Clark School Technology LabYesterday Edwin Guarin and I represented Microsoft at the formal opening of a computer lab at the Clark Elementary and Middle school in Hartford CT. The lab was donated by Ray Allen (UConn and Boston Celtics basketball star) and his Ray of Hope Foundation. Microsoft was pleased to donate software to support the lab. As part of the day’s events Ray spoke to the students where he emphasized the importance of school studying hard getting good grades and going to college. He said that college was important even for those who thought they were going to be professional athletes. When he asked how many students wanted to be professional athletes most of the student body raised their hands. Not unexpected for middle school students. Ray shed some light on that subject pointing out that it was a very long shot for any of them to make it. But today’s post was inspired by a question and answer that came at the end of his talk. One student pointed out a number of famous athletes who jumped into the NBA right from high school and said that college wasn’t necessary for them.

Ray replied with a number of pieces of information. One is that doing this is very rare but secondly there were many more who jumped in early who disappeared quickly either into limited roles or out of the NBA and no one remembered them. What he pointed out was that playing college ball was an important part of learning the game as well as growing up. Players who skipped college often had only their natural talent which while it might be significant limited them at the professional level.

Presenting an "I'm a PC" t-shirt to Ray Allen of the Boston CelticsI had a chance to talk to Ray and his business manager about this later. They told me that a lot of times they will be watching a game and see someone make an error that they really wouldn’t expect from a professional and realize that was a missing skill that they may well have gotten if they had played college ball before the NBA. Ray’s observation is that many who jump to the NBA early would have been better off in the long run (even financially) had they stayed in college to polish their skills more. Ray pointed out that the media loves to play up the exceptions while ignoring the players who didn’t make it. This is a common problem in other fields I realized. For example in computer science and software development.

The software industry has its stars who either skipped college completely or didn’t complete it (Bill Gates in the latter category) who do really well. Many young people think that they can do likewise. In fact some who do make it convince themselves and others that skipping college was/is a better way of doing it. I have to say though that my experience (writing software for 40 years now) is that such stars are rare indeed. In proportion as rare as the LeBron James’ of the NBA. A college education is a better way to ensure a longer and more productive (and lucrative) career. The extra training not just in the core technology but in learning to learn and grow are tremendously helpful for a long productive career.

I also talked to Scott Burrell, one of the coaches of the Quinnipiac men's basketball team and a veteran of the NBA himself. He talked about his role as a coach being more than just making his players better basketball players but better men. He talks about helping with their maturity and their attitudes towards things as basic as how they interact in public and with their teammates. And succeeding in school. Scott went back and completed his degree not two years ago which certainly shows how much he values education.

As part of the CS 2013 curriculum committee that has been asking the question or what should a graduate in computer science look like we have talked a lot about soft skills and things like ethical behavior. While you don’t have to learn those things in college a good college education can go a long way towards helping people mature and become responsible adults.

Can you learn a lot of computer science and software development on your own? Sure. Is that the way to bet? Not in my experience. There is so much more that can be learned and really needs to be learned to be a real professional. Going to school is the short cut and in the long run seems to pay off a lot better than going it alone. I’ve seen a lot of people over the years self teach the current technology but not have the background to keep growing as the technology changes and grows. Just how it looks from where I stand.