Even the ‘Idea Person’ should learn how to code

How we need to reinvent the ‘idea person’ today

A version of this article appears on Talking Points Memo

A few months ago, I was at a dinner of a dozen students and a 60-year-old entrepreneur who made himself a fortune on Wall Street. At the time, I was a junior at Yale and the only person at the table studying a computer-related major. We went around saying what our big dreams were. When I said that I’m studying computer science because I want to be a software engineer and hope to start my own company one day, he said, “Why waste so many years learning how to code? Why not just pay someone else to build your idea?!”

“Why waste so many years learning how to code?
Why not just pay someone else to build your idea?!”

This attitude is the number one reason why Yale and other schools are failing to deliver the education that many students want today. We talk a lot about how we need to have more CS programs in the country, but I want to touch on what that program looks like at my school and how it can be better. This goes for any college not teaching app development, product design, or UI/UX. Actually, this goes for any college more expensive than Codecademy and Treehouse, which are basically free.

America has figured out what education should look like for fields that have been around longer, such as law. Yale, for instance, defines its curriculum as one that lets students “think and learn across disciplines, literally liberating the mind.” As such, an aspiring lawyer can major in English or Political Science. She can master the art of persuasion and learn how to borrow from history to study the present. She can learn everything she needs to go on to law school. She can do this over literally thousands of combinations of courses.

The college education of the aspiring software engineer, product manager, or UI/UX designer, in comparison, is predictable and monotonous. Certainly, she also benefits from taking English classes because communication skills are crucial in life. But when she searches for courses related to her dream job, she only finds the most theoretical topics of computer science, and not even all of them at Yale. These courses are the fundamental building blocks of computer science, but on their own, they only teach her how to reinvent the wheel. She isn’t “liberated” at all.

What’s worse, this is it for most CS majors. College is the last place where they can learn from experts before they are expected to create productivity and value. And once in industry, many will find that they only know how to reinvent the wheel.

The college education of the aspiring software engineer, product manager, or designer, in comparison, is predictable and monotonous.

It’s tempting but irresponsible to say students should teach themselves about VCs, iOS, UI/UX, and product design. When students can’t find the 25th hour in their days to do so, most will choose to focus on their (reinvent-the-wheel) classes. As ex-Snapchat COO Emily White says, “our education system tends to train kids to be right rather than to learn.” This isn’t okay when we need more engineers in Silicon Valley.

We must not neglect the merits of technical skills in the conception of the “idea person.” What the 60-year old entrepreneur and others of his generation — the people in control of the education we receive — don’t realize is this: for college students dreaming of making unicorns in Silicon Valley, being an “idea person” is not liberating at all. Being able to design and develop is liberating because that lets you make stuff. This should be a part of what we see in the “idea person” today and what it means to be “right” when designing an undergraduate curriculum. When you don’t need to rely on someone else to go from having an idea to publishing on the App Store, you are liberated to make. When you know how VCs invest in products, you are liberated to think. I’m not saying everyone should do this. What I’m saying is that colleges should pay attention to all those who want to do this because that is the kind of education we are paying for.