One of my high school English teachers, Mr. Reusch, used to tell the class that there were only two courses in the school that would actually help us in real life: Typing and Drivers Ed.
I finished high school in 1993, but I thought of his words this morning when Inc asked me to write about a statistical nugget the Harvard Crimson recently shared: That almost 12 percent of the undergrads at Harvard College--a record-setting total of 818 students--are taking the same course this semester: Computer Science 50: "Introduction to Computer Science I." The enrollment is the largest in any single class in the last five years, according to the Crimson, surpassing the headcount for the Ivy League school's most popular "Introduction to Economics" class.
From this small piece of data, you could jump to any number of conclusions. Here's a short list of the ones I jumped to:
- Some of these students are worried about seeming unemployable.
- Some of these students have parents who'll feel better about their tuition investment if they know their children are enrolled in a comp sci class.
- Some of these students are intellectually interested in computer science as a topic.
- Some of these students want to pursue entrepreneurship, and they view comp sci as a useful background for a business founder.
And the truth is, all of these factors and more are probably in play for the 818 enrollees. Harry R. Lewis, Harvard's director of undergraduate studies for Computer Science, told the Crimson that the students "have figured out that in pretty much every area of study, computational methods and computational thinking are going to be important to the future."
Fair enough. I just have one message to students who choose classes like this for fear of being unemployable: Stop. If the employers Inc has covered in recent years are any indication, you have little to worry about. Time and again, the fast-growth companies Inc profiles have told us that they hire for ability and positive attitude, rather than on-paper skill. They are also intent on providing their own training, so that they can properly channel your ability and positive attitude. Here are two quick examples (and trust me, there are many more):
- Carey Smith, founder and CEO of Big Ass Solutions, a $122-million, 500-employee manufacturer of colossal fans and light fixtures based in Lexington, Kentucky, once explained to me that one of his hiring strategies was employing people who possess two specific personality traits: curiosity and positivity. "Some of our best people are English majors," he told me. "A liberal-arts degree is a good thing. You're looking for people [who] are naturally curious, who want to know why. I love engineers; they're great. But with liberal-arts majors, if they're really engaged and they really studied, they're curious."
- TransPerfect, a New York City-based translation company with $341 million in revenue and 2,600 employees, has a multifaceted training program. "A certification program helps linguists boost their translation skills as well as their knowledge of the industries TransPerfect serves," wrote Elaine Pofeldt in an Inc profile from late last year. "A dozen professional development groups within the company encourage growth in areas such as managing and leadership. Another group provides a place for female employees to share tips on issues such as balancing work and family. It all adds up to a business that feels as much like college as it does a fast-growing company."
None of which is to suggest that you can't benefit from taking a class like Computer Science 50. But please: Don't think your future employability is at stake if you bypass a class like this.
And let me finish with my own personal coda: In my own life, at least, Mr. Reusch turned out to be wrong. Yes, Typing and Drivers Ed were important. But so was his own English class. Sure as I type this, I'm a professional writer. In addition to writing for Inc, I'm a novelist whose first book came out last year. I wouldn't have written that novel without his class, and all of the other English classes I enjoyed through the years.
Is writing one novel the equivalent of stable employment? No, of course it isn't. But here's my main point: Employment is important, but there is little in life that surpasses the joy of studying what you love. Pragmatism should certainly influence your choices about what to study. But don't let it rule the day.