It has become a bi-weekly ritual. The professor spent too much time on the course material again and is left mumbling through a complex project description during the 11th hour of class. All the while, you’re off somewhere else. As you sling your backpack over your shoulder, you catch the only words you’ll need to hear: “You can download the syllabus along with the source code from the CS department’s website,” they say. Great! You hustle back to study location of choice, open your laptop, and extract the project files. After the obligatory knuckle crack, you look down at the method stubs spelled out for you. “All I have to do is fill-in these functions?” you think to yourself. And as you’re getting familiar with the project structure, a couple flicks of the scroll wheel reveal hundreds, sometimes thousands of lines of unexplained boilerplate code.
You eventually finish up the assignment and push it to the CS department’s server for grading. Without fail, someone raises their hand during the next class asking the instructor if they could explain what some of that boilerplate code was for, at which point the student is usually told to refer to the language documentation to figure it out for themselves. And for the most part, this makes perfect sense. After all, you’re there to learn about some of the more complex topics in computer science, not to write setter and getter methods all day. That’s what your data structures class was for.
But I would like to share with you the first few months of my experience as a Jr. Software Engineer and compare it to my time as an undergraduate student. You might be not-so-surprised to hear I have spent more time writing code similar to the boilerplate stuff mentioned above than I have perfecting the space and time complexity of my pioneering solution to The Traveling Salesman problem.
As an undergraduate student, I was an ace at avoiding merge conflicts in repositories where I was the only contributor. I could even run a build script with the best of ‘em. Nobody ever really told me how to use version control systems to manage a collaborative project with tens of thousands of lines of code strewn across a mess of files and directories. And if, for some reason, those same build scripts broke or a merge conflict popped up on a group project? Well, I was pretty much at the mercy of Stack Overflow.
At Setfive, when I was tasked with setting up a relational database schema for my first real project, I wasn’t really sure where to begin. There was no syllabus to refer to and no professor to schedule office hours with. While I was aware of relational database software such as MySQL and NodeJS, I had never really written a query, so I certainly didn’t know the difference between an inner and outer join. And while coordinating all those AJAX calls and setting up the Symfony bundle configs was a little confusing at first, I think I’m starting to learn how to apply my undergraduate education to these real-world projects.
So far, I have found that industry-level programming helps hone a much more practical skill set than academic programming. Don’t get me wrong, I learned a ton in college, and I know the concepts taught are not only important to a fundamental understanding of the field of computer science, but also have profound and meaningful applications elsewhere, such as in operating systems, machine learning, and so on. But when I look back on the things I have learned in such a short period of time over these past few months, it gets me excited for the road ahead. I owe an enormous thanks to Setfive for bringing me on as an entry-level software developer and advising me with patience.