I graduated from the University of Gothenburg with a Bachelor’s degree in Software Engineering and Management (SEM) in June. When I applied, in 2012, there was relatively little authentic information available online. The university websites surely were informative, and the PDF flyers well-produced. On the other hand, students did not seem overly vocal online. Thus, I would like to give my personal perspective, which may help future applicants. The information below should be useful for at least the next five to seven years, considering the pace at universities. For the past few years there has been an initiative in the department to further evolve the curriculum, though. This will lead to some changes, but from what I gather the changes will be of an evolutionary nature.
The target student
I assume that you, the reader, is a non-Swede and, for whatever reason, wants to move to Sweden to pursue an IT-related education. If you are flexible with regards to the location, and can afford paying tuition fees, you certainly should explore other options as well. My motivation for coming to Sweden was to live with my girlfriend. Indeed, talking to other international students, male and female alike, this seems to be a fairly common motivation.
If you don’t speak Swedish, your options with regards to Bachelor’s degrees in Sweden are rather limited. In 2012 there were very few options available, and the SEM program seemed the most promising. Proper computer science programs were, and still are, taught in Swedish. It seems the issue a lack of willingness to provide access to certain programs to foreigners. For instance, almost every course in the computer science program here in Gothenburg is taught in English. Yet, a very small number of introductory courses in that program are offered only in Swedish, which thus precludes foreigners from enrolling. The language is hardly the problem, considering that you may take courses in the SEM program that are officially taught in English, but by people who do not have a proper grasp of the language. On the other hand, some of the introductory courses in the CS program are taught by academics who speak excellent English, but for whom Swedish is only their third language.
Whatever the reason, fact of the matter is that your options with regards to English-speaking Bachelor’s programs in Sweden are limited. The SEM program is one of very few choices. Thus, the question is whether it is good enough. In my opinion, even though my view is not entirely positive, for reasons I will elaborate later on, it is a decent program that tries hard to teach relevant knowledge and skills, with the aim of turning you into a productive cog in the wheel in the IT industry. They are not turning out superstars, but given that there’s a perennial Amateur Hour in large parts of the software industry, with all their “ninjas” and “gurus” who barely grasp the basics of their craft, they don’t have to.
Formally, the SEM program does not expect students to have any kind of programming experience. However, it would be rather naive to enter a program like this without having done any programming at all, since it will be a major part of your education. Quite frankly, if you have never programmed in your life, and you nonetheless consider BSc programs related to IT or CS, you should set your priorities straight. Computer science is one of if not the most democratic discipline at university, since there are no artificial barriers. All the information you would need to educate yourself is available for free online. Nowadays you can even find entire university courses online. In short, there is absolutely no excuse not to have at least basic programming knowledge. If you don’t then you may end up in the rather uncomfortable position to find out that programming is not quite as trivial as you imagined it to be.
Let me point out that the word, management, in the name of this degree program is potentially misleading. The management part in the SEM program is concerned with managing software projects, but not with general management. If you are interested in an education in business, this is the wrong degree to pursue. Sadly, this is apparently not at all self-evident. If you are “more of an ideas guy” and have wet dreams of bossing nerds around, then business school is where it’s at. Unfortunately, there is at least a handful of incoming students who come to class impeccably dressed for a few weeks, and who eventually realize that the content of the SEM program does not meet their expectations.
I don’t think you necessarily have to like or “love” programming. For most people in this industry software development is a job. Their studies were a series of hoops they had to jump through, but their craft is nothing they have any, to use a horribly overused word, “passion” for. That’s okay, though. The commoditization of software development has been going on for about two decades. If you’re a True Believer, you might even find some worthy cause in that movement. Otherwise, you are either fortunate to be employed by a company that does interesting work, or you use your brain in your spare time. No matter where you might be on this spectrum, at the very least you should have done enough programming so that you can assess whether you have some aptitude for it. It’s okay if you find it tedious — mainstream programming languages are indeed tedious to work in. However, if you happen to dislike programming and struggle with basic concepts like control flow or boolean operators, you won’t do yourself any favour by pleasing your parents who think that a career in IT is a sound choice in the early 21st century.
Considering that the SEM program does not expect students to have any kind of programming experience, you will spend the first semester on basics: Java, relational databases, but also a bit of software engineering theory where you learn about some common software development processes, and get your first dose of Agile/Scrum indoctrination. Half of the entire course load is dedicated to a group project where you build a simple CRUD application. The first semester will be the most chaotic of the program, due to large numbers of students dropping out, and others hanging on for too long. This tends to affect the group project as well. In my cohort, so many students dropped out, and others found out that they tremendously dislike each other, that several groups had to be dissolved, rearranged, joined, or split.
In the second semester, in a second course on programming, you will learn about basic algorithms and data structures, which takes 25 % of the course load. Another 25 % is spent on software engineering courses that may make your eyes glaze over, and 50 % on a relatively open ended group project where you build a “system”, which is supposed to mean that your code shall make a piece of hardware do something non-trivial. In my class, we got to play around with the educational robot NAO by Aldebaran. Among others, we managed to make it navigate a maze. One of the more ambitious recent projects consisted of building a quadcopter and making it do some things you may easily take for granted if you buy one off the shelf, for instance making it stabilize itself if you throw it off balance.
In the third semester you will be exposed to functional programming. You will have the privilege to learn Erlang and gain practical experience in building a medium-sized distributed application in it. You can also learn that putting Erlang on your LinkedIn profile has the side effect that recruiters from the UK will start contacting you. The software engineering courses on software architecture and software management will provide you with the right vocabulary for interviews at typical software development companies. Considering that most of the SEM program is spent on mainstream technologies, a semester mainly devoted to functional programming in Erlang is a welcome breath of fresh air.
Working in a more expressive language like Erlang might have changed how you view programming. Dropping down several levels of abstraction to manipulating bits in C might have the very same effect. In the fourth semester you will start with programming a microcontroller and gain intimate acquaintance with segmentation faults. The semester project is by far the most ambitious of the SEM program: you are supposed to build a self-driving miniature car. In a course on testing you will, among others, get exposed to randomised testing using QuickCheck, which might make you question why people bother with unit tests.
In the fifth semester you get exposed to some rather questionable software engineering modules, with a focus on change management. Quite frankly, I saw very little value in it. Thankfully, if you have any experience with academic writing, none of the courses should take much of your time. Part-time work isn’t so easy to find in Gothenburg, so if this is not an option for you, then taking computer science courses, or working on your technical skill set may be worth thinking about.
Lastly, this degree program culminates in a Bachelor’s thesis project. The faculty is very supportive, which means that as long as you have the necessary skills and can write a decent thesis proposal that is related to software engineering or computer science, you can work in many areas — even theoretical computer science is possible, provided you took some additional courses. Most students work in groups of two, some in groups of three, and some on their own. Further, you can do your thesis either in an academic setting, or in collaboration with the industry. The latter may be a good opportunity to find an employer, but the downside is that you will be less flexible with regards to the choice of your thesis topic.
The goal of this program is to prepare you for a role within the software industry. While some of the graduates work as software developers, others become testers or technical writers. If technical skills aren’t really your strong suit, then you may get the chance to enter a larger company and get promoted to the position of “Agile Coach” or “Scrum Master”. Particularly if you are a member of a protected class, several career paths may open up that are only tangentially related to technology. After all, Swedes love their ‘diversity’ and political correctness.
Judging from my graduating class, people seem to find work relatively quickly. Gothenburg is not exactly a hotbed of technology, though. In my opinion, there are not so many interesting positions available locally. On the other hand, if your prime goal is to get a job in the IT industry that pays the bills and puts food on the table, then Gothenburg has plenty to offer. For instance, there are several large consulting companies. Sigma and HiQ are relatively prominent, and readily hire graduates from this program. Other large employers in the region include Ericsson and Volvo IT. The kind of work you can get at those companies may be sleep-inducing, but it presumably beats the heat and humidity that is part of flipping burgers.
If you just want to find reasonably interesting work, then the SEM degree should do. In Sweden it is not at all uncommon to find people who work in this industry without having any degree at all, and it is still possible to enter it without any piece of paper. The only difficulty is getting a foot in the door. On the other hand, if you want to expand your horizon, and possibly prepare yourself for working in particular industry sectors, then studying towards a Master’s degree may be a good idea. In that regards, some students take the easy way out and study the Software Engineering Master’s program at Gothenburg University. I’m not sure whether SEM graduates are guaranteed a place, but even if not, it seems very easy to get admitted coming from the SEM program, which is no surprise since the Master’s program builds upon some of the Bachelor’s courses. It is much more about software engineering processes and ideologies than developing technical skills, though.
It is not at all uncommon that students move into related fields. Some pursue degrees in IT Management, others go to business school. Pursuing more technical fields is also possible. A minority of graduates moves on to study computer science in various flavors at the Master’s level. One of my former class mates, for instance, is currently studying towards an MSc in Financial Systems Engineering at University College London, for instance. The vast majority of graduates seem to want to stay in Sweden. In fact, very few even move away from the Gothenburg area.
In my opinion, the SEM program is a good choice for people wanting to gain a decent technical skill set. There are some disadvantages, though. Personally, I think university studies should first and foremost provide a sound theoretical foundation, and not concern themselves too much with applicability. Concretely, in the case of the SEM program, I would certainly say that there is value in doing one larger group project, where you learn to collaborate, to plan your work effectively, and practice leadership skills. However, four projects are overkill. I would have much preferred seeing a curriculum that reduced group work and instead added a few more computer science courses. That being said, if you do have solid technical skills and are able to organize your work well, then the group projects will not take up too much of your time. Thus, you can take additional courses. I managed to squeeze an additional year’s worth of mathematics and computer science courses into my three years in the SEM program, for instance.
When I started, in 2012, there were very few Swedish universities that offered Bachelor’s degrees in English. This is no longer the case. These days, though, you can study technical degrees at the Bachelor’s level at Uppsala, KTH, and Lund. Depending on your interests, those may be better choices. One downside of the SEM program is that it is relatively narrowly focused on software engineering, and only provides a small core of computer science knowledge, which may limit you in the future. On the other hand, for instance, a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics at Lund, which leaves significant room for electives, will provide you with much greater flexibility. If you think that software development is exactly what you want to do (how would you know that?), then the SEM program is a good choice. Otherwise, I would recommend a more foundational degree, like computer science, or even mathematics. The former, though, is currently not an option in Sweden if you don’t speak Swedish.