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Jon Cooper has spent one semester as a computer science major at the University of Florida—and he’s had enough. He’s taking a Java class this semester, he says, and the course has been slow going. Sin_diploma "I could have learned all we’ve learned in three months in about two weeks," he says. "It kind of sucks." So at the end of the semester, Cooper, who has been doing freelance Web development for the last year or two, is suspending his studies and teaming up with a friend to launch a digital marketing startup. If he does return to college, he says, it will be for a business degree. Cooper’s frustration resonates with many hiring managers at high-tech and software development companies who believe that many computer science programs are not keeping pace with the rapid changes in the real world.

Academia Lags the Real World

"We do see a lot of the computer science curriculum as being very theory-based," says Meghan Juanarena, a recruiter for Rackspace. "A lot of computer science programs I’ve seen are quite old-school in what they’re teaching," adds Matthew Weinberg, co-founder and president of development and technology of Vector Media Group, a Web development and SEO agency. "Sometimes I have found they are very knowledgeable about conceptual things, but not real-world problems. The other issue I find is that a lot of computer science courses or programs teach languages or skills that are outdated." Weinberg says most of his employees have degrees in the liberal arts, humanities or general sciences. When hiring, he says, he looks for ability and potential. "The first thing I look for is, if you show initiative on your own to learn new things, and if you show that you spend some of your free time trying to learn that stuff," he says. "If they do, it means they are apt to keep up with new technologies going forward." Officials at Rackspace say they still get much of their top entry-level talent from computer science programs at universities, but say that many of these recent graduates have gone out of their way to learn new languages and do projects that will enhance their competitiveness. "What we’re looking at is, is this candidate smart enough to learn?" says Basharat Wani, a director of software development at Rackspace’s Blacksburg, Va., office. "If they are smart enough, we have a very open mind." "The professors are on to the fact that the curriculum doesn’t necessarily support students 100 percent to be ready for tech companies and have come to us about things they can incorporate into learning" in the classroom, adds Juanarena, who mostly recruits at Virginia Tech, University of Virginia, James Madison University and Radford University. She says Rackspace frequently suggests projects to the professors and offers internships to students. In turn, the professors encourage the students to work on side projects outside the classroom.

Degrees Still Demanded for Some

But several other recruiters say their clients demand degrees in computer science for certain IT positions. If you’re looking to get a job as a Web developer or in some other relatively narrow IT area, they say, you could probably get away with not having a computer science degree. But for more complex positions like software engineering, having a degree in computer science matters to their clients. "Most of my clients would prefer to hire someone who’s got a computer science degree," says Steve Kasmouski, who runs the technology division of the recruiting firm Winter Wyman. "In the software engineering world, it definitely matters." Onyeka Ezenwoye, an assistant professor of computer science at Augusta State University in Augusta, Ga., says computer science degrees remain relevant in the industry. Although most founders of start-ups don’t have degrees in computer science, he says, many hire computer science degree-holders to run their companies. "They don’t hire people from off the streets," he says. "Most people think computer science is all about programming. But that’s not true. There are lots of different aspects. Software is really complex. Software is not like a normal product. It’s intangible and much more difficult to manage than conventional products." Wani offers a couple of pieces of advice to college graduates looking to make careers in IT or software engineering: Take on complex, challenging projects and learn things like Open Source that make you attractive to employers. "We’re looking for talented people with a good, strong grasp of learning or who are smart and can learn fast," he says. Image: Sin diploma [Wikimedia Commons]