Why You Don’t Need an Advanced Mathematics Degree to Be a Programmer
A computer science professor explains the evolution of coding careers
Most of the people I know are software engineers or computer scientists of one form or another. Most of them are very experienced and come from a time when to be either of those things required a very serious computer science education. This is still the case for being a computer scientist, but seemingly not so for being a programmer. Many of my well seasoned colleagues lament the decline in skill and education of their younger peers. I’ve also seen this shift in the skill set and education of entry-level programming candidates both on the job and in the classroom. It seems as if software engineering as a discipline and profession has given way to “hacking” and “cowboy” developers who know very little actual computer science. Has something changed? If so, what?
Comp Sci History 101
If you go back to the beginnings of computer science, it was not called computer science and there were no computer science departments in any school. Computer science as a discipline was a subset of mathematics or engineering. The first computer science department was established in 1962 at Purdue University, and it was another 15 years before there was even a small handful of university computer science departments at other schools. Well into the 1980s, computer science was still mostly considered a subfield of mathematics or general engineering. However, we had computer programmers as early as the 1940s. Who were these early pioneers and what did they do?
The first programmers weren’t usually called programmers. They were analysts, engineers, mathematicians, or just generally “those really smart women over there in the refrigerator.” (Most of the first programmers were women and most computers were in “cold rooms.”) These “programmers” had to have extensive formal education and knowledge in mathematics and/or engineering. Most were more closely related to scientists than what we think of as programmers today. Over time, and by the late 1960s, the field grew and the people involved in programming computers became known as software engineers. These were very highly educated people (still mostly women), usually with advanced…