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A Fresh Take on Grades and Why I Think they are Still Relevant to us Programmers and Hackers

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A Fresh Take on Grades and Why I Think they are Still Relevant to us Programmers and Hackers

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As you can see, this is going to be a bit off topic but closely related issue to our world of programming and hacking. The issue of grades in our industry is often laughed at because as a lot of people have attested, you don’t need grades to make it in our world. Well, who can blame us for thinking that way? Lots of tech stars have made it without having grades to show for. Steve Jobs. Bill Gates. Mark Zuckerberg. We all know their story.

I got a really low grade in one of my classes last semester and my mom chastises me for it like crazy (well just as she always has anyway). But just a segue, just to give my side of the story, the drastic dip wasn’t really my fault. I got a really low mark on one of our group requirements because my group mate did not submit our project properly. Some files were missing. It’s not like I did not do any work kind of low grade. As I compute my grades right now, it appears I would have received two marks higher had we just been more thorough and submitted all the files. Looking back, I think it’s a tough thing to swallow and one hell of a tragedy.

Back to my argument with my mom, I of course being a programmer — a part of a culture that “looks” past grades — argued it’s not really important. I learned a lot of really amazing stuff and I think I have an idea on how to make this killer app I am thinking about. What more would I want?

She counters with arguments like, “it will be hard for you to get a job because you won’t make it past HR because they look at grades”. Of course, we have a very classic response to arguments like that: What is a better proof of your capability? A number whose story you don’t even know about or projects, code, experiments, results! To this argument, she replies that I was missing the point. She acknowledges that I might have the skill or talent but take that and juxtapose it to a low grade and what do you get? Something that reeks of this thing called inconsistency, which, in turn, says a lot about a person’s character.

I remember my first ever job interview, the CEO raised his eyebrows and asked me why the trend of my grades looked a lot like a roller coaster ride. Although I gave him a different answer back then, the real reason as I have figured out over the years is that, I was selective about what I really wanted to do well. For example, some subjects I really didn’t like and so I never gave them much effort. There were subjects when we had a crappy teacher the type who you’d like to punch in the face and I found myself complaining most of the time instead of just studying. There were times when I didn’t choose to study because I was too tired from extra curricular work.

Most people like me talk about those who graduated with honors who are working in my industry but aren’t really into it as much as we are. Well, they might not be as passionate as we are in our craft but it takes a lot of drive to ace subjects you don’t like, a chock full of patience and extra determination to deal with a crappy teacher, and lots of discipline to endure the rigors of extra curricular work and academics. No wonder HRs look at grades. No I don’t think they look at your abilities but rather look for red flags that will project how you will fit in the company as a person. I mean you might be really talented but what if you don’t have the patience to do things that you don’t like? Perhaps, like writing unit tests or documenting code. What if you are the software developer version of Mario Balotelli?

This is not to say that passion is not important but that character is just as important and that you will rarely find people who have both in abundance and I think showing bucket loads of character is the highly underrated part of the story about the billionaire geek who dropped out of the university. We just like to hear the word billionaire and drop out because it sounds cool. But not all dropouts make it and that is why being just a typical honor student is just half the job done. We have to be both.

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