While an undergraduate computer science degree may be a good starting place for learning how to be a successful developer, it’s the real-life application of these skills that will set you apart from a typical graduate. Although I don’t expect the university setting to be able to teach everything, there are still some areas that I found my education to be lacking. Here are three skills that I consider fundamental to software development that I ended up teaching myself outside of the classroom.
If you’ve ever worked with C++, you know that trying to track down a segmentation fault without debugging tools is much like trying to find a needle in a haystack. As an undergraduate, I spent countless hours commenting and uncommenting regions of code and writing variables to the console when simply loading the binary into gdb and entering the correct series of commands would have pointed me to the exact line where my error was. With a little direction, students could save hours of time and learn valuable debugging skills by using modern visual debuggers.
Not surprisingly, when students don’t learn how to debug their code they rarely know how to test it. I didn’t start writing out test cases myself until I was a teacher’s assistant in grad school. It was out of necessity rather than convenience; a reliable way to grade homework assignments from students who used the phrases “it works” and “it compiled” interchangeably. If agile patterns like Test Driven Development are to gain a foothold, it is imperative that developers learn testing as a cornerstone of their curriculum.
Tools like Git and Subversion are wonderful for working on teams, but I hadn’t even heard the word “Git” in university until explaining to an instructor how I’d lost a project to a hard drive failure. When I started an internship at RSI, one of my first fumbles was to commit merge conflicts into my mark-up, but thankfully the commit was easily reversed. Considering how I pieced together group projects with copy and paste, I’m disappointed these tools weren’t taught as an alternative.
Overall, I’m very happy with the knowledge that I obtained as part of my undergraduate education, but I encourage those in school now to take the opportunity to be open to beyond what they hear in lectures and labs and continue to learn outside the classroom.
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