While coding classes have been available to Farmer School business students for years, very few took them, Dean Matthew Myers says. But learning a coding language can train students to think computationally to solve business problems, Myers says, and that fact prompted Farmer’s curriculum change. “What we’ve discovered,” he says, “is that coding really has value across all our different majors, and even into our MBA program.”
John Benamati, professor and chair of information systems and analytics at the Farmer School, says staff had been having conversations for some time about how to give students a managerial understanding of programming. The conversations, he says, were mostly driven by the entrepreneurship division because Farmer students expressed a desire to work on the business side of tech startups.
But another big reason for the change happened this summer, Benamati says, when the CEO of General Electric, Jeff Immelt, wrote a LinkedIn post in which he pronounced that knowledge of coding is now necessary for new hires.
GE ONLY HIRES B-SCHOOL GRADS WHO CODE
The reality, says Jim Fowler, CIO at GE, is that for the past five years the industrial giant hasn’t hired a business school grad who didn’t have at least basic coding skills. Though “it’s not a requirement,” Fowler says, “it’s the default we see coming in the door. Whether you’re in financial services or in a large-scale industrial like GE, data is the new currency. Turning data into decision-making power is what makes people’s success.”
Fowler says that across the board at GE, employees from engineering, HR, legal, and other departments are writing code and developing models to solve problems. “That ability to deal with data coming from multiple sources — there is not one function in the company where that is not applicable,” he says. “It’s a game-changer.”
He adds that new hires coming in with any modern-day coding language are in a good position. “Coming in with Java, coming in with some R (another programming language), any modern-day language will give you the ability to learn more languages,” Fowler says. “What we’ve seen in the people we’ve recruited in the last five years is that they’re able to pick up new languages in a matter of weeks. So if you have one coming out of college, you’ll be able to pivot to the right one for the job.”
EMPLOYERS WANT COMPUTATIONAL SKILLS
Dean Myers says the catalyst for Farmer’s core change was a combination of Immelt’s LinkedIn post and feedback from other employers. “We were running into folks at firms who were moving away from their traditional MBA hires and moving toward undergraduates, and they were articulating their need for computational skills,” Myers says.
Most Farmer School undergraduates have no experience with coding when they arrive, Benamati says, so the required class is an introductory course. Students do reading beforehand, and then bring their laptops to class. The first half of the class is spent covering the material in the reading and giving examples; in the second half, students write code.
“We put up examples and say, ‘Write a piece of code that does this,’” Benamati says.
‘ONCE THEY CAN DO IT, THEY LIKE IT’
This year, half of Farmer’s incoming freshmen took the course in the fall semester, and the other half are taking it this spring. So far, Benamati says, student response has surprised him: Those who came in without prior coding experience — who hadn’t wanted to take the class in the first place — ended up really liking it.
“Once they saw that they could do it, they liked it,” he says. “Never having been forced to try it, they never would have known.”