The world need more and better programmers. Jason Gorman recently wrote this post encouraging people to start offering software apprenticeships, as an alternative to computer science degrees.

He writes:

“our computing education in [the UK] is preparing students for a career in a version of computing most of us don’t recognise. Students devote the majority of their time learning theory and skills that they almost certainly won’t be applying when they get their first proper job. Computing schools are hopelessly out of touch with the reality of computing in the real world. While employers clamour for TDD or refactoring skills, academics turn their noses up at them and focus on things like formal specification and executable UML and compiler design, along with outdated and thoroughly discredited “software engineering” processes.” — Jason Gorman

Jason ends his post with a call to arms – if you’re a good software developer, get yourself an apprentice, and start training them. It’s the same message I heard from Dave Hoover when he visited Göteborg recently. I think he also sees a multi-year apprenticeship as a better alternative for training programmers than a computer science degree.

I also recently came across this article, written by a computer science teacher in the US, with the following paragraph:

“I no longer teach programming by teaching the features of the language and asking the students for original compositions in the language. Instead I give them programs that work and ask them to change their behavior. I give them programs that do not work and ask them to repair them. I give them programs and ask them to decompose them. I give them executables and ask them for source, un-commented source and ask for the comments, description, or specification. I let them learn the language the same way that they learned their first language. All tools, tactics and strategies are legitimate. ” — William Hugh Murray

So clearly some academics are teaching in creative ways. Rather than abandoning computer science degrees, might it not be better to improve their content?

One of the things about the XP conference is that it brings together industry and academics, and lets them hear from one another. How to teach programming is a very important topic that is often discussed there. XP2005 for example was held at Sheffield university, where I remember chatting to one of the professors, and being impressed by the way they used eXtreme Programming as part of their undergraduate course.

Another thing that happened at XP2005 was the first coding dojo I attended, and I believe the first one ever held outside of France. It was presented by Laurent Bossavit and Emmanuel Gaillot, founders of the Paris dojo. I was excited to discover a context in which I could improve my practical programming skills, in regular short bursts, alongside a continuing paid job.

So one of the things I do in my new life as an agile testing consultant is to use the coding dojo format to teach people how to program better. We’ll do code kata exercises and practice Test Driven Development, Refactoring, and discuss what Clean Code looks like. So far the reaction from professionals I’ve done this with has been very positive. Lots of people who have been coding for years appreciate the chance to learn new practical skills.

I’m also getting involved in more formal education, this spring I’m teaching a three week course in automated testing, as part of a “Kvalificerad Yyrkesutbildning” in software testing. This is a one year full time course for students wanting to learn a practical skill, as an alternative to going to university and studying a more academic subject. In Sweden you can get a student loan while you’re studying this course, and part of the time is spent working in a company gaining on-the-job experience.

I’m starting to plan how I’m going to teach TDD, BDD, and how to use tools like Selenium, Fitnesse, TextTest and Cucumber. I think it’s going to be very hands on and practical, but also go into the general principles behind tool choice and writing maintainable automated tests. I’m helping to write a formal syllabus and exam, with criteria for grades awarded.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t like this strand of thought in the Software Craftsmanship movement that wants to abandon formal education. There are lots of ways to train software developers, and apprenticeship isn’t without its problems.

I think this is just the sort of thing we’ll be discussing at XP2011, where there will be a host of academics and experts from industry. Won’t you join us?