This might seem slightly tangent, but I think it is especially relevant to the game development community because it embodies the way we learn and how we hire people.  Most of all, I think this speaks strongly to the indie and startup gaming scenes, where the entrepreneurial spirit is strong.

For those of you who follow TechCrunch, you probably noticed this recent article:

http://techcrunch.com/2011/04/10/peter-thiel-were-in-a-bubble-and-its-not-the-internet-its-higher-education/

Which was not long after followed by a response from Vivek Wadhwa:

http://techcrunch.com/2011/04/12/friends-don%E2%80%99t-let-friends-take-education-advice-from-peter-thiel/

In shorter words, Peter Thiel (one of the first VCs involved with Facebook) argues that getting a degree from college is over-valued, while Vivek Wadhwa (a reputable entrepreneur and academic) claims more or less the opposite.

Everyone has a very heated on opinion on this topic, but I will try to remain as objective as possible, even though subjectively I side more with Thiel.  Personally, I have nothing against professors, schools, or college students (I was one, after all).  Everyone has the right to place their own value on a degree, and if it was worth it for you, more power to you.  I am not rallying to burn down universities, I welcome whatever benefits they can bring; I am only arguing that a degree may not be the best path to success for many people.

Based on the college you attend, the amount of money you borrow to pay for it, and the yearly rise in fees (historically 5-8 percent), you can ultimately pay anywhere from $80,000-$220,000 for a 4-year degree (keep in mind, many engineers take 5 years for a B.S.).  Add $25,000 for a masters and $50,000 for a doctorate (or more – these are the approximate medians).  For a premium education, it is not unheard of to spend upwards of $300,000.  This is not even accounting for the cost of housing. Many graduates have difficulty finding jobs after finishing school.  Many also claim that school never really did an adequate job of preparing them for the “real” world.

I think that the school system may have once been unquestionably justified.  But now we live in an age of democratized information, where pretty much anything can be learned online.  I think that this is especially relevant to software engineers. True, there are some degrees that will require special certification and some degrees that require more “hands-on” work, particularly degrees in the medical and chemistry fields.  For the sake of narrowing this discussion down, let’s look exclusively at the case of software engineers.

 

 

Can someone please answer this question for me:

As a prospective software engineer, what can a college education do for me that is worth $80,000-$300,000?

Let’s play devil’s advocate. [Please give me more arguments in the comments section, and I will do my best to address them here.]

 

You say: “College gives a structured way of learning materials and ensures that you learn the right things.”

I say: “So, I am paying $80k+ for a syllabus?  Couldn’t someone just post a list of books I should read and problems I should solve online?”

You say: “Not everyone is an autodidact.  Some people need motivation or a push to learn.”

I say: “So I am paying $80k+ to have teachers force me to do work? Shouldn’t I be interested enough in the degree I am pursuing to learn it on my own? Also, is it worth modifying my schedule to accommodate a professor’s? And [as Richard Fine pointed out] if you are not at least somewhat of an autodidact, how can you survive in an industry that often requires you to be independent and solve problems on your own?”

You say: “College allows you to interact with your peers and professors and get special mentoring.”

I say: “So I am paying $80k+ to talk to people? I can do that for free.  If I have a problem, I ask Google, StackOverflow, or Quora.  If I want to discuss something, I go on IRC.  And mentorship is over-rated: with a 30+:1 student/teacher ratio, you really do not get much attention.”

You say: “College is a special experience that cannot be replicated.  Nowhere else can one immerse themselves in academia.”

I say: “Going to Cancun is a special experience that cannot be replicated.  Nowhere else can one immerse themselves in of all the intangible aspects that are the experience of Cancun.  In other words, is it really worth $80k+ to rub shoulders with academics?”

You say: “Just try and get a good job without a degree.  Good luck.”

I say: “Just try and get a good job with a degree.  Good luck.  See how well your degree distinguishes you when you have to get in line with 10,000 graduates from Ivy League schools.  The best job is the one you create yourself, and you don’t need a degree for that.  Ask Zuckerberg and Gates about that one.”

You say: “We can’t all be Zuckerberg or Gates.  We are more likely to fail than succeed if we build a startup.”

I say: “That is true.  And that failure will be gold in the eyes of any employer.  Experience is experience, good or bad you learn from it.  Employers hire based on experience and reputation.  Degrees are just a threshold for lazy employers.”

[Added via JohnS] “Higher education is free in many countries (particularly throughout Europe).  So how can it not be worth it?”

I say: “It is not really free in these cases, but comes from tax payer dollars.  So, as soon as you are making money, you are paying for it in income taxes, in addition to shouldering the cost of education for those who do not work.”

[Added via various comments] “But higher-education makes you a well-rounded person! And being well-rounded makes the world a better place for everyone!”

I say: “No, you make yourself a well-rounded person.  If you decide to stop learning outside of your field when you leave the university, you are not truly well-rounded.  That said, what is the real, tangible value of being well-rounded?  If you learn information that you never once use, what is the point?  Is being “well-rounded” worth $80k+?  Giving $80k+ to starving children makes the world a better place, learning Art History does not.”

[Added via various comments] “But college teaches you important theories and fundamentals that you would never learn on your own!”

I say: “So, once again, I am paying $80k+ for a syllabus?  Why can’t I learn the fundamentals on my own?  Do I really need to pay a teacher to ram them down my throat?”

 

Y-Combinator, a startup incubator, once gave people $6,000 per team member for a period of 3 months to build a prototype (they now give $150,000), in return for 2-10 percent of their company.  Say what you will about Y-Combinator and its alumni, but even if your startup fails, having Y-Combinator on your resume is much more impressive than even a Stanford Degree (ask any employer if you don’t believe me).

Now, imagine if you invested $80k-$300k in yourself.  If you live frugally, that can carry you a long, long time, especially if you live with your parents.  Long enough to launch several companies, and learn from your very likely failures.  I can guarantee that this path will be 1000 times more impressive to prospective employers than a degree will.  That, and you might not even need a job if your company ends up successful.

A degree is an expensive piece of paper.  An education is something that can be attained with or without a degree.  Can we agree on that?  So what is a degree really worth?  In my personal experience, almost nothing.  Here is why:

I went through college almost without attending a single lecture (aside from the lectures where my attendance was required, and in those lectures I took out my laptop when possible and tuned out the TA or professor).  This was not because I thought I was a hot-shot, it was just that I really hated sitting through lectures and preferred to read through the books at my own pace.  Even with that said, I did not crack most of my books (some still had the plastic wrap on them).  The vast majority of what I learned came from the internet, and most of all from working on hobby projects.  The great thing about working on my own projects was that I learned why things worked because I derived them myself, rather than regurgitating material that professors rammed down my throat. I graduated with a GPA over 3.8, which is relatively high for students in Computer Science, in spite of hating most of my courses.

Upon graduating, I started applying for jobs.  I sent out hundreds of applications and did not get one response.  So I continued working on my hobby project at the time, a 3D engine for a MMOG.  A few months later (mid 2006), I published my first tech demo to Digg, and it was featured on the front page.  Then I was featured on Joystiq, Kotaku, Destructoid, and other gaming blogs.  Up until that point, I had no reputation, but within one week my website had 600,000 hits and my name turned up on webpages from every country in the world.  Employers came to me, including Pixar and Electronic Arts.  Not one of them asked about my degree, or if I even had one.  I was not a Zuckerberg or Gates, and I was not smart or gifted.  I was not even successful.  My project failed, as it turned into vaporware when all my time was sucked up by a “real” job.  But it was, by far, the best use of my time up to this point, and put me where I am today.

There are schools that specifically teach game development, such as Full Sail University but I cannot vouch for how well they prepare their students for the industry because I have no idea.  What I do know is that most standard schools do not prepare their students for a career in the game industry, I think that most people can safely agree with me there.

Why is this notable? I remember when I went to the orientation for engineers at UCSB.  One of the orientation guides asked all of us why we had entered the program.  The overwhelming response was “to learn how to make video games.”  Very few of them, to my current knowledge, ended up doing that…but it gets better.  Most of the students I knew actually ended up working for startups.  Throughout college, we had programmed almost entirely in C/C++ and Java, two languages that are almost never used in the startup environment.  Needless to say, college failed to both teach them what they were passionate about and what they needed to know for their career.

What is my biggest gripe with college?  It teaches you how to follow instructions pretty well, which is a great skill if you want a job.  But what if you want to be an entrepreneur?  Yes, there are plenty of leadership classes and such, but I can tell you this right now just as well as anyone else can: you cannot be taught how to be a leader.  In fact, the very act of being taught means you are following, not leading.  Leaders are born in the fires of real struggle and failure, and nothing else.

 

There is no doubt in my mind that education is very important, but it would seem that college often fails to provide the education that we seek.  So what is the difference between a degree and an education?

A degree gives one a false sense of entitlement and pile of student loans.  Degrees also promote class-warfare, racism*, and academic elitism, as the best degrees (statistically speaking) go to children of wealthy people or the poor saps who are there to fill a diversity quota.

On the other hand, an education is free, and never ends.  Thanks to the internet, everyone has (more or less) equal access to the same education.  Education is blind: it does not care about your class, skin color, credit score, SAT score, or GPA.

[*Say what you will, but in my book reverse-discrimination is racism: it is demeaning to minorities, as if they were not capable of great achievements on their own two legs.  Do minorities generally have it harder? Yes, but reverse-discrimination is an insult to those who have persevered through even harder conditions than our relatively modest modern ones.  If someone gets pushed around in a wheelchair their entire life, their legs will get weak.  Whatever struggle minorities might face only makes them stronger, more capable people.  In short, treating anyone differently based on their race qualifies as racism to me.]

I am almost 30 years old, and I have been programming for almost 18 years – some of those years I spent 100 hours of every week programming.  I know just enough to know that I know very little.

I have felt entitled, as if I knew everything, and I have felt humbled, as if I knew nothing.  For some reason, to me, the latter feels much better.