Computer Science Degree Holders are not Computer Technicians

I wonder when will the general public finally figure out that someone with a degree in Computer Science is not a computer technician. The fact that I can and will fix b0rken computers as a personal favor for close friends and family, doesn’t really mean I learned to do that in school. I can’t tell you how many people are absolutely baffled to learn that I have never actually took a class on upgrading their RAM or cleaning out the spyware from their shitty laptop. Half of the people then scratch their head, and follow up with a question among the lines of “So… What exactly do they teach you at school…”. Then when you tell them they will invariably roll their eyes as people do when confronted with a stream of scary sounding terms and buzzwords.

Computer Technician at Work
No, these are not my hands. This is random pic I found online.

Sure, it is usually safe to assume that someone who holds (or is working toward) a degree in CS will have above average knowledge of hardware and software, and might be able to help you with a problem. But that’s just because most of people who go into this field, are already interested in technology and love tinkering with this kind of stuff. But this is not always the case. Let’s face it, computer technician is pretty much a blue collar job that does not require higher education. At best, a company that specializes in troubleshooting and repairing personal computers might require a potential employee to take one or two certification courses. Most don’t however. Being a computer technician is really akin to being a car mechanic. So when you assume that one of us actually had to learn how to replace your RAM at school, is like assuming that an automotive engineer actually had a class on changing the oil in your car.

It’s kindoff funny when you think about it, but also a bit insulting that people assume that this whole branch of science is all about fixing their shitty computers. It’s funny that even though we are the people who develop algorithms and systems used by other branches of science, we get hardly any credit for it. Most of the people think we either fix computers or “make websites”.

Oh, and while I’m at it, here is a tip to proud parents whose son/daughter “works with computers”. Would it really hurt you to learn your kids actual job title, and nature of their profession? In my experience “working with computers” may mean just about anything ranging from project lead, software engineer all the way down to IT phone support drone.

[tags]computer science, computer science degree, computers, computer technician, technician, works with computers[/tags]

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27 Responses to Computer Science Degree Holders are not Computer Technicians

  1. Miloš UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Amen! I see this all the time…at MSU; personally with friends and family; at some other consulting gigs in the past…wherever I went it was always computer guy/computer tech/fix it guy attitude/approach and they are so off that it’s not even funny.

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  2. Wikke BELGIUM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    You were saying that parents should learn the name of their children’s jobs, but in my experience, when even I say my job name (programmer), most people look like I speak some foreign language (which is mostly also true with these kind of people :P)

    I actually had a class ‘computer hardware’, where we would reassemble an old pc and learn about it. Where the word ‘learn’ is overrated a lot.

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  3. Dan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I could not agree more. The sad fact remains though, that some people get out of CS and still cannot perform basic hardware and/or software tasks. If they were not self motivated, all they would have learned is theory and some programming. Much like any education program, just because you are in it does not infer you are “into” it.

    Ironically, the others that know how to build and scan windoze machines(hard worx – lulz) see this as “chimp work” in a sense. I find you have to come to terms with the ignorance of the non-geek world or it will only infuriate you towards madness. If I got upset every time an office worker or family member assumed I would love to fix their laptop or printer, or even load mp3s on their cellphone I am sure my aorta would be in shambles. When you do decide to play Mr. Fix It, the only way to protect yourself is to look at it as charity or charge a good fee to justify the pain caused by mind-numbingly easy work.

    Good post and it brings up some interesting points. With new majors out like “IT,” where a student can earn a so called BS with very minimal math and science, I think it is a struggle for the masses to understand the difference between a geeksquad minion and a true scientist. The funny part is, the non-geek does not understand the difference anyway and will not hesitate to call anyone who can so much as run a setup.exe a “genius.” I have come to find terms like “computer wizard” and “genius” rather empty and meaningless. I suppose it is all relative to the source.

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  4. ZeWrestler UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    This issue has been one that has annoyed me for a while too.

    Freshman year at MSU for instance, I met 2 girls in Blanton during the first month. I got into a conversation with them and when they found out I was a CS major, the one girl immediately said, “you’re my new best friend, my computer is busted”

    *sigh* not what I went to college for. Well said entry. Touched on a lot of points I’ve said for years.

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  5. Dan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    James, that happened to me countless times at MSU too, especially since I would be going into dorm rooms of new students all the time to fix the network connection. Other techs told me similar stories where they felt almost obligated to help strangers outside of work.

    People will try to take advantage of you for easy stuff and they are often misinformed or apathetic about the higher things you are capable of. Often you need to turn people down to protect yourself and you should never ever feel guilty saying “no.” There is a silver lining though, it means you are in demand and can use it to your advantage if you so choose. It is so easy to become bitter when fixing a mundane user error earns you some sort of godly status though.

    Even now, when I roam at corporate projects if I get friendly with the office workers they start to ask questions and ask me for help. The world is very needy/lazy when it comes to all things tech.

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  6. ZeWrestler UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Very True Dan,

    I’ve done basically that now, with the exception of a few people, I tend to turn down requests or at least point them in a direction where they can find an answer.

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  7. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    @Wikke – was that class a part of the official CS curriculum or an elective? I don’t think most universities do require you to have hands on experience with hardware in order to graduate. My school did offer a CISCO certification class which was probably the closest to hands on hardware related stuff, but I think it was a 1 credit elective.

    @Dan – I never know what to charge people for this kind of stuff. Any suggestions? I usually either do it as a favor to someone that I already know and like, or politely refuse.

    It’s actually quite scary to think how much do we rely on technology these days, and how little people actually know about their computers. Sigh, I wish that people on average would know as much about their computer, as they know about their car. I mean how many people out there drive stick shift without ever switching gears, without ever releasing the hand break and never using blinkers or lights because they don’t remember how to turn them on? And yet, this is how most people today operate computers. If they once had an anti-virus, it expired long time ago, they recklessly click OK on every poppup they see and then go hunting for pr0n with an unpatched IE. And of course they search for it by googling the word “porn” which produces expectable results – the top 10 million results are probably spyware infested scam sites that nand out trojans like candy.

    And when they get infected, majority of people out there simply solve their computer problems with the magical “add item to cart” button. It’s a vicious cycle.

    Oh, and that “computer genius” thing gets turned around against you pretty quickly when you are not able to figure out the problem with the machine during the first 5 minutes. Then it’s like “oh, come on – how come you can’t fix it? I thought you were this big shot computer guy. Why can’t you fix it?”

    @ZeWrestler – there is usually one student in the class every semester that asks me for help with their computer. Most of them just ask for and advice and I’m usually happy to give it. The other day though a girl asked me if she can bring her computer in because it’s slow. Sigh… I politely told her to call OIT.

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  8. Craig Betts UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Mac OS Terminalist says:

    DITTO!

    People at my job are constantly amazed at my skills to fix computers . . . without a degree. I make a bad manager, or even a project lead. I lack many of those skills learned in college. What I have learned was to troubleshoot and learn in depth several operating systems at their core level, which required many hours of studying and tinkering.

    I get a chuckle telling people about my previous occupations before becoming a sysadmin: Janitor and truck driver!

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  9. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Bah. I’m going to get all curmudgeonly now.

    For a start, modern professional mechanics do need to take classes to stay current – and this is largely due to the increasing computerisation of cars. Sure, you don’t need to take classes to stay current with old bombs, but it’s the same in IT – you don’t need to take classes to stay current with old technology.

    Anyway, I have a couple of programmers who look down on knowing how the innards of the computer work. Sure, they don’t need to know, just like a carpenter doesn’t need to know how his drill works inside. But I’d rather trust a professional who does know, because they perform better in edge cases.

    It’s interesting that when the computer equivalent of the radiator fluid leaking out happens that these programmers are completely stranded and have no idea of what to do.

    But I do agree with your statement about being ‘good with computers’. My mother calls me a ‘whizz with computers’ to her friends. It annoys me – i’d rate myself as skilled but far from guru – but in reality it gets her message across, and her friends wouldn’t understand any better if she accurately described what I did. Still, it irks a bit.

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  10. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    I agree – developers should know what is going on inside their machines. They should have good grasp of hardware specifics and low level programming concepts and be able to do basic maintenance and repairs.

    Seriously, a clueless programmer who can’t even maintain his own machine is a scary concept. It just indicates that the guy has no passion for technology, and treats programming as boring 9-5 job he probably hates.

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  11. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Yeah, it’s not so much hating the job, just not having much interest with the one guy I’m thinking of.

    Then it’s like “oh, come on – how come you can’t fix it? I thought you were this big shot computer guy. Why can’t you fix it?”

    Heh, just read this comment. This happened to me recently:

    “Look, your computer that I cobbled together for you out of free parts three years ago is simply failing from age. We could replace the failing hard drive, but the rest of it is just worn out and showing signs of failure as well. Plonk down some cash and buy a brand new one, they’re insanely cheap now and there’ll be a massive performance boost to boot” >> “Oh, so you can’t fix it.” with overtones of ‘I thought you were good and apparently you’re not’.

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  12. dune73 SWITZERLAND Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux says:

    I have made similar experiences. However, over the years, I have found the right strategy to avoid these misunderstandings.

    Not-so-close-friend: Hi there, i’m having a problem with my computer. Could you have a look into it?
    Me: I do not think I can help you, but why do not you tell me and we’ll see?
    Not-so-close-friend: Well the other day, … then it said … I clicked … on google I found … entered the registry … still did not work.
    Me: Okay. This sounds like you are using windows.
    Not-so-close-friend: Yes. Why?
    Me: Look Windows 98 has been the last Windows I actually worked with. Ever since, I’ve been using Linux. So I am an absolute fool on things Windows. I will rather not touch your registry (if that still exists, sorry if it does not) However, you could ask my girlfriend to fix your computer. She switched to Linux only two years ago. Maybe she can help you.

    This approach to the problem solved the problem for me. And the good thing is, I do not even have to lie. I am a fool on things Windows. My girlfriend on the other hand, has been able to fix her parent’s computer countless times… Lately she started to fix my ubuntu notebook. I won’t let her touch my debian servers though. Who knows, where this could lead. :)

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  13. ths UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    > developers should know what is going on inside their machines

    no, they shouldn’t, and they needn’t. There’s a difference between a hardware guy and a programmer and a software designer or architect. Each one has his specific skill requirements, and they are usually disjoint. Unless you write device drivers for hardware components you seldom need to know what’s inside, and on what part of a clock cycle the data transfer really happens from L3 to L2 cache.

    I develop software for aix, solaris, linux-ix86, and I’m not the least interested in the hardware of those machines. Apart from that, the machines are in a data centre 500 kms away ;). I don’t need the hardware knowledge for writing good programs, or programs at all.

    It just so happens that I’m interested in hardware in my spare time, but this does not belong to my job, and it’s definitely not a prerequisite for successfull professional work (I’ve rarely needed hardware knowledge in my worktime for the last 20 years). Usually when people ask me to “fix” their computer and I don’t want to I tell them I can only do unix (“biiiiig machines”) and don’t have any windows experience. It mostly works ;). Sometimes I can talk them to try out linux instead, which gets more interesting subsequently ;)

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  14. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Given that I’ve seen otherwise good programmers come unstuck because they didn’t know the maximum data rates their hardware supports, I’m going to have to disagree with you on that :)

    As with everything, a more rounded expertise makes a better professional, perhaps with the exception of advertising executives, chainsaw consultants and politicians…

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  15. hdw UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    The graphic design field has their version of this too. If you work in graphic design then you must know everything three is to know about MS Word and free clip-art CDs. People can get really annoyed when you try to explain that Word isn’t really graphic design software, and they never really believe that I don’t use clip-art.

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  16. Dax UNITED STATES Opera Windows says:

    Luke you hit the nail on the head here. I am constantly referred to in my family circles as “the computer guy.” Of course, my family only talks to me when they have a problem with hardware/software on their computers. I think the average layman does not make the destinction you discuss.

    Recently, I was at a family function and was introduced to a cousin’s boyfriend as “he’s a computer guy too.” So, later on that evening, he walks up to me and starts talking about server racks, storage arrays, graphics cards, and a bunch of other hardware things that have nothing to do with my job. I explain to him that I am a software engineer and he just walks off.

    As hdw mentioned, I believe that there are many fields which get lumped together under some generic moniker as well.

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  17. Matt` UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    I’m not even as far as higher education yet and I’m already becoming “the computer guy” for a lot of people I know.

    Some are friends who are equally interested in tech stuff and just want a second opinion or a hand with something in the cases where I know more than them on a certain thing (which is nice – always fun to talk geek for a while :D)

    Other times… its my dad asking me if I can help out someone he works with because they’re computer has been violently raped by viruses, or they want to upgrade a machine and don’t know how. In which case there’s less awkwardness about getting paid, although how much they should be paying is still unfamiliar territory.

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  18. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    @ths ok, but don’t you agree that developer with good grasp on technology > developer who needs to call IT every 5 minutes. I’m not saying the guy needs to be an expert. But some knowledge helps.

    For example, I would probably not hire a developer to be a sysadmin, because it’s not his specialty. Still, it helps if he knows and understands what a sysadmin does and he can work along side the IT team to help solve complex hardware/software issues instead of just whining that shit is not working and refusing to write down error messages or perform troubleshooting steps out of fear things will break.

    @hdw – oh wow! Didn’t even realize that its so bad of you guys too. I always thought that graphic design was synonymous with Photoshop in public mind – which is I guess a fair assumption. But Word? Ugh! :P

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  19. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    @Matt – I never know how much to charge people either. When you do fix someones computer and they offer to pay, how much do you take? I mean, in most cases it’s not hard work – just tedious, and often boring.

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  20. Dan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @Luke – You can adjust due to relationships but market value would be anywhere from 40-150 USD per hour depending on the exact work. I know that is a huge range but as you know there is a huge range of work to be done and many places to turn. Networking, hardware upgrades, spyware cleaning, device setup (including peripherals like iPods, cell phones, crackberry/pdas. The higher rates would more likely be website creation (including some basic web dev) and small business LAN work. All the basics, and all very easy for people like us.

    If you want to make sure you are compensated to go through the pain of helping some newb fix his virus ridden POS then charge accordingly. Now you could always go flat rate on things like data recovery etc. Geeksquad charges 290 USD to even begin a “backup” due to the possibility of data loss and liability. They also have an average of around 120 an hour. These rates seem like “you gonna get raped®” style service.

    If you do decide to help people out make sure you can trust them , as they could take action against you if they feel unhappy. They could for instance, claim you broke something when you did not. They may be ignorant enough to think they are right! This is part of the reason some corps have lengthy contracts and high fees. For family, I go free and extended family , dirt cheap or barter. Just make sure you get something so you do not begin to resent people who do not deserve your efforts for nothing. You must defend your free time from freeloaders somehow but the most logical option in many cases is to “just say no” to n00bs.

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  21. ths GERMANY Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @vacri:

    I can live with your disagreement. I’m in the job for more than 20 years, and I could have survived without any hardware knowledge.

    @Luke: “good grasp on technology / developer who needs to call IT every 5 minutes”

    you mix knowledge of the tools with knowledge of the field of expertise. I don’t need to know anything about hardware to develop algorithms or design multi-tier applications (webserver applicationserver RDBMS server LDAP server etc.). If I need to call a helpdesk this is because my tools don’t work. Helpdesk won’t design my application or help me out with debugging my software. Tools are the responsibility of my employer, and there are experts to repair if something’s broken (e.g. my version control server). If I start to fix things on my own I’d break the workflow processes and the documentation tools (if I have the privileges at all, like e.g. root on some server).

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  22. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    @Dan – “say no to n00bs” sounds like one of those anti-drug an add campaigns on TV. Like:

    Whenever a n00b walks up to me and asks me to fix their computer I say:

    “Pshh, bitch please! I use Linux”

    Linux is my anti-n00b.

    @ths – ok, good point – you are right. I don’t have a counter argument to this.

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  23. Lore GERMANY Konqueror SuSE Linux says:

    There’s also a physicist’s version of this phenomenon: “You as a physicist have to know how this toaster/microwave/chemical thingy (!)/… works. So please explain it to us!”

    I believe that there are two kinds of computer scientists. The “nerd computer scientist” and the “World of Warcraft computer scientist”. The latter seem to be the majority at my university. “Oh, I was good at Quake in my high school days so I decided to study computer ga.. ah computer science.” These guys simply love the “good products of the market leader” and their favourite game nowadays is buzzword bingo. If a new guy enters my workgroup and he has studied computer science, all alarm bells are ringing. The chances are could, that he will destroy our work with some bloody UML derived bloated overobject-oriented code using “Microsoft Visual Studio 2007 Architect edition ™”.

    There are the nerdy ones, the good ones. They know the machines, they know the algorithms, they know the math. I love them. But in general a “computer scientist” is an other world for “this guy has no clue of anything except MS Windows Server Edition 200X and will destroy my work completely.” And, I will have to fix his windows too.

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  24. Dan UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @Luke – Haha, yea I know. That might make a good t-shirt. Although I am sure we have all seen the “No, I won’t fix your computer” design.

    @Gravatar – Sad but true. LOL@UML+VS.

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  25. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    @Dan – I tried that t-shirt. It doesn’t work. In fact it had a directly opposite effect. Everyone who read it felt compelled to tell me about their computer problems.

    @Lore – don’t forget that we also have a truckload of people who went into CS during the .com boom lured by the easy money despite abhorring or being afraid of technology.

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  26. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    @ths

    That’s fine, we can disagree. But your 20 years of experience does not mean that I haven’t witnessed programmers who have run into trouble because they don’t know what’s going on inside their box. You’ve run into the fallacy of saying ‘because I haven’t personally seen or experienced it, it can’t be true’.

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  27. ths UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @vacri:
    you make the same mistake as Luke: you mix knowledge of the tool with knowledge of the job domain. If a programmer is better because he knows the intestines of his computer (whatever brand, CPU etc.) then it belongs to his job domain, i.e. his professional skills.
    If he would require hardware knowledge to fix the PC on his own then either he is in a very small company and needs to do it himself, or his employer is really bad on people’s tools. Even then he works a different role: he’s not the programmer doing the job, he’s the service guy to fix the PC, but they do different jobs for different reasons. When he’s finished fixing the PC he can return to his job role working on software and algorithms. If he’s an SQL programmer he needs to understand innards of the RDBMS system (maybe upto tuning the RDBMS and OS, maybe he’s got a colleague RDBMS admin who’s better at this particular job), but not the graphics card in the server. See the difference?

    Anyway: a developer of course needs to understand hardware if it belongs to his assigned task (or job, more generally speaking). No disagreement there, I’m totally convinced that this is necessary ;). Anything else is just bells and whistles. It might make me a better geek if I know the insides, but if it’s not a prerequisite for the job: who cares if I know it or not? (ok, apart from you in this discussion to prove me wrong) ;)

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