach some useful technologies, but more importantly it should give you a frame of mind and the tools to learn new technologies yourself.

      That is my perspective anyway.

  24. Adam says:

    Wow… I just realized this was taking place the year I was born. I suddenly don’t feel quite so old. (Laugh all you want, but premature male pattern baldness will do that to you.)

  25. SteveDJ says:

    Awe… no pictures this time… :-(

  26. rrgg says:

    Ok, you’re just getting past the point where I am in my life and I’m terrified now.

  27. Peter H. Coffin says:

    Four years after 1991, I would be getting my first REAL programming job, which would lead directly to me learning to program in RPG-IV about three years after that. I still think in input and output specs sometimes. BTW, the wikipedia article about it is pretty good.

  28. Daktylo says:

    Is it sad that I’m waiting for the “How I met the wife” story? My wife continues to give me grief every time she tells it to my friends….sigh…

  29. Chris says:

    You know I thought you were my hero with this awesome lifestyle and now you turn 40 and I discover your entire educational experience was a series of bad juju and a fraction of a small animal will kill you and your brother likes to donkey punch people in the mall.

  30. Methermeneus says:

    I’m impressed at the sheer number of people here who were dissatisfied with their college choices. I will point out that it helps a bit to go to a larger college with more choices. My own experience is a decent example:

    I went to a major state university, which enabled me to switch from History to Religion to Classics, and at one time had a Linguistics double major, which I only dropped to a minor because the program became more rigid and started dumping me into neuropsychology classes (not that they weren’t interesting, but that wasn’t what I got into Linguistics for); and, had I gained the knowledge and interest in computer science that I started picking up in my senior year any earlier, I could probably have swung the transfer and financial aid for a Computer Science or Electrical Engineering degree… possibly while maintaining a double major with Classics and my Linguistics minor.

    Unfortunately, since I didn’t get into computer science all that strongly until my senior year, it would have been very difficult to swing that, and instead I’m stuck with so many of the rest of you, trying to teach myself. Ah well, we’ll see if what I do have can get me a job soon, where hopefully practical application may help me learn faster.

  31. OK, I feel a need to defend, at least a little bit, the college experience for programmers. This is a very long comment and is not going to be interesting unless you want to program and you are planning to go to college or you are in college now. (Maybe even then it is not interesting.)

    A little about my background: First, I’m a little older than Shamus. There weren’t any computer classes in my high school. There wasn’t such a thing as an IBM PC until I was partway through college. But…

    My first exposure to programming was summer school at the local State University. I got a summer of APL using those weird golf-ball typewriters. On my first programming assignment, I got a bad grade on a working program because I had named my variables A, B, C, D, and E. My instructor reamed me out, and afterward I never forgot that programs are for people to read first and for computers to run second. An invaluable lesson, and even had it been the only thing I learned in an 8-week summer session, it would have been enough.

    My second exposure was the same university, following summer. We were taught PL/I. The nicest thing I can say about PL/I is that it was the C++ of its day. PL/I and Pascal would go on to serve me well for eight years. It was in PL/I that I wrote my first nontrivial program, which read statistics printed in the newspaper and predicted the outcome of football games. The program lived on punched cards and generally I had to wait a couple of hours for each run. I am really, really sad that my mother threw out the box containing my first “real” program.

    Fast-forward to college. I am lucky to get good advice, namely “don’t take the courses whose subjects sound the most interesting; take the courses with the best teachers.” I wind up getting my degree in physics, but I cherry-pick the best teachers from math and from computer science. Here’s what I remember.

    Intro class gives me a chance to write a bunch of programs in Pascal and assembly language. Including a calculator where we write recursion in assembly language. This is where I learn how machines actually work, and to get comfortable with assembly code. (Ten years later I will start writing programs that write assembly code. My work on these programs will eventually lead to some excellent job opportunities, including the job I hold today. These programs are, of course, compilers.)

    Operating-system class gives me and a partner the chance to build a simple but complete operating system from the ground up. I learn a ton about how to design bigger programs and make them actually work.

    Finally, and most important, I get access, within walking distance, to the university library. Most memorably, I stumble acrosss Myers’s Composite/Structured Design. I am so excited that I make a careful typewritten synopsis of the ideas in the entire book. No money for photocopying, so I make carbons for my partner in OS class. (Can’t blame my mother for losing that one.)

    So, it wasn’t a CS program, and I didn’t take a lot of CS courses, but it was pre-Internet, PCs were for rich kids, and I don’t think I could have gotten started any other way. Plus, I was lucky that I test well, could get into a good school, and that the government was willing to support my education with subsidized loans and with outright gifts—otherwise I would never have been able to afford it.

    Today, 30 years later, things have changed. Most of the top universities do a pretty good job teaching programming. In the other universities, I’m not so sure. The same problems that Shamus has identified in his high-school experience apply to universities, even top ones. To create a class where students actually learn to program, you need an instructor who is a programmer himself (or herself). Even more strongly, you need an instructor who absolutely loves programming and software—the way Shamus does. And that person has to have some teaching skills. And that person has to be willing to work long hours for low pay.

    (Here’s a story about how professors are paid: I have friends who teach at one of the best state universities in the US. They have worked very hard to create a great intro programming course and to follow it up with challenging, stimulating courses later on in the program. Top students who graduate from that program go to places like Google and Microsoft and will immediately start making on the order of six figures. People who want to teach in that program will need to spend 6 more years in graduate school earning $25-30K per year, and if they are both lucky and good, they will be able to get a full-time teaching job afterward. For which they will be paid probably 20% less than the Google and Microsoft people. It is really hard to recruit good teachers into university CS programs.)

    If it’s a lottery whether the teaching is any good, what should you do if you want to program? What if you are not Shamus Young? (I have known plenty of people that are probably as smart as Shamus Young. I have known very few people who are as self-motivated and as capable of working independently as Shamus Young. At age 50, I have learned how to work independently. At age 20, there was no way my 20-year-old self could have done what Shamus did.) If you are not like Shamus, college can help you in two ways: 1. A good program will push you to achieve more than you thought possible. 2. A good program will introduce you to ideas and techniques that might take you years to discover on your own by reading blogs or trawling the Internet.

    If you can get in to a good college, it helps tremendously. The US is unique in the world in its largely “private” system of higher education. But quality is all over the map. The best colleges are ten times as good as the second-best colleges. The second-best colleges, in turn, are probably ten times as good as the third best. Go to the best college you can afford, even if you have to borrow heavily.

    If you are lucky enough to live in a state that still supports quality state universities, these are less of a crapshoot, and sometimes much less expensive. You can get excellent programming at flagship state universities in California, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Utah, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin, among others. (I am sure I am leaving out some very good ones; I’m not trying to be exhaustive.)

    Once you’re at college, you have to find out whether the Computer Science major is any good for programmers. (You can have a perfectly good CS department full of applied mathematicians and it won’t help you do what you want.) A key indicator is to find out which professors actually build software as part of their research, and whether those professors are any good as teachers. Another good indicator is to find out how many professors are just great teachers, period. A final, crucial indicator is to learn whether anybody will read your code. If those indicators are good, go ahead and major in CS. (Computer Science requires some math, but it is still better for you to get mediocre grades in a CS program than to wind up in IT or MIS or Software Engineering where you won’t get pushed as hard.)

    If the indicators are not good, try a different strategy: major in some other discipline with some technical content—math, physics, chemistry, biology, even economics—and take only the best CS courses, as electives.

    If you can’t afford college or can’t get into a good college, there’s another play, and although it’s difficult, it costs you absolutely nothing: go online to the world’s great universities, and do the same homework assignments that their students do. For this play to work, you have to be almost as smart as Shamus, because there will be no peers with whom you can discuss and work out programming problems, no professor to explain key ideas that let you move forward, and most importantly, no person to read your code and let you know what you need to do to improve. But it is still better than learning from random Internet sites.

    1. Zak McKracken says:

      This sounds very good and right, except for:
      “Go to the best college you can afford, even if you have to borrow heavily.”
      I just read an article that made a plausible case that higher education in the US is the next speculation bubble that is going to burst. As tuition fees are increasing, the job opportunities don’t increase at the same rate, so there’s an increasing amount of places to study where your chances of never making enough money to pay back what you borrowed for studying are a lot lower than many think, and in some classes (don’t know about CS in particular) chances are you’re still paying back when your children are old enough to go studying themselves. Unless, of course, you’re going to one of the top-level schools, because those are still giving their students a really good chance of getting a job that will justify the “investment”.

      I don’t think this is healthy.

      1. I’ve heard the talk of a “higher-ed bubble.” It’s of course hard to identify a bubble except in retrospect, but the kind of talk is very popular now. I stand by my two statements that the best universities are 10x better than the second best, and also that the best value is probably to be had from what remains of the great state university systems.

        I will add a point which I think is connected to this idea of a bubble: at the high end of US higher education—the elite universities—the “value proposition” seems to be located at the margins. The weakest students, simply by virtue of getting through an elite program, get opportunities that they would not get had they not been blessed by an elite school. The strongest students get opportunities that (unfairly) tend to be available only to those from an elite school. These two extreme populations are getting a high payoff from their investment. I suspect that for the vast middle population, the relative payoff is much smaller.

        Also, I think it’s a mistake to view the value of a college/university education in purely financial terms. If you extend yourself to go to a great school, a lot of what you are buying is not your future income stream—what you are buying is choices: the choice to start your own business, the choice to undertake doctoral study, the choice to start your career in a job with some autonomy.

        Here’s an example of a couple of people I know in their early 20s. Graduate A went to an elite school, did very well, and immediately got a job doing pretty much whatever he wants around analysis of large data sets. He works with interesting people and has a lot of say in his work direction and working conditions. Graduate B also went to an elite school but struggled. B also got a job immediately on graduating, but the work is not very interseting and Graduate B has very few choices about his work direction—he essentially does what he’s told. The thing is, they get paid about the same. But I believe that for Graduate A, the trouble and expense were totally worth it. For Graduate B, maybe not so much.

        In short, I give young people the same advice about colleges that my father gave me about shop tools: don’t buy something you can’t afford, but do buy the very best tools that you can afford.

  32. ENC says:

    So public transport was costing you more than $20 Shamus? Ouch. I go to uni now for $2.2k a semester (about average, bachelor of commerce can hit around $5k), paying $17 for petrol, parking, and public transport every day of the week for a 2 hour trip there then another back. Not to mention the government gives me $1k every semester for textbooks etc, and $90 fortnightly for travel (although some others get a LOT more, it’s just I did some work to pay for a $5k instrument I needed for Uni as I was using a 6 year old student model and that’s about it).

    I keep forgetting that the US has holidays midyear as well, d’oh.

    1. Shamus says:

      I forget exactly how the numbers worked, but transport was something like $12 a day. But my paycheck also needed to cover food and gas. Minimum wage was $4.25 in those days, and of course social security and all of that other stuff takes a pretty big bite (percentage-wise) at that level. So my daily expenses were very close to what I was making. I had a bit of money left over at the end of the week, but not enough that I could afford to really cut back on my hours at work and expect to make it. I do remember at one point I managed to save up $40 and buy King’s Quest IV, which seemed like a huge purchase at the time.

      1. Squash says:

        …which you then played in all your spare time of course.

  33. Kavonde says:

    I’ve never seen Mark Twain’s quote, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education,” apply so well to a situation.

  34. Rowan says:

    Shamus, I hope you are reading comments this far down.

    Because a few years back I was attending a confirmation party for my wifes cousin. Formal occasion, suits & ties, hot summer day, too many people packed into too small apartment, I didn’t know anyone except my wifes family. And then I got into small-talk with this maybe 45-year old man, who was maybe married to one of my wifes aunts. He was also in the IT-business and he asked what languages we were using in our company. I told Java among others and he said they were also getting these young guys who did Java and the rest of the people were also getting Java training but he wasn’t sure if it was really so much better that he should be learning it too.

    Can you guess what he had been programming in for his whole career?

    I didn’t think too much about it at the time since I didn’t know the specifics, I thought maybe it was like Perl but even more tailored to report-generation.

    Now I’m feeling bad I didn’t encourage him to start learning Java.

    1. Shamus says:

      Oh that poor, poor man.

      1. Rowan says:

        He seemed content enough.

  35. Another_Scott says:

    At this point I’m going to guess your children are homeschooled, right? What a broken system start to finish. :(

  36. Al says:

    I read a few comments where people asked, “what is a good way to become a programmer?” I’ve seen some good responses, but they seem to focus on the person who is sufficiently motivated that they can force themselves to complete all the courses that universities require but that are not directly related to programming (Language, Arts, History, etc). I was not one of those people.
    Once I figured out that I might make a good programmer, I actually stumbled into a system that worked for me. I enrolled in the local community college in a two year Associate Degree in Computer Science. After the first year, I enrolled into the cooperative education program (see 5 below) that enabled me to actually gain real work experience in computer programming. After I graduated from the community college I transferred to the university where I completed my Bachelor of Science in Computer Science.

    There were many benefits to attending a community college.
    1. Cost. In the US in the state of Virginia, community colleges are about 1/3 the price of universities.
    2. Transferability of credits. In the state of Virginia, most community colleges have agreements with the state universities that guarantees that any credits acquired at a community college will transfer directly to the state universities provided that the student graduates with an Associate Degree (2 year program).
    3. Teachers. Most of the teachers are not full time academics. Not to disparage full time academics, but they have a tendency to require more of the pointless repetitive work that Shamus and most of his readers hate.
    4. Courses. In the US, universities require a certain number of courses in the humanities so that graduates are “well rounded” individuals. Most of those courses are taken within the first two years. Taking those courses at a community college means that you have the benefits mentioned above for those classes that you find least motivating.
    5. Co-op program. My community college had an agreement with many of the local businesses. Local businesses that were interested in hiring students could register with the college. Interested students could look through the list of jobs and apply after the first semester. If the employer was interested, the student would be hired. Students received practical experience in a real world setting and discovered how some of those seemingly obscure courses could actually be useful in the real world. In my case, I also learned more about programming on the job than at the university and had access to some really impressive hardware. I was also able to make a deal with the employer so that I was able to work there all year and thus avoided the pain associated with working fast food to pay for school. I managed to keep that job until after I graduated from the university and was offered a permanent position based on my performance. I was also offered another position based on the recommendation of another student who was part of the same program.

    1. Yes, a decent community college can offer excellent value for money, as can the transfer gambit. I wish I had thought to mention this.

  37. Shamus, some browser shenanigans (mishit Back key?) led to my posting this comment at top level when it was meant as a reply. I can’t figure out how to delete a comment. Would you kindly delete it for me?

  38. Ian says:

    The traveling nightmare that you described with regards to ICM sort of reminds me of when I was “shopping around” for a college in early 2002. I was a junior in high school at the time and split my day between going to high school and going to a vocational school (I was in one of those fancy “Tech Prep” programs, this particular one sponsored by Youngstown State University). I don’t remember exactly when this happened, but I believe it was a Saturday. My parents, as well as my best friend, piled into the car and we took a road trip to Columbus, Ohio, to look into DeVry University.

    Just like you said about ICM, the campus looked very impressive. The campus itself was well-kept. The class sizes were small, and each classroom had an AC power jack and Ethernet port at each seat to facilitate laptops.

    After that demonstration, I found out that they did offer housing and partnered with several companies to offer decent-paying part-time work to students while they went to school. I figured that it would be a good thing, overall. However, that was before I did some more investigation.

    I found out that the “housing” that was offered was between eight and sixteen miles from the campus. There was no transportation offered, meaning a fun-filled thirty-minute drive through Columbus traffic. You shared a closet-sized apartment with three other people — not necessarily of your choosing.

    I tend to be paranoid over my things and greatly value my privacy, plus I had an older car (a 1982 Oldsmobile Toronado) and was already feeling the sting of post-9/11 gas prices, so I wanted something that wouldn’t require a bunch of driving.

    Another thing that made me weary was the way that the representative of the college was acting. It might be because DeVry is a private, for-profit college, but he called me more than an obsessed lover. When I finally told him that I chose not to go to DeVry — at least not right away — for a number of reasons, he went ballistic. He actually started yelling at me and insulting me over the phone. He then called back later and started ranting about me to my mother. Not the best way to win friends.

    It’s a good thing, too. I found out that their curriculum was somewhat like what you described — outdated. I spoke with several students who went to, and eventually dropped out, of that college due to incompetent professors, poor courses, and all of the traveling and residency nightmares that I envisioned.

    Of course, I made my own share of mistakes when it came to my own schooling (including going to school, as it turns out), but that’s a story for another day.

  39. Al Shiney says:

    Thank you for hating RPG with the same white hot passion I had under much the same circumstances. I also went to a 2 year business college for programming and came out with an Associate’s degree. RPG was the only programming course in which I didn’t get an A. I happily remember the professor getting all pissed off when we called it a glorified utility program and questioned the need for its continued existence. Thankfully, I never had to experience it again in my career … which proves Shamus’ Theorem of the uselessness of a large percentage of conventional education.

  40. Leah says:

    I think you should keep on going to work and practice cooking at home until you are really good at it. Then your family could taste test the food and you could get really good at cooking.

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