In, Around, and Beyond the CS Degree with Matt Del Signore
The topic of certifications and degrees for work in tech is complex and highly disputed. Here to discuss the issue with us on the podcast today, is Matt Del Signore! Matt is a front-end engineer at Google and is an organizer for Vue NYC Meetups too. To kick things off, we all briefly share our different certifications and educational backgrounds, noting what has been more and less useful thus far. Matt then unpacks how computer science degrees connect with web development currently, before we jump into some thoughts about the most valuable skills that companies seem to be looking for. It seems pretty acceptable that at this point, the tech world values the ability to learn and adapt to a unique set of circumstances and challenges, over everything else. This, however, is a difficult skill to measure in a setting such as an interview! We also consider the possibilities of specific training for new employees according to their exact job, and how this might play out. Matt weighs in on the skills and learning associated with accessibility and also underlines how much he values education in ethics for anyone working with computers. For all this, and of course, this week's picks, join us on the show today!
Key Points From This Episode:
- Matt's current position at Google, his work with Vue, and his educational background.
- A look at the panel's interesting and winding journeys through education in tech.
- The format of computer science degrees aimed at preparation for web development.
- Assessing the common requirements for computer science degrees for front-end work.
- The central value of the ability to learn and the challenges this poses to the interview process.
- Thoughts on new programs that are offered by the likes of Udacity and Google.
- Training entry-level personnel on the job and gatekeeping associated with certifications.
- The question of accessibility on the front-end and possible certifications for this.
- Useful classes that Matt has taken that he would recommend to any front-end developer.
- Why ethics classes are important for anyone working in tech!
- The benefits of troubleshooting audio systems, art classes, and working in retail.
- This week's picks; salt mixes, The Morning Show, Persona 5 Royal, and more!
- “I was lucky enough to go to a high school that had computer science classes. I started off by learning the 1984 version of GW-BASIC.” — Matt Del Signore [0:02:46]
- “I learned a lot of stuff I learned on my own. Went to a lot of hackathons and I would talk to people there and then they would teach me stuff.” — Matt Del Signore [0:03:08]
- “I think with a lot of things, in a lot of industries, we still use degrees and certifications as shorthand for knowledge.” — Matt Del Signore [0:05:43]
Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:
[00:00:10] T: Hey, everybody and welcome to Enjoy the Vue. I’m Tessa, and today on our panel, we have Ari Clark.
[00:00:14] AC: Hello.
[00:00:15] T: Very special guest panelist, Alex Riviere.
[00:00:19] AR: Hello.
[00:00:20] T: And our special guest for this episode is Matt Del Signore. Matt, would you like to introduce yourself?
[00:00:27] MDS: Yes. I am a front-end engineer at Google. I do mainly Angular right now, but I’m also one of the organizers of the Vue NYC Meetup and do Vue for most of my side projects.
[00:00:40] T: Nice. Matt, you’re here to talk to us today about computer science education, so I like to start off by asking everybody like what is your educational background look like or how did you get into tech. Ari, would you like to start?
[00:00:54] AC: Sure. I can start. My educational background, I’m a mechanical engineering dropout. Then many years after dropping out, about a decade, I then went to a 20-week boot camp and that is how I got into the tech space. No CS officially.
[00:01:15] AR: I guess I’ll go next. My background is, I have a high school diploma. I did theater for 15 years and then I got into computers and stuff. That is my story.
[00:01:33] MDS: I was lucky enough to go to a high school that had computer science classes. I started off by learning the 1984 version of GW-BASIC. From there, finished up high school and did AP Computer Science and then went to Stony Brook for a Bachelor’s in Computer Science.
[00:01:52] T: Nice. I think my high school did have did have a computer science program, but a lot of my friends were in it and they’re like, “You should visit” and I went to visit and they just watched the old Tron movie. I didn’t end up taking the class. Beyond that, I feel like my story is pretty similar to Ari’s and we have an episode on it already. But I studied art, I worked a bunch of odd jobs, and then the main difference I guess beyond that I didn’t study engineering in school, saved a couple of classes. My program was 17 weeks instead of 20. I have no idea what a computer science degree would entail are what skills it would equip someone who has to go into a web development role.
Matt, could you talk more about that.
[00:02:37] MDS: Yes. I think it depends a lot on the program. This is where I think accreditation comes into play. There’s an organization called ABET that actually accredits programs. I know that they do computer science programs, I don’t know what else they do. But for example, my program, they didn’t really have specialization in web development. It was more that you took a databases class, and then you took a Java class that ended up using Spring for backend development. Honestly, there were sort of a lack of front-end development instruction. I learned a lot of stuff I learned on my own. Went to a lot of hackathons and I would talk to people there and then they would teach me stuff. Like they would say, “Check out Express and use Node for your servers, and then check out React.”
I remember back when I was starting, it seems it was that long ago, but I learned React on my own. I think there was one class in web development, but it was not aimed at computer science majors necessarily. It was like a 100-level class aimed at people who wanted to learn specifically web development, like web design. But it really just went over like basics of HTML, CSS. As you know, you can’t really learn that stuff in like a three-month semester that deeply. You just kind of learn the basics.
[00:04:27] T: Yeah. We also have a lot of CS grads in the program I went to and work at as well, so I am curious what everybody’s thoughts are about the prevalent requirement on front-end roles for CS degrees.
[00:04:41] AC: I’ll go first. My last position was working with a UI for a data center technology, which meant that a lot of the other engineers on the team were very low-level developers, like colonel developers, driver developers. Of all the jobs, I will probably ever have as a front-end developer, that was maybe the job that computer science would have benefited me the most. To be honest, I found that the things that I needed to learn in that realm were pretty accessible with one major exception.
[00:06:36] T: For the listeners who can’t see, I started swaying back and forth. How about you, Alex?
Then a point that occurred to me when Matt was describing his outlook is, I feel like there’s also maybe a potential there to like, we’ve all seen those junior job listings that are clearly a job for like five staff level engineers. I feel like sometimes, a CS degree maybe is a proxy for that, like we want to hire somebody at the lowest level, but we want them to be a little bit more productive, and we’re going to disguise by just slapping this degree requirement on there.
[00:09:09] MDS: Yeah. I think it’s sort of the same problem we run into with other forms of this credentialing, where if you look at other industries — I mean, Tessa, you probably heard. We talked about this. If you look at like civil engineers and they have a very well laid certification process. In a lot of ways that’s bad, because it artificially restricts who can access that because you have to be the kind of person who can. This is also why it’s good that we have boot camps to sort of fill a very specific niche, because there’s really no computer science bachelor’s degree that you can get while working full time without essentially given up like four years of your life and potentially not making money.
[00:10:43] AC: I mean, I think one thing I’m grateful for in the tech industry is that, by and large obviously, this is not a universal truth. But by and large, most companies that you would want work for understand that the main skill that you need as a developer is the ability to learn. Because every job is going to have a slightly different set of requirements for the skills you use. Like this is my first job where I need to know anything about cloud infrastructure, not that I am succeeding really in that area, but I’m trying. But it’s really hard to easily demonstrate that ability in the interview process, which is I think why we all still battle over tech interviews. But I guess so, it really comes down to finding the resources to learn as you go. And when you do need to pick up CS stuff, it’s very much geared towards formal education, most of the materials that I find and I’m just like, “I need quick, not deep. Thanks.”
[00:11:51] MDS: Yeah. This is where I find stuff, like the Udacity, nano-degree stuff interesting, because there’s not a lot to fill that niche, right? It’s like with cloud stuff, if you need to learn a cloud technology like, okay, you go to AWS and they have like their sponsored course, but that doesn’t teach you necessarily the fundamentals.
[00:12:08] T: Yeah. Speaking of continuing education, I saw that apparently, Google has their own kind of certification programs now and that they’re going to be considering this equivalent to degrees. I am curious to hear everybody’s thoughts around that if they have any or like similar programs like the Udacity one that Matt brought.
[00:12:29] AC: I feel like programs like that, I mean for Google, they’re a large enough company that I mean, it makes sense for them and that they don’t really have to conform to anybody else’s standards. They’ll still have a large pool of candidates and a lot of employees. But across the industry, my concern would be people accepting those as credentials. They’re like, “CS degrees have been around since the dawn of tech time.” A lot of people have accepted those as the currency for knowledge, but I feel like if there’s a bunch of competing standards, I don’t know how far that will ever get.
[00:13:58] T: Yeah. I think also, one question that that raises for me is, why not just hire entry-level people and then train them on the job? Because it seems like the whole impetus for this program is to create more Googlers, right? Then in general, I feel like the industry has maybe almost willingly devalued certificates if they once held any value, like for gamification purposes or maybe not really thinking about it with any kind intention.
I feel like I have a lot of Codecademy certificates, like I don’t remember if Code School has certificates, but they’re gone now. I’m sure Pluralsight probably has certificates. Udemy classes has certificates. Like, who I checking these things? I know some people list them on their resume. I’m really curious if any of them have heard back from a recruiter or hiring manager being like, “That certificate that got you this interview.”
[00:14:47] MDS: That’s what I think might be the impetus for this is, there really isn’t a standards body like ABET for these certificates. So their thought might be, “Well, we’re just going to make our own and teach what we think people need to know.”
[00:15:02] AC: Here’s an idea. Major technologies should make their own proficiency exams. That will never work, but I still like the idea.
[00:15:10] T: Oh my God! I’m imagining taking a proficiency exam interview and being graded officially not proficient.
[00:15:18] AC: Oh, whatever. We both know that’s not true.
[00:15:23] AR: I think some of it is that, a lot of it is adoption of a standard throughout whatever thing you’re doing, right? If you’re doing computer security and there is a standard for this is what you should be learning and there is a certification for that, that you can prove like, yeah, people who have the certification are good. Having that standards body, then it’s great. But just making random certifications, there’s nothing in there that will ensure the quality of it I guess is sort of thing.
So trying to force that onto like a standards body for open source projects, right? Being able to be like, “Oh, this is the Vue certification, like the official Vue certification.” Well now, suddenly, we have to have — the Vue team suddenly has to have an entire team of people dedicated to making certifications and then keeping up with it and all of these things. It’s not necessarily who should that fall onto and how do you organize that sort of thing.
[00:16:31] AC: Obviously, Ben Hong.
[00:16:33] T: Really. I mean, problem has been solved, Alex.
[00:16:38] MDS: It’s an interesting problem too, because I think that companies, this isn’t so much of a worry, honestly. I think that the biggest danger really with not knowing what you’re getting into is with the customers of these schools. Like I said earlier, there is someone I know who went through CS degree and really realized they weren’t getting the job codes they needed when they’re already half way through it. This is why you hear stories about that. But companies, this is kind of why they use algorithm test, right? Because the thought is like, “If you know algorithms, then you can pick up an CS stuff and programming stuff you need to know.” Whether or not that’s correct, I don’t know, but that’s what they’ve decided to do in lieu of pushing for more certifications on these programs.
[00:17:21] T: I think another interesting question this raises for me that I’ve been thinking about a lot in the fall. Like I don’t know if you all have this experience, but I feel like so many places like the recruiters, and the hiring managers are like when you’re talking to potential coworkers, they talk about how they’re working with some of the smartest and most talented people they know. Like we only want to hire the smartest and the best people and I don’t know if I want to be the smartest and the best.
But I just feel like aside from being unrealistic, it’s like — there are definitely some problems I’m sure that take more thinking and more work and are more complex. At the same time, do we really need the “smartest, and most talented and best” developers to make like a drop-down modal. I’m curious about this emphasis on certification for like proving that we are some level of intelligent. Then on the other hand, things that are actually legal requirements for like accessibility, kind of just don’t make an appearance in these lists of like top 10 things all developers must know.
[00:18:24] MDS: Tess, are you implying that most of what I do is just making a scan on a database? But it’s a good point, because these certifications can become unnecessarily gatekeeping, when really all they really care about it, “Do you know this stuff?”
I think honestly, we’re probably going to end up having to have some sort of accessibility certification soon, because there was that case with Dominos where they were violation the ADA. Because someone said, “Hey, listen. I’m not able to use your website due to my disability” and they said, “Okay. Tough.” Then that got brought up and they reminded Dominos kindly that the ADA exists for a reason.
[00:18:59] AR: Specifically with that case too, they did not do good at accessibility in the first place. Then when somebody complained, they specifically changed it to disable the ability to use it completely and said, “Call us.” There is attempting to be accessible and then there’s not. I think you’re right, that having some standards in regards to that and as far as like, “Hey! This is sort of minimum that you need to at least be trying to do and like what is acceptable and what is completely unacceptable would be extremely beneficial.
[00:19:41] T: I feel like even in places where the company like accessibility is one of their core things, that they’re like, “You have to check this box in order for this to be considered ready to push to production,” It can still be such a challenge. Like yesterday, I was reading a discussion around accessible carousels and accessible modals and like how that’s really hard. And like some might say that that begs the question, should we really have carousels and modals?
I don’t know who, but that is another concern is, like a lot of the of the features that are very common across front-end apps are maybe not designed to be accessible and is it a matter of just like, we need to train people more in accessibility or is it more likely need to rethink the way that we approach design and these components. I don’t really know the answer. I think it will be tough to put all that into certification as well.
[00:20:32] MDS: Yeah. It’s interesting because I think companies are handling stuff like that in a similar way that the big companies are handling and a similar way that they’re now handling the issues of how do you ensure someone actually has the knowledge they say they have. At least at Google, we have our own internal standard. It’s built off of WCAG, I forgot what that stands for, that standard. I’m sorry, it’s built off the WAI standard, the Web Accessibility Institute I think it’s — they sort of had to write their own standard because there wasn’t one that was publicly accessible, that was agreed upon by everyone necessarily.
[00:21:08] T: Yeah. I wish that for example, all of these bootcamp programs taught accessibility, because I think there are so many people are graduating from there, that they really have the potential to change the landscape of the at least the SaaS industry. I really would like to see them take more proactive steps to like consciously shaping these kinds of changes and making these ideas more prevalent in the workplace.
But that brings me to my next question, which is, I’m curious, Matt. Are there any classes that you took that you feel like you’re like, “Oh! I think anybody could benefit from this,” like it would make them a stronger front-end developer? Degree or no degree, it’s just like it was very helpful to me.
[00:23:21] T: Interesting, yeah. I feel like he first couple of tickets that I had on the job were pretty algorithm and actually pretty close to the kind of problems that I was asked during the interview process. Yeah, I wonder if a lot of the complaints are more about like the divorce between the context and the problem itself. Because I feel like if you were like, “Hey! I need this UI thing, then it needs to do XYZ.” Then a lot of developers will probably be able to come up with it. But once you’re in the context of, it’s an interview and also, you don’t know what the UI component is, it’s just an arbitrary problem in a vacuum. Yeah.
[00:23:52] MDS: One more class I think also would be very useful, I ended up taking two different ethics classes. I took a computer science department ethics class, as well as an electrical engineering ethics class. Because I did a minor in engineering entrepreneurship. I think that every person who is working on computer should take some sort of ethics class or just be introduced to stuff like that. Those class has also thought me a little bit about IP Law, which I think is important to know. Because as working programmer, sometimes companies will sneak stuff in there where they’ll say, “Well, you’re doing work for hire for us, but also we own the stuff that you do outside” and you got to know to say, “No, no. Don’t do that.” I think that learning ethics and also a little bit of IP Law is very useful.
[00:24:39] T: Nice.
[00:24:41] AC: Yeah. I just don’t do work outside of work and it solves that problem.
[00:24:48] T: From time to time, I feel like, wow, everybody should have to take a studio art class, because there’s so many times where you have to tear apart everything that you just finished and start over from scratch, like people are critiquing your work very closely. I feel like it a can be helpful to have gone through that experience. I’m ambivalent, like maybe there’s ways to like build up the skills gain from that without going through that. But similarly, I’m curious, Ari and Alex, if there are classes that you took that you think could be helpful to people working as web developers.
[00:25:19] AC: No, but I think everyone should work retail at some point in their life, just saying.
[00:25:24] MDS: Yeah.
[00:25:25] AC: That’s how you learn empathy.
[00:25:26] MDS: I was going to say, or work at retail stockroom during the holidays.
[00:25:31] T: Oh, yeah. This is my first time not working in the holidays. It feels very weird.
[00:25:34] AR: I think something that everybody should do to help their programming and this is from my personal background, this is my personal opinion, is we should learn to troubleshoot cabling for an audio system.
[00:25:50] MDS: Oh, yes.
[00:25:50] T: That sounds terrifying.
[00:25:52] AR: You’re talking into an input and you’re expecting output over there, and there are like 12 machines between you and it. And being able to figure out where the problem is helps you immensely when you’re debugging programming, because it’s the exact same skillset.
[00:26:10] T: I mean, Alex, the world is barely on — "Can you see my screen now? No? Okay. How about now? You’re on mute." Like I don’t think that this is realistic.
[00:26:19] AR: Yeah, that’s true.
[00:26:21] MDS: That is a very good point though, because I used to do audio tech work in college and it was such a similar process.
[00:26:29] AC: But the irony here is that just before the show, we were trying to troubleshoot —
[00:26:35] T: I’m all so set, it was working perfectly right up until the recording.
[00:26:40] AR: Yeah, it’s definitely a skill that translates into a lot of other things.
[00:26:44] T: Matt, if people want to talk to you more, where can they find you on the internet?
[00:26:49] MDS: My Twitter is private just in case I accidentally post spicy memes.
[00:26:55] T: Or personal opinions.
[00:26:56] MDS: Yeah, or personal opinions. I just figured I don’t need — there’s nothing I need to say to the world, other than what’s in my blog. If you go to mattdelsig.me, that will have my contact info. It was like a 10-year-old photo if me that was taken on a very grainy digital camera.
[00:27:12] T: I thought you were going to say on a very grainy day for some reason, I don’t know why.
[00:27:16] MDS: Yes, it was very dark out, so the ISO was pumped up.
[00:27:21] T: Nice. We’ll include a link to that in the show notes. With that, it’s time for us to move on to this week’s picks. Alex, would you like to go first.
[00:27:29] AR: Thanks, Tessa. I thought you’d never ask. I have two picks this week. One, I thought of in the middle of this. It is a great resource for you to give any employer or designer or whoever who wants to implement a carousel on your website. The website is called shouldiuseacarousel.com.
[00:27:53] T: So good.
[00:27:54] AR: It is a fantastic resource on carousels and whether or not you should use them. The other pick of mine is a better pick. This year, we sort of do a yearly refresh of our spices every year, and there’s one company that we love that makes salt mixes. They are a local Atlanta-based company and so my pic is Beautiful Briny Sea. We really love their unicorn salt. It goes with everything. I highly recommend at least looking them up and maybe getting a sampler pack because it is fantastic. They also make really great gifts for people that you can’t figure out what it is that they want as a Christmas gift. You should be like, “Salt mix. You cook, right? Yeah, great. Here you go.” Brilliant gift idea. There you go.
[00:28:46] T: I think also having the name unicorn in it will probably appeal to a lot of people who work in tech. It could be wrong, but —
[00:28:54] AR: They also have sugar blends. Mr. Giggle Pants is a fantastic sugar blend. It has hibiscus, lavender and sugar in it. It’s quite tasty. So yeah, I highly recommend looking up Beautiful Briny Sea.
[00:29:09] T: Nice. This is reminding me of the lavender honey I left at the Atlanta airport. RIP.
[00:29:15] AC: That sounds amazing.
[00:29:16] T: How about you Ari, what are your picks for this week?
[00:29:18] AC: Yeah. I will do the obligatory Hades pick now that I’ve played it. But since we pick up for like, I don’t know, the last five weeks running, I’m not going to go into that. You already know. Just throwing in my support. My next pick is The Morning Show, which you can watch on Apple TV Plus. It has Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell and Jennifer Aniston as the stars. Now, if there are any Friends fans out there, I’m sorry I’m about to offend you. I’ve never really understood the Jennifer Aniston appeal until I watched this show. It was the first time where I felt like she played a character with actual depth. Sorry. Rachel was not deep. But really good just well-done drama so I highly recommend that. Those are my two picks.
[00:30:08] T: Nice. I guess I’m going to be last to board the Hades train. Matt, what are your picks for the week.
[00:30:15] MDS: My first pick is Persona 5 Royal, which is the updated version of Persona 5, which I really wanted a game that was super long, very strange and also kind of mundane. That was why I wanted to start playing Persona again, because I figured it was sort of helped distract me this winter.
[00:30:36] T: It’s a good thing your Twitter is on private after that. No, I’m kidding.
[00:30:41] MDS: I sat down at Coffee Espresso Blend, so this is a coffee restaurant near my house. My girlfriend went there and she got coffee for my birthday, but she asked them to just give her like grab bag, but they ended up giving her three unmarked bags of what I’m pretty sure is their espresso blend. Which I go through about two pounds of coffee every two weeks, so this isn’t actually that much coffee for me, but it’s very good. It’s a nice local New York brand.
My last pick is computer related, which is Operating Systems: Three Easy Pieces. There’s a free version online, but there’s also, you can buy the PDF for like 10 bucks. It is an operating system’s book. A Part of why I’ve been thinking about all this CS education stuff is I’ve been trying to improve some gaps in my knowledge recently. It’s just so that I can be a little better at certain parts of my work. This book has been awesome for learning about operating systems, which I didn’t really learn about the first time around.
[00:31:40] T: Nice. All right. Well, I guess it’s time for my pick. I hadn’t taken it out until this podcast episode and now I’m like debating if I should pick it or not. But I went on Etsy and I got some things to like customize my Switch. I got like a little slipcover, and like this little jelly things that go on the joysticks. Because I was moving things around the other day and I had a close call with my Switch, so I was like, “Oh! Maybe I should put something on it.” So I put it on while we were setting up for the recording, and it doesn’t feel all that great, so we’ll see if I stick with it. But I think the idea of customizing your stuff is still fun and cute and also, you’re supporting small businesses on Etsy. So yeah, novelty all around.
That’s all for this week’s episode. Thanks for listening and until next time. Enjoy the Vue.