Friday, August 20, 2010

Do Computer Geeks Need Math, Too?

On Alan Skorkin's blog, he recently made a post titled "You Don’t Need Math Skills To Be A Good Developer But You Do Need Them To Be A Great One". In his post, he discusses whether it is necessary for computer scientists to have good math skills. My response to his post is shown below ...

I have my college degree in Mathematics - Computer Science and worked in the computer field for 20-plus years as a programmer, project manager, and IT director. In the last three years, I have shifted my career and am currently teaching high school mathematics. So, I read your post with great interest as I have experienced life from both the in-depth computer side and from the academic math side. Where do the two come together?

I have always made it a point to tell people that I majored in Mathematics - Computer Science, as Mathematics was always my first love academically, but Computer Science is where most of the employment opportunities exist. I have always believed that strong mathematics skills translate into being a good computer scientist. The mathematics skills to which I refer are not the memorizing of formulas and solving of specific textbook exercises, but the mathematics skills which take real world problems - aka, "word problems" - and use mathematics in order to solve them. The roots of this in my education go back to my high school Algebra 2 teacher who taught a unit on solving various types of word problems. After completing the unit, we had to complete 2 random word problems each day for the rest of the school year. (This was supplemental to our normal classroom assignment.) By the end of that year, we all knew how to do word problems!

In the computer field, though I spent a fair bit of time mastering the intricacies of various programming languages, I was never mesmerized with learning how to code, learning a new language, etc. I was always more interested in understanding the business problems which needed to be solved and then writing a computer program to meet those business needs. To me, this is an extension of the problem solving skills that I learned in high school mathematics. I believe that in today's computer science field, there are too many "geeks" who have a better relationship with their machines than with their colleagues! Just slide a piece of pizza under the door of their dimly lighted room every few hours, and they will be happy and productive! Yes, this is a broad generalization, but I believe there is a large need in the computer field for computer scientists to be just as avid about serving the needs of their users as they are avid about the depths of the technology.

When I teach problem solving in mathematics, the first step I teach is for students to read the problem and determine "What are you trying to find?" The last step I teach is to re-read the problem and determine "Did I answer the question?" The steps in between involve the mathematics skills to solve the problem at hand, but the first and last steps are the "customer service" component of the math class and relates perfectly to today's business world.

Today's business world could use more computer scientists who embrace and understand the relevance of mathematics to being successful computer professionals!


  1. Thank you for making these connections. It all makes so much sense!

    The head of a computer science department told me once that the number one skill requested by employees of his graduates these days is "customer communication." Some development methods like Agile include customers as a part of the team and promote transparent communication. More transparency in math and math ed won't hurt, either...

  2. Thanks Maria. My last pre-teaching job was as IT Director for a non-profit and the biggest asset that I brought to the table was to be a liaison between the hardware guys that worked for me and the general office staff. Definitely a much needed skill in today's workplace!