Computer Science seniors: We’ve taught you to write… um… code.

So you’re Computer Science seniors. Congratulations! We’ve taught you to write…

code.

And you’re darned good at it from what we can tell. Some of you are elegant composers of programmatic poetry, others architects of grand software structure, and others are codeslingers — the last programmer left standing when all the shots have been fired. Truth is, you’re good at what we’ve trained you to do. And the industry will reward you for your aptitude and your perseverance.

To a point….

Until it’s time to write your annual report and convince your managers that you’re all you think you are. Heck, maybe you are. But they won’t know it until you express it… In writing.

Until the time that you see a critical technical need in your organization and set about to write a persuasive memo (in English!) to convince the powers-that-be that the collective captains should change course quickly. “Trust me because I’m smart,” won’t cut it.

Until the time that you find that you don’t work alone anymore, and that others must come to understand what you understand, using your arcane scribblings as their primary source of enlightenment. Or when those naïve newbies find themselves maintaining the software that you wrote, struggling to understand your code because the comments are, shall we say, terse.

At these junctures, I hope you come to understand more deeply that while code controls computer behavior, prose is better suited for persuading people.

And while your computer delivers perfect, blind obedience to your incantations…

People distribute the promotions… and the praise… the respect… and the raise.

8 thoughts on “Computer Science seniors: We’ve taught you to write… um… code.

  1. While not one of my favorite parts of the experience of earning a Master’s Degree, the exercise of expressing your research in writing to an intelligent third party that has not been working on your project for the past year or more was clearly valuable. The exercise of working and then reworking sections of text (after doing the same to lines and lines of code) is a good reminder that your first draft is probably sub-par, if not sub-bogey… so reread that email before you press send.

    And like everything else, the best way to get better at writing is to, well, do it… which is part of the reason that I took up blogging. (Well, that and I wanted a soapbox to share/discuss/rant from… even if that soapbox is in the closet of an abandoned underground bunker :)).

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  3. Let me be clear about something very important… My assertion is *not* that coders need to be businessmen, but rather that to reach their full potential *as coders* (or anything else they want to be successful at) they need to learn to write well. I believe it’s a universal skill, irrespective of how nerdy and narrow one’s chosen career path.

  4. Well, my thought is that it probably depends on what the definition of a “businessman” is. It is important for anybody entering the workforce to be able to clearly articulate their position, in writing and verbally. This includes basic social skills and a little bit of business savvy. I’ve known developers that were smart but either 1) they couldn’t demonstrate it because they were incoherent or 2) they didn’t know how to interact with people so they just ended up making people mad. Neither of these types are people that I would hire or recommend that they be hired as they cannot use their intelligence to lift the rest of the team and can often be destructive to a development team. This is a little off topic from strictly writing skills, but face to face skills are just as important.

  5. Good point, Mike. I agree. Communications skills are essential in the business world, which is where most coders end up. People skills go along with that, too. It’s not our forte, but being able to talk to customers and supervisors and clearly express what has been done or needs to be done is crucial.

  6. In my opinion the best way to make yourself valuable to an employer in the future is to be able to bridge the gap between different fields of work and study. I agree the writing is important, but I feel as though becoming a business man on top of having good coding skills is more important. Their are thousands of business people in the world and thousands of excellent coders in the world, but there are far fewer experts in both areas. If coders understood that most companies in the future will get nowhere without software, they could position themselves to make their abilities essential. In that world, the wealthy would consist of entrepreneurs, real estate moguls, and computer scientists.

  7. I think it’s interesting that the technical writing class, as important as it is, is out-sourced to the English department.

    In an odd quirk, I ended up having three teachers, so at least a decent sample size. One of them had been a technical writer at Novell, and she was pretty good. I got kicked out of her class because I wasn’t a junior yet. The other two basically had no technical writing experience, just general writing experience.

    The fact that the classes were tightly booked and reserved for juniors+ hilights another problem with the setup – the English department doesn’t really care about the quality of the class. I’m not sure what their main goal is (producing authors?) but I’m pretty certain it’s not helping the technical people to succeed in their various careers.

    I imagine there are lots of political and practical reasons why the english department should teach technical writing, but if given the choice, I would have taken an independent study class written by a computer science professor or professional.

    Also, my linear algebra class was useless, although I use the stuff all the time now. But that’s another issue.. 🙂

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